Fran Dunaway founded the company TomboyX with her wife, Naomi Gonzalez, with a simple mission in mind: a comfortable and durable button-up shirt.
In the company’s seven-year history, Seattle-based TomboyX has become a gender-neutral brand that has something for everyone. With sizes ranging from extra small to 6x, the company is inclusive of all bodies. TomboyX is also sustainable in its practices, making clothing using eco-friendly, nontoxic fabrics and working with all women-owned factories.
“We just really believe in making the world a better place and being inclusive, and helping people see how cool they are rather than a brand that wants to tell you how to be cool,” she said.
Dunaway, a two-time breast cancer survivor, found that most bras that could accommodate prosthetics were frilly and lacey. Last year, She and the TomboyX team released a bra meant for breast cancer survivors called “The Holdster,” which includes a strap that comes below scar lines.
Talking with a Seattle magazine writer, Dunaway discussed her experience starting and running TomboyX, her inspiration and what the future holds for the company.
Q: Tell me about your journey in starting and operating your company, TomboyX.
“The frustration that we had and why we started the company was because we wanted a cool button-up shirt, like a Robert Graham or Ben Sherman that was made for women. That was where we began the journey. It was just this little side project in our one-car garage.
“We picked the name Tomboy because we thought it was a cute name. Lo and behold, during the Kickstarter campaign to pay for the shirts to get into production, we started hearing from women and girls around the world who are super excited that there was a brand that recognized them. They felt like they had a brand for themselves. That's when it really dawned on us that it wasn't about a shirt, but that we'd stepped into a white space of unmet needs of a pretty large consumer group.
“Our customers started telling us that we should make boxer briefs for women. So we listened, and we set out to make the best darn bear boxer briefs that anyone has ever put on.”
Q: What is the inspiration behind TomboyX?
“I like to wear a nice button up shirt. And in the end, it was just hard to find something with a little personality that had fun attention to detail and also with the fine quality fabrics that you could find in the men's department but not in the women's department. I I think at the time fast fashion was a big thing. I mean, it was seven years ago. People weren't considering or thought that women just wanted to buy something, wear a couple of times, get rid of it and buy something new. And that's just not how I shop. And that's not how I believe in sustainability. I just wanted a cool shirt.”
Q: What has been your greatest accomplishment with the company so far?
“I think that we resonate, and that we're impacting so many lives and making a difference. We hear from customers every single day. They've had all of our best ideas. When you tap into a group of people that have never been seen or heard, well, they have a lot to say and they've got some really good ideas. And so we just love being that vehicle for change and making people's lives better by focusing on quality underwear that fits and that last.”
Q: What has been the greatest hurdle that you and your wife of experienced building this brand?
“When we were trying to raise funds, it was pretty challenging. I think we all know the statistics on the amount of institutional investment that goes to women founders. You couple that with the guys that typically have been writing the checks, that don't look anything like us, and would honestly wonder, ‘What's wrong with Victoria's Secret?’ Time has proven that to be where their missed opportunity was.”
Q: How has the pandemic affected your business?
“At first, we weren't sure what was going to happen. So we kind of battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst. And the best actually happened. It turns out, in a pandemic, people want comfortable clothing. You're only looking from the top up, so a lot of people sit around in their underwear. And luckily, we've got some options for them to be comfortable. We’ve actually weathered it pretty well, on the business side of things.
“It's a continual challenge and struggle in terms of being able to connect with the team. But all in all, I think that we're learning to adapt. We became very nimble. When you've got great plans for this new swimwear launch that you're coming out with, and a pandemic hits and all the photos you have are people romping together on the beach, you have to think twice about going live with that campaign and pivot into something new.”
Q: What does the future of TomboyX look like?
“I think we're just beginning. We secured enough funding last year that we can really get the awareness out. I think that there are a lot of people that don't know us very well yet. We have aspirations for more awareness in the United States, and as well as some international expansion. We're now in Nordstrom, and we've got some really exciting licensing deals in the works and new product expansions. I feel like, with the funding that we received and the expertise that the funders have, they're really helping us take it from a startup into a really solid, foundational small business.”