I met Kim Epp Frenette through our mutual friend, Terry Kish. I’d just written my first book and Kim was building a healthy following for her E-journal Wise Women. After the first five minutes of our phone conversation, Kim convinced me to write an article for Wise Women which turned into several articles, an associate editor title, and the opportunity to write for some local print magazines. She became my mentor and my friend. While I was brainstorming ideas for the launch of This Awful Awesome Life, Kim was preparing to relocate to North Carolina and start a new adventure.
Now, seven years after that first phone call, it’s my turn to interview Kim about her latest project, the TuckTop. In keeping with our Wise Women roots, I asked Kim to do a Q&A.
Kim was born in Niagara on the lake in Canada. She earned her undergrad in history and her MBA at Queen’s University at Kingston. She went to work at Black and Decker in marketing in the small appliance division. She worked as a freelance marketing consulting in Paris for five years. After moving to Pittsburgh, where she and her husband raised their family, Kim started Wise Women E-journal. Three years ago, she moved to Charlotte NC area and started Free Woman Apparel after being inspired to empower women by offering pocket equality. I sent Kim a list of questions about her new business venture and what drives her entrepreneurial spirit. Here in her own words are her answers:
1. How long were you in Pittsburgh before your family relocated to Waxhaw, NC? You’ve been in Waxhaw three years now, was the adjustment hard?
We were in Upper St Clair almost 19 years before the move. I thought I was mentally prepared and excited about the move, but the transition still caught me off guard. It was visceral disorientation - I felt like my legs were cut off! I would drive around calling my Pittsburgh friends and wailing that the earth was the wrong color...I laugh now, but it was really tough. I guess I loved PA more than I thought! Finally a wise person told me I wasn’t crazy, I was just grieving a stage and place of my life. Once I understood that, I started to adjust, and really appreciate the beauty of the Carolinas and the warmth of the awesome people there. It has turned out to be a wonderful positive experience for my family.
2. How did you conceive of the idea for the TuckTop?
We were planning a family trip to Europe, including Rome, a city notorious for pick pockets. I hate carrying a purse. I kept looking at myself in the mirror and thinking there is a lot of unused “real estate” on a women’s body where you could discretely hide your valuables, but how could you access them without looking indiscreet or having to head to the restroom? Women have been tucking things in their bodices since clothes were invented! I wanted to find a way to continue the tradition in a practical way for today’s lifestyle. I road tested a first prototype on that trip to Europe and it worked well enough to prove the concept. Many, many prototypes later, (and we are still refining) the current Tuck Top was born.
3. Do you have partners in this venture? How do you define roles?
I have worked with many awesome women to pull this off. Pattern makers, graphic designers, a factory owner and her great crew, marketing advisors….lots of people involved. No equity partners yet though.
4. Tell us about the fabric you selected for the TuckTop.
Fabric selection has been one of the hardest parts of the process. Functionality is key to this design - it has to look good AND hold all your stuff and hide it away. It is a very complex (and expensive to make!) design. The fabric needs to be high performance...wicking, 4 way stretch, and excellent recovery (return to its shape after stretching). It also has to have a certain density but still not be too warm! A tall order - but I am happy with the results we’ve experienced with the Strata fabric we found. I have personally wash-tested it over 30 times and stuffed those pockets to the max! It still looks good!
5. North Carolina has a long rich history in textiles, so there was no shortage of factories to choose from. How important was it for you to find a women owned factory like Carolina Cut and Sew?
Actually there are fewer factories than you would think. The region lost a lot of capacity when sourcing went overseas in the early 2000s. Many of the factories that remain deal in larger minimum quantities. Smaller factories are not easy to find because there hasn’t been much investment in new infrastructure. Apparel expertise really rests in the older generation, with not many young people coming on board. Luckily there are people who are continuing the industry and there is a mini resurgence. Ellen Guarini, owner of CCnS is very committed to helping young companies manufacture in the state. She has been a fantastic guide in this whole process.
6. How did you decide how many pockets to make and what are the size ranges of the pockets?
I really wanted to maximize “tucking” space while minimizing a bulky appearance. I want ways to place essentials across the body where they would be less conspicuous, and comfortable. Plus it had to be flattering; if not, you might as well just wear a fanny pack! I played, and played, and played, with options and then literally one day I pulled out my mother’s old sewing machine and the design came out of my head in one shot. It has been tweaked since then, but it was really an organic process that led to the three upper pockets and six lower pockets (2 are zippered).
7. The TuckTop owners I spoke with tell me the TuckTop is flattering for most body types. How have you managed to achieve this feat? Was it a priority?
Yes - looks were definitely a priority. It works because of a plurality of things in the design. The design and concept is Patent Pending.
8. How long was it from prototype to first sale?
9. The TuckTop is available on your website. Is it in any brick and mortar stores?
The TuckTop is available on our website and we sometimes sell directly to the public at festivals and conventions geared toward women.
10. How many styles do you offer?
Currently we offer no-sleeve and long-sleeve. We are working on a ¾ sleeve.
11. What are the size ranges?
We offer XS thru XL. The fabric and design are very forgiving so the TuckTop can be flattering for women of different shapes and sizes.
12. Will there be styles/sizes for girls? Do you have plans to make styles for men and boys?
Nothing for guys yet, though a-lot of people ask!
13. How did you determine your target market?
Our target market is basically women who like to be hands free - pretty broad!!!! Actually, it aligns pretty well with the Wise Women demographic - smart, dynamic, active women who like to accomplish things and be engaged in life!
14. Who designed your logo and created your slogan “It is more than a top; it is freedom you wear!”?
I worked with a great graphic designer who took what was in my head and put it on paper and brought it to life with color.
15. If I subscribe to your website, what can I expect in my emails?
Our email marketing is very low key - we won’t bombard you with offer after offer every day. We offer tips on travel and how to use the top, stories of inspiring women, and special offers. That’s it. We don’t want to contribute to the email clutter out there.
16. What role has social media played in marketing your product? What sites do you use? What sort of relationship have you established with your followers?
Social media is key; we are still figuring out how best to use it.
17. What is The Free Woman Apparel TuckCARE Giving Program?
If a group of any sort thinks their adherents would like the TuckTop, we can designate a special code for them. For every top sold through their efforts or to friends and family who use the code, they receive a certain amount for their cause.
18. Do you have plans for additional clothing?
I dream, but basics first!
19. Where do you want your company to be in five years?
Solid, growing, known, respected, contributing to good
20. What else do you want people to know about Kim Epp Frenette and Free Woman Apparel LLC?
Fashion should be at the service of women, not our dictator. Women are an incredible force for good in this world. I just want a tiny role in helping women achieve their goals, to the benefit of us all!
For more information about the TuckTop and Free Woman Apparel, LLC visit https://freewomanapparel.com/
Be sure to watch Kim's video - we had technical difficulties and were not able to post it on This Awful Awesome Life.