Startup Spotlight: Virginia Dere




In our Startup Spotlight Blog Series, we recognize our fellow peers and local companies in the Pittsburgh startup ecosystem. In this Spotlight, we are highlighting Gabrielle Haywood, founder and CEO of Virginia Dere, a company that uses fashion to promote health and well-being through their flagship product, the Kneekini.

Gabrielle Haywood headshot. She wears a purple tie-dye shirt.

Can you begin by describing your professional background?

Gabrielle Haywood: I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Speech, and a Communications degree from Emerson College in Boston, MA. I'm a playwright and a serial entrepreneur. I have also worked in the Convention and Exhibition industry as an executive exhibitor representative for national and international trade shows.

Can you give us your elevator pitch for KneeKini?

I am the Founder of Virginia Dere, LLC, and the creator of our premier product, the KneeKini. The KneeKini is a capri-length swimsuit designed with bold, bright color patterns for women who want a little bit more coverage in the thigh and leg area, but don't want to have to forfeit style.

On your website, it says that you were inspired to start your company after discovering that there was a gap in the market for what you were looking for as you were starting your aqua therapy classes. Can you talk us through the creative process that led to the inception of your product?

That's an excellent question for me, because I came up with the concept about eight years ago now. That seems like a long time, and it's definitely a long time for me. The process was a little daunting for me. I was in a totally different field and had no plans to start a swimwear line, but I had some physical challenges and needed a swimsuit to take aqua therapy and water aerobics classes. When I went looking for one, I couldn't find exactly what I was looking for - something colorful with funky prints but that covered more of the thighs.

I already had a company prior to Virginia Dere and the KneeKini, but I wanted to lay a good foundation for this particular brand because I was totally green. I knew nothing about the industry, so I took a lot of business classes. I took a lot of entrepreneur/startup type of classes and so forth. But in the process of that, I thought I could just go to a seamstress, any seamstress, a good seamstress, and get a prototype made - not so...

That turned out not to be the case; especially here in Pittsburgh. My husband knew a really good seamstress and she was the first one that turned me down because she didn't have the right serger or the right machine or something like that. And she also didn't like to work with stretch fabric. That started a journey of finding a seamstress that could make the prototype that was in my head. So I sketched the design in my head and began looking for someone that could simply make the first prototype.

But finding a seamstress that was willing to work with stretch fabric, that turned into I don't know how many years just to get the one prototype. And I didn't know that all seamstresses don't like to work with stretch fabric - at least that’s what I was told many times. I didn't know there was a difference in the sergers or the type of stitching that was needed specifically for stretch fabric, which is spandex, lycra, etc. That process alone took me a while to find a company that could do my particular prototype with the right fabric.

That entire process took a lot longer than I thought because I thought I could just get a prototype made and here we go. But that became a long process for me.

What has been the most rewarding part about creating your own products, and what has been the most challenging?

I love that question. The best part about this is when you see something that was in your head and you sketch it and you have no idea what you were doing. Then, when you see the fabric, when you see the prints, when you see the process come to life and it's finally the finished product. You’re like “oh my God, I created that.” That is exhilarating! That feeling of seeing it come to life, is absolutely awesome. It gives you such a high, especially seeing the design on the fit models and so forth.

"But the most joyful aspect of this particular journey has been: when I get emails or text messages about women who have been looking for something like this. A woman shared with me that she had been burned over 80 percent of her body and she was self-conscious about her thighs and wanted to go swimming, things like that, and women that were looking for something similar but didn't know how to describe it or couldn't find it on the market, which was my story."

Those stories bring me the most joy and it helps me to keep going when I get frustrated and I want to quit. So that has been the biggest breakthrough or joy for me.

The biggest challenge has been the manufacturing, the whole manufacturing process. Today, I have a greater appreciation for the tags in the store. I know some of them are way overpriced, but I now have a greater appreciation because I know the process to get it to the store.

Another challenge for me--the financial aspect. All the money that goes into manufacturing, but the whole process has been extremely challenging from A to Z. It's a process that I had no idea [about], no clue.

In the apparel industry, we don't necessarily know the technical aspect. How many inches? How many stitches? You just don't know all the technical aspects that go into a product, especially a product like mine; I have three different fabrics in one design. So the technical aspect was really interesting, and I had no clue.

