Prior to launching Numi, Michelle Shemilt was working as an Institutional Equity Trader at one of the main banks in Canada. It was here that she came up with the concept for Numi’s first product, the Essential Undershirt collection.
Michelle realized she wasn’t wearing her favorite clothes because they were either prone to embarrassing perspiration stains or they were expensive to dry clean. When she looked on the market for a solution, she realized there was nothing available. She started talking to her women friends and colleagues about it and realized that this was a common pain point for many women (it just wasn’t talked about!). So that’s when Michelle knew she was onto something.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Michelle was let go. And that was the best thing that could have happened to her. It gave her the opportunity to take a step back to think about what she wanted out of her life and her career. She knew going back to the same position at a different bank wouldn’t be fulfilling to her.
She started interviewing at Hedge Funds, thinking that perhaps a different role within the financial world would be the right move. But every time she walked into an office for an interview, her entire body was just screaming ‘No.’ And that’s when she decided to jump into the deep end and start figuring out how to develop a solution to the problem she had identified.
Michelle didn’t know anyone else in manufacturing or fashion, so she literally started knocking on factory doors trying to learn how to develop a prototype.
Our Interview with Michelle Shemilt: Founder of Numi
Did having your experience in finance help when starting the business? How so?
My role in finance was as an equity trader, which meant I had to have a really good understanding of the markets and how current events would impact how certain stocks would trade that day. I wasn’t in the nitty-gritty financials of companies. And the companies that we were trading were large, public, companies, so the way they fund their operations is very different from a boot-strapped start-up.
So from that perspective, I had to learn a lot about the financial side of setting up and growing a business. I think not having a background in fashion or manufacturing helped when I started because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how things should be done.
For example, just because our first collection was an undergarment, I never felt that that meant that we then had to continue making other types of undergarments. I also didn’t think we need a full “line” of products to get started, as you would typically see from a fashion company. I really focused on the concept early on, and then we built out the styles and colorways once the concept was proven.
Why are you passionate about Numi? And what should people know about the company?
At our core, we are a brand that celebrates what it means to be a woman. We make consciously created products to make life a little easier for us all. I’m passionate about this because the products we create make a difference in our customers’ lives, whether that be giving them the confidence to wear certain colors or fabrics, saving them time and money on dry-cleaning, or extending the life of their clothes.
There is nothing that makes me happier than reading feedback from customers and hearing how our products have made them feel more confident in their clothes. We also care deeply about our sustainability commitment. We identify with the slow-fashion movement. That means we consider the impact of everything we do, from the intention of the product to how it’s made and packaged.
And lastly, I love that we’re a self-funded business because it means we’ve been able to stay really true to our values and define the impact we want to make as a business, in addition to our financial goals.
Tell us about your product development. From initial concept to design to production, can you walk us through your process?
The initial concepts come from thinking about common pain points in women’s lives, either those I face myself or listening to what other women are talking about.
For example, our new Sustainable Silk line was developed because I love wearing silk, but it seems no matter what I do as soon as I put a silk blouse or dress on, a stain seems to appear out of nowhere, and then it needs to be dry-cleaned (not to mention I have to then change or am left with a stain on my outfit).
So, we came up with a stain-repellent, machine washable fabric that feels and drapes like traditional silk but is easier to wear and care for. We also use three words to guide our product development, and those are practical, beautiful, and safe. Practical, meaning we are always looking to add value, whether that solves a problem using technical fabrics or make something in a more sustainable way. Safe is our word for sustainability.
We are always questioning how we make our products and practices more sustainable. Right now, we use sustainable fabrics in our apparel, ethical manufacturing processes, and we ship our products in 100% compostable mailers. And beautiful is what ties together the practical and the safe elements and makes us unique. It’s important for our customers (and us!) to feel beautiful in the clothes we wear, so we care about and consider every small detail in the design process.
Prior to the pandemic, I used to go to fabric shows to learn about new developments in fabric technology and meet new suppliers. Now we have to do the research online. We then collect fabric samples from different mills, and when we find one that fits, we begin the design process. We work with design consultants and pattern makers to develop the samples. All of our production is done locally, so we’re able to go visit the factories on a regular basis and develop a strong relationship with them.
