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BIZ CRUSH: MAI : I AM enough

BIZ crush

Menomonie, Wisconsin is no style metropolis, but it's where I met Emma while we were both studying the ins & outs of fashion design at UW-Stout. With the help of her business partner, Lizzie, they're proving that the best fashion lines don't have to originate on a major coastline.

Specializing in yoga gear, this dynamic duo is changing the workout wear game & looking good doing it. Keep reading to see how these opposites attracted & how their strengths, weaknesses & passions compliment each other in the best way possible.

What kind of kid were you growing up?

Emma - I was a quiet, gentle kid that liked to be outside. I’m an only child so I’ve always been independent and good at entertaining myself. I grew up in Traverse City, Michigan- an absolutely stunning part of the Midwest. My mom and I lived in a little log cabin with the bay of lake Michigan across the street and the forest as my back yard.

Lizzie – I was a curious, quiet kid with a lot of energy. I was the middle child so I followed my big brother everywhere for the first few years of my life, letting him chop off my hair and playing with his G.I. Joes, and then had to lead by example myself to a younger sister. I loved dance class and started when I was only 3 years old, so movement and dressing up became part of my life when I was really young. I was also VERY girly and loved fashion and in high school, I would help my friends shop and do their makeup (which continued in college). I was extremely driven and ambitious in school and was always juggling a million things – honors classes, drumline practice, dance competitions, and volunteering, but I loved all of it.

How did that affect your path towards working in the fashion industry?

Emma - It’s affected my desire to want my involvement in the fashion industry to be more than just creating clothing. I hope to have a positive impact on the environment, and hope to inspire a positive attitude and outlook on life. Our mantra ‘I AM enough’ comes from my yoga practice and my deep seeded love for balanced and calm environments.

Lizzie – I pursued so many creative outlets growing up and it wasn’t until I chose a major that felt boring + inauthentic in my first year of college that I realized this creativity I was expressing all my childhood was also what I found most fulfilling and exactly what was missing. After my first year of college, I volunteered as a camp counselor in a leadership camp for underprivileged high school students (the organization is called STLF – Students Today Leaders Forever) and when discussing the dreams of these students I actually discovered mine. It was the first time I admitted that my dream was to be a fashion designer in front of a bunch of high school students I was trying to empower. Then, when I attended the U of M student fashion design show I felt this fire light inside me and an excitement that a real career could actually make me feel this way!

So, my path to fashion design started late. I learned to sew at age 20 in Joann Fabrics classes with the sweetest elderly ladies. I extended my and double majored in Marketing and Apparel Design, from the business and design schools at the U of M. It was insane and busy, but it felt intentional; it felt right. My creative brain was finally able to truly create. Also, I stood out as a leader in my program, taking on roles like show chair for the fashion show and other big responsibilities. Because I had this balance between what I was learning in business school and design school, I had an edge in terms of being a smart designer beyond just creating art.

If your story could fit into a 30 second commercial, how would it unfold?

Emma- Someone working out and eating cake after. #balance ;) Our fitness clothing company is made to take you through your daily activities. I focus on living life to the fullest, and sometimes that means indulging in my #2 favorite food (cake) and not feeling guilty about it.

Lizzie – It would most definitely portray my journey to consistent and ever-growing wellness, physical and mental strength, and continuous challenges. I don’t take the easy way in anything that I do, from work to workouts. I always strive for continuous improvement in my mind, body and soul, working toward things I believe matter rather than things that are easy.

The constant thread and my rock in this world truly is my wellness habits that keep me grounded and also allow me to grow. Some weeks I feel like I’m drowning in never-ending project lists and new ideas (actually most weeks), but when I cook and work out everything feels right. When I push myself in weight lifting training, boxing, and cycling there is nowhere else my mind will go. And I walk often finding the precise clarity I needed in something else. Don’t get me wrong, I still indulgence embrace the every-changing ‘balance’ that Emma speaks about, but this small structure is always the constant in my roller-coaster world. It’s also why I feel so connected, passionate and inspired to make apparel for people as they do the one thing that has given ME such strength and consistency in achieving my dreams. It’s a beautiful colliding of my worlds in so many ways and I feel so lucky to be growing this company with Emma that has the potential to help others in great ways. I believe it’s only the beginning of the positive influence MAI will have on others.

What ultimately made you decide to do the lovely thing you do?

Emma- Before the athleisure market exploded, the cute leggings options that were made to work out in AND wear out after were limited SO expensive. Being a part of the fashion industry, I know all of the work and true costs that go into making a product. I couldn’t be a stand for producing goods and selling at a price that my friends couldn’t afford. So I decided to make my own! Our clothing is based on fashion trends and are made with high quality fabrics and construction that hold up to your sweatiest workouts.