Through your work, you wish to use fashion to improve the quality of life. We've seen the fashion industry ramp up athleisure wear. Do you think there will be a stronger focus on fashion that supports health care and wellness in the future?

I do, especially during the pandemic. I saw--even on Good Morning America--I think other women have come out with similar products during this time. But the emphasis has been on if you're working from home, you're able to go for a walk, you're able to have something comfortable to wear. If you want to walk your dog, or you want to take a bike ride, or you want to do something within the home, you're still at work, but you have on something that's fashionable but more geared towards comfort. Something besides sweats.

I notice a lot of products are starting to be structurally designed within the product, where it's designed to add some type of magnetic properties that could help with pain, that would help people with arthritis and things like that. So I think the industry is moving toward products that are more wellness-based so that the benefits and features are more focused on “how does this product contribute to your overall well-being”. Something within the design that would be a benefit in terms of your health, fitness, and wellness, which is good to see.

A key feature in your designs is color and patterns. Can you explain why color is so important to your designs?

The psychology of color is fascinating to me. Interior designers use color psychology. Colors invoke a certain mood. Have you noticed in restaurants, the colors that they use when they want you to eat or they want you to go home? They want you to leave so they can get another person to the table. But color from a psychological factor does a lot to enhance your mood. And with me, when I was going through a lot of health challenges, the browns and the bland colors were just a little too drab for me. When you put on something that's brightly colored, when you look in the mirror, it automatically enhances your posture, it enhances your mood and so forth. So what I wanted to do when someone puts on our products, I want it to invoke some type of feeling. When you put it on and when you look in the mirror, you have bright colors and it makes you feel better. So at the time, I didn't feel well, but when I would put on something bright, I would be like, “Oh, I look cute today”--it lifted my spirit, but it also lifted the mood. Like a ray of sunshine, I want women to feel good when you put on the suits, and the colors help to invoke a happy mood. At least I truly hope so, even if you already feel good -- the KneeKini will just add to your happiness.

"I wanted to do that for women, especially when you put it on--it just invokes a sense of happiness."

What message do you wish to send through your company and your products?

Well, the first message I want to send through the company is that I believe we all have a purpose. I believe we are put here for a purpose. And a lot of times something tragic may happen in your life that helps you to find your purpose. And for me, my purpose in life is to inspire. I do that through scriptwriting. I do that through all of our stage plays and even through a swimwear line, I truly hope our designs and backstory will encourage someone to reach for whatever is in their heart to do.

"But with this particular product, I want it to inspire more women to go after their dreams, not so much just to become more active, but to go after your dreams, go after anything that you believe God placed in you to do."

I'm a lot older and this is my second half of life. I'm like, “Oh no, I don't have time to do a swimwear line. I don't have time to do that. I'm a writer. I need to focus on writing." And for me, at this stage of my life to come out with a new product, if I can do that, anybody can pursue any dream, goal or desire they may have. I want to empower women to do whatever is placed in you to do, do it. I say all of that because my mom didn't know how to swim, but she was so strong and courageous that no one knew that. She moved in ways that inspired me to be more, to go after more. In her generation she may not have been able to do certain things, but she made sure we had no reason not to believe we could do and accomplish anything and I thank God for that.

"The company and the product is a sense of empowering women and empowering people to go after their dreams, no matter what it is."

If I can bring a swimsuit to life, you can go after whatever you want to do. One of the advisers that I had initially in one of my [business] classes, she was giving me the pros and cons of going into an industry I knew nothing about. She just right out told me: “You're not going to be able to compete with the big swimwear lines," “What makes you think you can compete with the big boys, the swimwear companies?,” “Do you have money to do that?," and “You need to stick to theater and playwriting, because I know people in theater, I can introduce you to people, but I think you should stick to theater." Right? That was sound advice and I appreciated that. But for the most part at Virginia Dere, if someone tells you that, we say, “No, you go after your dream." If that's what you desire to do, you purpose yourself to do and do just that. Give it all you’ve got.

I want to empower all women to become more active, and especially women of color. I want to give them something pretty to wear. Women of color have been known not to swim as much as others, and we drown at a higher rate than other cultures. So just giving women something beautiful to wear while you learn to swim or while you enjoy swimming or whatever your activity is.

How has your location in Pittsburgh impacted your work? What are some pros and cons of working in Pittsburgh?