Has the COVID-19 climate affected Numi? And if so, how have you had to pivot during this time?
Yes! Our customers primarily purchased our undershirts to wear to the office. So, we had to pivot our messaging and start talking about how it fits into your WFH wardrobe.
We were also supposed to launch our Sustainable Silk last fall, but that fabric was coming from Italy, so it got delayed. And then it was an interesting process designing the collection remotely! Working remotely has also been an adjustment. Being in video meetings is not the same as being in the same space. It can actually be quite draining, whereas in-person meetings can be energizing. So, making sure that the whole team gets out for walks and some screen-free time has been important.
What’s your power suit?
I’ve never been one for wearing actual suits! My power suit is an A-line skirt, silk blouse, and a pair of heels. But I haven’t been wearing that a lot lately! Between working from home due to COVID and being a new mom (I have an eighteen-month-old), my day-to-day wardrobe has become a lot more casual.
I still try and put some makeup on in the morning and do my hair, which makes me feel pulled together (ideally, I’d also have a manicure, but our nail salons are still closed due to the pandemic).
What does your day-to-day look like – and what you love most about what you do?
I don’t have a standard day-to-day, which is one of the things I love most about what I do. Depending on the priority project at the time, I may be working with our design team on a new collection or with marketing on campaigns and branding.
We’re a small team, so we all wear a lot of hats, and I love that I’m still really involved in the day-to-day. I also make time for strategic thinking and planning which means taking a step back from the business of the day and giving myself space to think.
What does success mean to you?
To me, success means that I’m energized by the work that I do and that I feel I’m making an impact with it. I also love that I get to build something and see the impact of our work every day. And right now, we’re thinking about how we can use the platform we have as a business to make an impact on our community, which includes the sustainability commitment we are finalizing as well as some other initiatives that are still in the works.
How do you practice self-care?
Self-care looks a lot different now that I have a toddler! Before my son, I had a very dedicated meditation practice, attended regular retreats, and read a lot of books.
Now that life is a lot busier, it’s about finding the small moments of time to myself. That may be taking a few minutes in the morning to enjoy those first sips of coffee in silence before my son wakes up or taking my dog out for a walk in the middle of the day. And my meditation has shifted to focus on being present with my son when we’re playing together (i.e. putting my phone away and not thinking about my work to-do list).
I also go to bed very early (around 9 PM) and often listen to a guided meditation by Tara Brach or Jack Kornfield to help me unwind before sleep.
What do you wish that you had known about the world of fashion and manufacturing when you first started Numi that you now know.
When I first started, I kept to myself a lot. I worked from my apartment and didn’t actively build my peer network. I wish I had joined a co-working space and tapped into all the amazing start-up and founder networks that are out there. I have learned so much from other founders and found the start-up community to be extremely supportive and an endless wealth of knowledge.
I also wish I’d make my first hire earlier. I now know we usually need to hire before we’re 100% ready as a business, but in order to get there, you need that next role filled. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but if you bring on the right person, they will move the needle forward.
What single word or saying do you identify most with? Why?
“Thoughts become things.”
I’m not sure when I first heard this (or this concept), but for 8+ years now, I’ve been very careful of the words I chose to use because I think they really impact how I feel and my energy in general.
I have a whole list of words that I have consciously cut out of my vocabulary. And I just finished Elizabeth Lesser’s new book, Cassandra Speaks, which has now inspired me to pay attention and cut out any violent metaphors that are common phrases (i.e. you’re going to kill it!).
What’s next for you and Numi?
We focused on our first product line, the Essential Undershirts, for our first eight years in business.
On March 23, 2021, we launched our second collection, Sustainable Silk, which was over two years in the making. I’m really excited about this collection because there is a lot more potential with what we can design with the fabric (we’ve already got some exciting new styles in the works!).
And I’m also in the initial development stages of an entirely new collection, which should launch in about a year’s time. We’re also in the process of auditing our sustainability practices to bring more clarity to what we’re doing now and what our bigger goals are. We’ll release that later this year.