Lizzie – When I met Emma I quickly realized I never wanted her to leave my life. Emma has a way of making people feel empowered and I felt newly inspired from a somewhat frustrating start to my own design career. When I worked with her for my first round of designs for MAI, it became crystal clear that we had complementing, yin-yang attributes that would make for an incredible partnership. We lift each other up and help the other in areas of weakness and this solid team has led to my continued role at MAI as well as becoming Emma’s business partner. And of course, my passions for fitness, fashion and design all align at MAI – I feel so lucky to have this outlet and to be creating a team that will thrive as we grow!

Who’s positively influenced your path the most?

Emma: Lizzie Hillmann-Butch! She saw what MAI stood for and wanted to be a part of it. She brings an incredible perspective to the brand and is now Co-Owner of MAI and Creative Director! We have a true Yin-Yang relationship that helps push both of us further.

Lizzie: Emma- Ha ha. We could not do this without each other. Emma is someone that gets just as excited about the little wins as I do. Our friendship and respect for one another has also shown me how you can have a strong personal relationship with someone yet simultaneously challenge and push that person in a professional setting. We are yin and yang and we represent the balance that drives our brand. My husband has also supported my entrepreneurial efforts over the years (this isn’t the first for me) and he reminds my that this is the real deal, especially when I’m struggling or feeling overwhelmed. He gives me the support that I need and I am ever-grateful for that.

Favorite part about working for yourself?

Emma- Having the time to connect with the people that influence our brand and in turn help us create something bigger than ourselves.

Lizzie- I love flexibility! There’s nothing I dislike more than a very structured week, unless it starts at 10AM. However, I like working in a partnership far more than just for myself. I am a perfectionist and I need someone to tell me when to stop or I’ll overwork myself. That’s why I love Emma – she always knows how to help me stop and make decisions with her at that point, which gives me a feeling of great contentment. They say all the greatest companies begin with complementing partners, and that is 100% the key ingredient to our growth and success.

Most challenging thing about working for yourself?

Emma- Ha. Not having enough time, in general!

Lizzie- I rarely stop. I don’t have nearly enough time for friends + family or relaxing.….However, to me my hard work and countless sacrifices are creating something far greater than a job I love. It’s a company where Emma and I will be able to create an environment for other talented people can come to feel fulfilled. I am working toward the vision, especially when the day to day feels incredibly exhausting in these difficult time periods. The struggle and constant engagement sparks greater passion for me and it’s what I continue to chase.

Photo by Rhea Pappas

How do you get your creative juices flowing?

Emma -Go to a yoga or workout class with my friends or teach a yoga class. Gets me back into the mindset of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and helps me see who I’m creating clothing for.

Lizzie – Workouts, making inspiration boards (especially by hand), rearranging furniture and my space, reading a really great book, traveling and taking pictures of everything around me.

I work out and then work uninterrupted in the quite of night. I’m a complete night owl and I am most creative when the rest of the world is asleep. When I’m alone and focused I can follow all my tangents and usually find the best work at the end of one! I’ve always enjoyed some form of solitude when I’m doing creative work, because I otherwise feel like I need to impress others or feel like I’m being watched.

I also find inspiration from walking around the city, traveling, and seeing the structures in buildings and skylines and finding vibrant colors in nature. I am obsessed with architecture and how it transitions to the body to enhance someone’s form.

If you could be a fly on the wall to anyone’s creative space {dead or alive} who would it be?

Lizzie- Wow, good question! Probably a renowned dancer/choreographer like Mikhail Baryshnikov. I feel so much emotion when I watch dance and love the intense feelings it evokes inside me. It lights a fire and makes me want to move too!

Talk about a failure you’ve learned from.

Lizzie - We missed a deadline for a big event with a really key product and it did come together at the very last minute, but made for a very stressful event setup and prep period. As partners, Emma and I are both very optimistic, so it’s important for us to plan in buffer times for when things don’t go as planned. I become more dramatically disappointed and Emma helps me to breathe through the unplanned events we face.

However, time challenges are really the name of the game in our business – clients want everything customized tomorrow so we are constantly faced with figuring out how to be quick and efficient, without sacrificing any quality checkpoints. We are always improving our process flow and checkpoints in order to meet these challenging demands. Our failures are where we learn our bottlenecks and we implement new systems once they are discovered.

Photo by Rhea Pappas

What’s one of your proudest accomplishments in business?

Emma - I’m proud to say I’ve had quite a few big and small accomplishments. It’s the little wins that we need to remember to celebrate. Most recently we’ve streamlined all of our production process to allow for scalability- this was a huge undertaking!

I’m also very proud that we were included in the January 2017 ELLE UK Workout Issue, Invited to the 2017 Spring Paris Fashion week, winner of the Her. Spirit Women Entrepreneur Grant and nominated for ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ by MN Business Magazine.

