It all started with a legging. But not just any legging. A legging made out of recycled plastic bottles. And distributed for free, with the desire to give conscious consumers more options and create a community. When Girlfriend Collective débuted their 1st style in the summer of 2016, the Seattle-based brand put out an open call for women to pre-order it free of charge. Now, two years later, this athleisure brand has established itself as a successful company that sells much more than just clothes.
Ellie Dinh, Girlfriend’s co-founder and Creative Director, was born and raised in Ontario, Canada; headed to Vancouver to study graphic design in her early twenties and eventually moved to Seattle when she met her husband Quang Dinh, Girlfriend’s other co-founder. We speak to this driven entrepreneur and new mom to a 10-month-old baby boy about her trajectory, the challenges women face, her management approach and sustainability in the activewear world.
Tell us about your genesis story?
It all started with the idea of creating a conscious clothing brand, but really took form after we honed in on activewear, a product typically made from virgin plastic. I was working out regularly with some friends, but nothing in the activewear space compelled me. In parallel to that, my husband Quang had stumbled upon a way to make polyester entirely from recycled water bottles; something that was not only a high-performance material but felt amazing when worn. We knew we had something special.
How do you describe Girlfriend Collective?
Girlfriend Collective is a community as much as it is an activewear brand. We’ve made a point to focus on things that matter to us like ethical manufacturing, recycled materials, and celebrating as many types of bodies as we can. As a result, we’ve drawn like-minded people who also care about these things.
What is your mission as a brand?
Our goal is to make sustainable activewear for people who care - care about other people, care about how their clothes are made, and care about making an impact through their purchasing power. Through ethically manufactured activewear, recycled materials, and our ever-growing community, we hope to help people lead more sustainable lives and rethink the activewear industry’s role in saving the earth.
What are your brand’s key values?
Definitely community, ethical manufacturing, sustainable materials, and epic performance. We believe you should always feel good about what you’re wearing, from how the garment was made to how it performs.
Girlfriend Collective photos throughout by Maly Mann
A few words on sustainability and your fabrics?
We try to be as sustainable (and transparent) as possible with our fabric production. We share videos on our processes, details on our factories, and copies of our certifications on our website so our customers know exactly how their products come to life.
Each pair of our Compressive leggings is made from 25 recycled post-consumer water bottles, dyed with eco-friendly dyes, and cut and sewn in an SA8000-certified facility where workers are paid a fair wage and enjoy a healthy work environment. Our new LITE leggings are made from recycled fishing nets through our partners ECONYL and Healthy Seas. Lost or discarded fishing nets make up about 46% of all ocean plastic, so we are excited to be the first activewear brand to use this fabric and support a developing recycling industry.
What are your long term projects or dreams for your company?
We’re always looking for ways to make things more sustainable, so long term we’re moving towards a totally closed loop system, developing a water filtration system for washing synthetic fibers, and expanding our size range.
Today, thanks to brands like yours, we finally see body positive athleisure imagery. How do you cast the women you shoot for your visuals?
While we sometimes go the tradition route of using modeling agencies, we primarily scout and cast via Instagram. A lot of our models are women whose personal style and ethos we admire and we eventually reach out to. We try our best to create real connections and chemistry on set, and cast a range of women so that everyone feels represented in some way, shape or form. Inclusivity is everything to us!
What is your policy regarding image retouching?
We never retouch or alter our models bodies. Period.
What does your community consist of?
So many creative and inspiring women! Both within the Girlfriend team and friends who have gone on to pursue their own businesses and passion projects. One of my friends created her own eco-friendly skincare line, Circumference. And another, Goods Gang, creates beautiful paper goods and wedding invites. We collaborate with them frequently.
What experts do you admire? Who are your teachers?
I’m so inspired by female entrepreneurs like Glossier’s Emily Weiss, Reformation’s Yael Aflalo, Amy Fraser of OK Real, and sustainability leaders like Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard. I’m also forever inspired by the women I work with, and all of our amazing customers and community members.
Do you feel part of a tribe or more of a leader?
I’ve never really felt like a leader, even in my role at Girlfriend I’m the most comfortable and thrive within a team of people.
What particular challenges do you find women are facing and how can this be improved?
There are probably too many to mention here, but at the moment my experience as both a mom and a working mom has really opened my eyes to the lack of resources and support women have when trying to raise a family. Especially coming from Canada where we have mandatory paid maternity leave, it is shocking to talk to women who get no paid time off, or are scolded for taking pumping breaks. I’m excited to be able to change that with our policies at Girlfriend and set a new standard for parents in the workplace.
What role does travel play in your life?
Since having a baby, work trips have been winding down significantly and I’ve become more of a homebody but I still fly out for all of our photoshoots - about 2-3 times a year. We haven’t made the leap of travelling with an infant, but I’m sure it’ll happen soon!
Tell us about your rituals.
Again, since having a kid I’ve had to let go of so many routines, but a few things I’ve clung onto are always taking time to sit and eat breakfast and shower in the morning, and washing my face before bed at night. It sounds so insignificant but the moms out there know what I’m talking about.
How do you achieve harmony in your life?
My life feels the most ‘harmonious’ when I make a conscious choice to not sweat, stress or obsess over the things in life I have no control over, and do my best with what I can control.
What inspires you more than anything else?
Community. Being around other people, friends and family.
What makes you happy?
Growing and raising a tiny human. It’s the best. Being with family is my happy place.
What do you do when something makes you unhappy?
Initially I obsess over fixing or changing it, but if I can’t do that, then I get over it.
Drink. More. Water.
At the moment it’s ‘Work hard. Be Nice.’
Where can our community find you?
At home rocking a baby to sleep, on set for Girlfriend, or eating a burger at our local organic diner, Great State Burger.