Najla Lingerie, Emma Bowen, Women Entrepreneur
Emma reached out to me mentioning two women who I have worked with and have tremendous respect for so that obviously put her in a special category. What was also interesting to me is the numerous lingerie start-ups I am seeing. As I have written and said we are in a time of start-up nation. How long has companies like Perla, Natori or Olga been around? It must be time for some new blood in the space. Emma began Najla by successfully financing her company on Kickstarter this past August. What is unique about Emma’s company is the connections to her personal past.
Emma grew up in a small (almost rural) town in Connecticut. She was ready to leave at 18. Her Mom was an 8th grade math teacher in town who had grown up in Brooklyn Heights. After her parents got divorced her Mother, in her late 40’s, went back to get a masters degree in counseling psychology and ending up as a guidance counselor. Her father lives in the town next door where he grew up and his entire family lives. He was a civil engineer for the town yet was also a ceramicist, carpenter, DIY maven on the side.
Emma worked as soon as she could. At 15 she cleaned neighbors homes on Friday afternoons for $20 an hour eventually being able to raise her cost to $25 an hour. At 16 she got a job in the donut coffee shop called Sugar Shack where she continued to work and waitress all through college to put cash in her pocket.
Emma graduated from high school and landed at Connecticut College majoring in architectural design and history. She spent her junior year abroad in Italy. As part of an internship program she received a grant to whatever country you chose as part of an international studies program. She spent 9 months in Florence and then two months in Trieste working for an architectural firm.
She returned and finished out her last year graduating in 2001. She landed a job with the NY City Department of Housing Preservation Development. She became really interested in low income housing after working for the architect in Italy who was trying to figure out housing solutions in Italy around this issue. She became obsessed with how people work with objects and space. She landed a year long fellowship with the NYC department to focus on understanding low income housing. When it ended she was lost. She thought she was living her dream but she came away frustrated by the bureaucracy and lack of creativity. She learned a lot but it wasn’t motivating her anymore. Others in her fellowship moved forward in the same path but she started looking for something else.
Emma spent time wandering around her neighborhood. One day she walked into a catering company and said “I need a job”. She happened to have baked her entire life so they gave her a job as a baker. She worked for Naturally Delicious for one year while at the same time giving tours at the Tenement Museum downtown. She loved it all but she was still floundering to find her thing.
She did love teaching so she landed a job at Poly-Prep in Brooklyn teaching in early childhood development for two years. She felt great about the job, the school, the community and the kids. After the two year stint ended she took a year and went to Prague. She had missed the graduate school deadlines and had an aching desire to go overseas again. She found a job in Prague doing similar childhood development that she was doing in Poly-Prep for a year. It was an amazing trip. Her Mom came and visited her and it had been her first time in Europe so it was really special. She applied to Parsons on time this time and got in to their graduate program and returned after the year ended to begin school.
The program and thesis lasted two and a half years. After graduating Emma began to teach in the history and theory department at Parsons. At the same time she started getting involved with NGO’s around sustainable food and fashion. One in particular she began to work at was about reviving traditional crafts and designs. Eventually this shifted her focus to look into the Made in NYC movement. She felt that supporting this movement was a parallel to the local food market. Who is making your food and who is making your products.
Not surprising it was the family business that kept turning over in her mind for the past decade. It came back to her at just the right moment. How to revive and old product company. Originally she had started doing research on the company and eventually Emma realized that she wanted to actualize this. Her Mom’s side came over to the states from Lebanon in the early part of the 20th century. They were part of a community that still exists in Brooklyn Heights. Her great great Aunt Najla came over after her great great Grandmother had settled in. Her aunt had made a stop over in France on the way to the states waiting to travel she saw a particular dress she was going to get. She decided instead of buying the dress she would make the dress. She was a force. She was a divorced woman from Lebanon which is something you rarely saw in those days. When she got the states she began a business making custom undergarments for wealthy women in Brooklyn. Opening a small shop on Livingston Street. She was a fierce woman who had her own house on State Street and in her 90’s was just terrifying to the young kids. She was all business.
Emma’s great Aunt Selma, Najla’s niece, took over the business after WW2. She was the total opposite of Najla, warm and endearing. She went to the only fashion school that was available for women in the 20’s as all the women were pushed to get an education. Eventually both Najla and Selma got married to men outside of their Lebanese community. Out of the 5 daughters of her Grandma, 3 of them got married and had families and two of them did not and on top of that married outside of the community. That was seriously bold then. There are actually tapes at the Smithsonian about the businesses that were built there at that time and Najla and Selma are in them.
Selma was a serious inspiration to Emma. She worked her whole life. Brought her business into Manhattan, changed the business model and sold it in the 1980’s after being under her thumb for 40 years. After they sold it soon after the business went under. It happens all the time. Personal life style businesses are tough for people to run who are outsiders. Selma even taught piano lessons on the weekends. Her last apartment was across from the MOMA. She had walked down that street years ago and heard a piano playing from a window and decided she was going to live on that street one day and of course she did.
Emma had been involved in the ethical fashion community for awhile and wanted to re-start the lingerie business her great great Aunt Najla had begun. She started the process using Makers Row. She needed to understand from start to finish how the process worked. She made a long list and began chipping away at it. After awhile she realized she had to get rid of those expectations and just jump in. It was time to move forward and stop analyzing. She began working with pattern makers and fabric samples. Then she began to go through several iterations of the product before launching on Kickstarter.
Emma is working on getting the products out to the backers. Her long term goal is to open a brick and mortar shop along side her ecommerce shop. Perhaps Brooklyn Heights?