Lizzie- Everything Emma said above. Also, a big one for me was reading a customer review written by our largest client, Bodies By Burgoon/Torque Cycling. It brought me to tears and gave me chills to read the operation manager’s kind and amazing words about working with us. It felt real when we had that first business review and that spelled out exactly how we were making a difference in this organization’s community in the exact way we had intended. Our words are one thing, but coming from someone else was one of the proudest moments I can remember.

What do you wish you knew when you first started that you know now?

Emma- Enjoy the ride! I’ve always approached this process with patience and the desire to grow slowly. I have a lot to learn, and I know it. I try not to rush the process and stay focused on each day instead of wishing for everything to happen right away. It’s often the moments that I don’t expect that happen to be the best!

Lizzie- I honestly don’t wish it would have gone any differently than how it has. The little steps and challenges are what made us learn how to work through obstacles. The process of growing and constant learning is one that gives back because you turn out to be a leader.

Photo by Rhea Pappas

How did you land on the name “MAI”?

Emma: Our mantra is ‘I AM enough’ MAI is the mirror image of I AM. We believe in the power this mantra holds and how important it is to empower ourselves and others with positive words and actions. We love seeing this mantra really land with our customers and hope that the more they see it, the more they will think and truly believe it for themselves.

Lizzie: Also, MAI Sport and MAI Style were named in a text message..some of the best ideas are for Emma and I!

What has been your favorite project to date & how did it come to fruition? Emma: I’ve really loved moving in to our showroom / workspace in Northeast Minneapolis. We’ve been there since January of this year. Prior to that it was always in my tiny apartment! When I found the space, I knew it was the right spot for us, with neighbors like Woodchuck, Northmade and Great Lakes Clothing among other really inspiring startup companies, I knew it would help elevate our brand. It makes such a difference to be able to have people see the process that goes in to making the clothing! It’s been fun to see the space evolve and I can’t wait to continue growing!

Lizzie: I would agree about the power of our space! I loved creating the space with Emma and know it will continue to get better and better. I feel so proud inviting clients, friends and family to our office and having our brand represented in a space instead of scattered around. It’s amazing the difference it has made for our mentality in addition to having the professional front that helps people take us seriously.

Also, I would say the photoshoots are always my favorite projects as well! It’s so incredible to have a fantastic photographer partner that really understands MAI, Rhea Pappas, and bringing this product to life through styling, locations, with inspiring people has been a constant passion for me.

What’s next / What are you most excited about?

Emma + Lizzie: This year we launched our customizable two-part wholesale collection, MAI Sport, activewear for your sweatiest workouts, and MAI Style, fashion-forward style and comfort you’ll want to live in. We add logos and artwork to customize these styles for gyms, fitness studios and companies looking to elevate their brand offering, with a wide range of fabric choices and print options that make these styles uniquely yours.

We started with just a couple clients in early 2017 and have quickly grown to a couple dozen. We are most passionate about the partnerships we create that are far greater than just transactions to our team. We work with each company on a very individual basis to help promote THEIR businesses with custom designs, events and collaborations, and by providing styled photography of their product as well. The growth and interest we are receiving for MAI Sport and MAI Style is so exciting and we truly look forward to these new and continued relationships more than anything. We connect so well with others that have a passion for fitness and helping people, so this direction is exciting for our team.

Currently, we are working on an order for Life Time Fitness and are heading out to LA in January to prep for a vendor show next summer! We are also excited about some new product development this winter that will add some key staples to our customers wardrobes for cold weather!

Photo by Rhea Pappas

Time of the day you are most productive:

Emma: Morning

Lizzie: Night

The app you couldn’t live without:

Emma: Tasks list or Gmail Calendar- I would never get anywhere on time without them.

Lizzie: Photos

Social media outlet you love most:

Emma: Instagram

Lizzie: Instagram

Favorite account to follow on this outlet:

Emma: All the yogis and workout gyms that I interact with

Lizzie: Besides fitness IG accounts, I love beautiful food and drink IGs, like @tattersalldistilling – I love gin and that they make drinks look like a piece of art

Favorite internet radio station at the moment:

Emma: Spotify- Wild and Free playlist

Lizzie: I love EDM music and have been liking 96.3 a lot for that!

Go to piece in the collection:

Emma: Hmmm…. Our Uptown crops and Mill City bra for working out and the City Lights Cardi for every day

Lizzie: The bras – I can’t wear any other sports bras anymore – they are too amazing!!!

Favorite Netflix binge:

Emma: Girls

Lizzie: Orange Is The New Black

Best MN yoga studio:

Emma: Up!!! (I teach here too <3)

Lizzie: Too many good ones!

See more from MAI: Online | Instagram | Facebook | In person- by appointment at our showroom 610 SE 9th St, Minneapolis MN


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