Xi Chen, founder and designer of Sonderlier®, is building an enduring fashion brand that provides women with versatile and comfortable designer clothes that fit their body and their schedule.
Xi’s dream was to become a fashion designer, but she initially followed a seemingly more hands-on path in engineering. After struggling for years to find clothes that would allow her to be comfortable while still looking neat, she discovered that many other women shared the same problem. She decided to fill that gap by combining her engineering background with her desire to produce clothing that intersects style, function and durability. Thus, Sonderlier® was born.
We asked Xi what sets Sonderlier® apart from other brands, how she navigates the world of entrepreneurship as a founder and introvert, and why she believes in protecting your passion and dreaming big.
Q: Tell us the story of the creation of your company: how and why did you start working on Sonderlier®?
A: Fashion design was a childhood dream of mine, although I initially pursued a more “hands-on” career in engineering. For years I struggled to find clothes that I liked and that worked well for my everyday life. The nice “real” clothes I had were gathering dust in the closet because they were too uncomfortable or demanding for everyday wear, while the comfortable clothes I ended up wearing left me feeling uncomfortable and bored me. After talking with my girlfriends, I discovered that almost all of them shared the same fight. This happens to many of us because designer fashion is both designed and consumed largely with special occasions in mind. We were basically creating glamorous clothes for only 5-10% of our life while ignoring the practical needs of the remaining 90% which is our daily life. In 2019, I decided to found Sonderlier to reverse this state of mind. I want to design for women’s everyday well-being, so they can look beautiful and feel good without having to spend a lot of time getting ready or changing.
Q: What makes Sonderlier® different from similar companies?
A: I think there are a few things that set us apart. One is the versatility of our garments. Each piece is designed to help women navigate the ever-changing settings of their daily lives with minimal effort, and to have different ways to wear for work, the salon, travel and play. Second, we place as much emphasis on style as we do on comfort. We take inspiration from timeless, structured silhouettes that are traditionally uncomfortable to wear, and transform them into something akin to pajamas. Another core value of Sonderlier is our commitment to sustainable fashion and ethical production. Our designs adopt the concept of “capsule wardrobe”, which reduces the waste of clothes and the cost for the customer. Our clothes are currently made in a small, all-female factory in Ohio where our seamstresses earn a living wage.
Q: Have you ever felt “different”? If so, how has this contributed to your journey as an entrepreneur?
A: As a founder and creator of fashion brands, I have a very “different” background. I never had any formal training in fashion. In fact, I trained as an engineer. A very real impact of this is a steep learning curve – I had to learn everything from scratch. I even remember not knowing what terms to search for at the very beginning. On the other hand, it also allowed me to form my unique approach and perspective on fashion which beautifully combines aesthetics with an engineer’s focus on functionality.
Q: What have been the hardest and most impactful lessons you’ve learned since starting and running a business?
A: Where resistance occurs, it is often also where the most unexpected rewards occur. As a small business founder, building new relationships, introducing myself and telling my story is crucial. But as an introvert, it’s also one of the hardest and most uncomfortable parts for me. At first, I often felt like I had to drag myself to appear on social media or do public interviews. But one of the most rewarding parts of my journey is meeting so many amazing people, including clients, along the way. And it all happened because of the initial decision to push me to expand my comfort zone. I also learned that when something scares me, the first step is the hardest. Whatever it is, it’s not as scary as the thing in your imagination, and you feel a little more comfortable every time you do it. It’s about getting better, not being perfect.
Q: What is the biggest misconception others have about entrepreneurship?
A: I think a lot of us, women in particular, think that you have to become an expert first before you start a business in a certain field. I actually believe that the fresh perspective that an outsider brings is very undervalued, and that’s where some of the coolest innovation happens. Plus, what you don’t know, you can always learn.
Q: We dare you to brag: what accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: Our first collection launched on Kickstarter last year and was fully funded in less than 24 hours. But more importantly, I’m very proud of the feedback we’ve received from our customers since then – we’ve received 100% five-star feedback so far. My favorite part is receiving messages from customers telling me how our designs make their day a little bit better in different ways. We’ve had working moms who felt like “a constant mess,” and now, with our designs, they switch comfortably between mommy duty and looking presentable at work. Many customers told me that our clothes have become their work-from-home uniform.
We are also proud to be a sustainable and ethical brand. It’s a bottom line for us throughout our processes, from materials and design to manufacturing and packaging. Despite the added challenges that come with it, I’m really proud that we were able to deliver products without sacrificing style, function or durability.
Q: Has your definition of success evolved throughout your journey as a founder?
A: Absolutely. Initially, I thought my success was defined by those well-known KPIs like revenue and conversion rate. I think these metrics are still important metrics to monitor the health of the business, but they no longer define success for me. Over time, I’ve decided that what’s even more important to me is whether Sonderlier is truly making a positive difference in the lives of our customers and makers and whether I can maintain an open mind and a happy heart. while continually growing as founder and person.
Q: What resources or people have contributed the most to your success?
A: For me, the support of my family and friends has been absolutely essential. I am truly blessed to have the best support system who believed in me even when it was hard to believe in me and who was always there to lend a hand and a listening ear. As a solopreneur, the journey can get very lonely at times, and joining entrepreneur communities like Dreamers & Doers has been very helpful in so many ways. I’ve also found that joining industry-specific programs like Startup Fashion and Learn to Make a Product has helped flatten the learning curve for someone like me who hasn’t had formal fashion training.
Q: What would you say to your younger self if you were to start your entrepreneurial journey all over again?
A: You’re going to face a lot of uncomfortable situations, and that’s completely normal because you’ll get a lot out of it. Protect your passion, trust your intuition, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and remember to slow down and recharge. It’s a privilege to pursue your dream, so enjoy the process.
Q: What’s next for you and Sonderlier®?
A: I’m working on developing several spring and summer styles that I’m really excited about. I plan to post them in the coming months, so stay tuned!
Xi is a member of dreamers and doersa private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more on dreamers and doers and subscribe to their monthly The summary for the best entrepreneurial and professional resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.