That's kind of a hard question, simply because I moved to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, and when I moved to Pittsburgh, that's when I began to get really sick and have all kinds of muscle pain and all types of physical ailments. Atlanta is a really vibrant city. It's lively. It's pretty. It's fun. Moving to Pittsburgh initially, creatively, I was in a dark place in terms of my writing and my creative flow.

A chiropractor here in Pittsburgh told me to do this--seek out places that are creative in little parts of Pittsburgh, to find my way in order to bring out more of my creativity and find my space here. It wasn't like Atlanta. It is a lot different. I had a lot of entrepreneur friends in Atlanta. We had goal setting parties. We hung out together. I had a big support system. Here, initially, I didn't have that. I had to find that, and I had to make my way. So initially, that was a con.

On the other side of that, when I did find my way and started surrounding myself with other entrepreneurs and like-minded people, I began to feel better. I didn’t feel better physically, but I began to flow better creatively.

"In Pittsburgh, I found that in terms of small business and startups and entrepreneurship, there's a lot more help here."

Whereas in bigger cities like New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, etc., small business and the small business development centers are there, but the help isn't as hands-on as it is here. I think it's a smaller community here and it makes it easier for us to get to know each other in that vein, because I think all of us know something about each other here. Whereas in a bigger city, that's not the case so much, in my experience.

Do you feel a sense of community between your company and other Pittsburgh startups?

I do, and Doug [from Lumis] is actually one of those companies (Doug was in my crowdfunding video). That’s just a fun part of the bigger picture. But for the most part, yes, I do. It's a sense of community, and I think all of our companies are rooting for each other, and I think that's very important. We celebrate each other's successes. We celebrate, and we're there for all the intricate details that go into the makeup of your brands and so forth.

But also, we are there for the shoulder to cry on when you're frustrated, when things are not going as well, when it gets hard and you want to quit. We’re there to product test and be the guinea pigs, so to speak. We share resources. I think the community here is very tight-knit in that regard where I can call up another entrepreneur and say, “hey, you know, I'm having a rough day,” or something like that. I know in terms of the incubators, the programs that I've been in, we're still all very interconnected.

I think that is fantastic, especially for entrepreneurs that sometimes and oftentimes feel like you're in this by yourself. So I think it's a great community in Pittsburgh for that. Thank God.

What are some things that you would like to do or see happen in order to increase a sense of community among startups and other businesses in Pittsburgh?

I would like to see more of--and I've joined one--but I would like to see more of a support group. We have the technical aspects, we have the places, the small business development centers and things like AlphaLab Gear. But I think we are lacking more intimate support, if that makes sense, because like even right now, what's going on with Simone Biles, with the mental health aspect of things.

"I think there needs to be more intimate involvement in terms of entrepreneurs and reaching out and helping them be successful when they might be struggling behind closed doors, so to speak; not so much in terms of networking or more classes, but more of intimate settings where entrepreneurs can share."

I remember once at AlphaLab Gear, we had one day where people started sharing and telling their stories. That particular roundtable was more engaging and beneficial because other people started sharing their own experiences openly.

I’d like to see something like that where it's more intimate, it's more laid back, and where entrepreneurs can make sure they're getting that type of mental health support--I think that would be great. You don't see that part as much.

What are your goals for the upcoming year?

The goal for the upcoming year is to go to market, get the product on the market right now! I just got my [material] prints back and they’re custom prints. Initially I was buying fabric off the racks, so to speak. Now, I have custom prints, and my goal for the end of the year is to get the manufacturing solidified, get comfortable with this particular manufacturer out of New York, and get it on the market. I know that seems like, “Yeah, of course. Get it on the market”, but it's been a long time coming. So my goal is to solidify all the logistical aspects of the manufacturing process, get a good price point, and get the product on the market. It was extremely important for me to have the product made in America--and I am doing that--but honestly, it has been expensive to do so...

If someone is interested in the KneeKini, where should they go or how should they reach out?

They can go to kneekini.com, and please let them know that we will be launching the product soon. They can also, if they wish to, reach out to me personally at gabrielle@kneekini.com.

Many thanks to Gabrielle Haywood of Viriginia Dere, LLC for allowing us to interview her, and for teaching us more about her startup experience here in Pittsburgh. Shortly after our initial interview, Gabrielle shared some exciting news--her custom prints have arrived, and folks will be able to purchase the KneeKini with custom prints in September!

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