Julie Allen: Disrupting the fashion industry at Mary Rose Boutique NW
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
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The Companies that Care podcast highlights business leaders who are making a difference in the world. I have a passion for companies that care and give back to their communities, like the Mary Rose Boutique NW in Oregon City, Oregon.
This week I interviewed Julie Allen, founder and CEO of Mary Rose Boutique NW and the sister Mary Rose Foundation, a 501C3 nonprofit. Julie has a mission of helping ALL people feel beautiful and confident. Women, especially, are so hard on themselves and it is her goal to help as many people as she can to stand up and say "I deserve to love myself.”
Julie clearly lays out her company’s values on her website: sustainability, inclusion, and social justice. With every purchase, Mary Rose Boutique NW donates a portion of the sales to the Mary Rose Foundation, established to help fund eating disorder treatment for those struggling with the financial burden. As someone who struggled with eating disorders herself, and who also has not always felt beautiful in a dressing room, Julie has created a business that is disrupting the fashion industry.
Julie’s professional background is in physical therapy. She specialized in post-acute care for geriatric and orthopedic patients. After she had her first son, she went shopping for new clothes when she was just six weeks postpartum. She broke down into tears in the fitting room because nothing fit. After struggling with anorexia and bulimia for 15 years growing up, she heard the messages loud and clear: if these clothes don’t fit you, there’s something wrong with your body. You are not enough.
Something clicked inside her, and she knew she didn’t want to go back into health care. Instead she decided to dedicate her life and work to increasing awareness about eating disorders, decreasing the stigma associated with mental health, fighting diet culture and its associated messages, and empowering people in all bodies to love and accept themselves as they are.
“I am on this mission to fight diet culture…women are inundated constantly with this message that we are not enough as we are, and that's not okay…it's the worshipping of thinness, equating living in a smaller body to some kind of moral superiority, which is a bunch of crap, but it's everywhere in our society. I had anorexia and bulimia for so long that it really has opened my eyes to the way things are spun and the way things are portrayed in the media constantly.”
Mary Rose’s storefront is located in historic downtown Oregon City.
“Whoever walks in our door, they need to walk out feeling more beautiful than they felt when they came in…shopping can be such a difficult thing because often things don't fit. I have a rule: no crying in the fitting room. If something doesn't fit, we're going to find you something that does, because there's nothing wrong with your body.”
Julie has a large mirror in her shop called an affirmation mirror. Before the pandemic, customers would write affirming messages with dry erase markers on the mirror, like “I am worthy of love,” “I deserve to love myself,” and “I am beautiful.” When people come out of the fitting room, those messages are the first things they see.
Julie started the Mary Rose Foundation to fund treatment for people suffering with eating disorders.
“Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illness. Up to 20% of people with anorexia will die from it. It's the highest death rate of all mental illness, and a lot of those people die from suicide.”
Julie was in and out of the hospital for 15 years when she suffered from eating disorders, and her parents had to take out a second mortgage on their home to pay for her treatment. Without insurance, residential treatment can cost between $1,400 and $2,200 per day. So Julie decided to do what she could to make treatment more accessible for all.
“What keeps me going through hard days is knowing that we are actually affecting change with the foundation and with our greater mission of empowering women.”
COVID presented all sorts of challenges for Julie. In March 2020, Mary Rose NW had an online shop, an app, and a brick-and-mortar shop, but they had to go all online until August 2020. Plus, she had her second child in May 2020, in the midst of trying to keep her business afloat.
“Mary Rose has become a community of women empowering women, a movement of self-love and women cheering one another on. Women need to stop tearing one another down. And what we are building is so much more than clothes…it’s body acceptance, a self-love movement. Women are allowed to stand up and say ‘I am enough, just as I am, and I deserve to love myself.’ That is where the focus is on everything that we do.”
Julie can tell that some of her customers have not had the best experiences in fitting rooms. She and her team want to make sure each person has a positive experience, and it fills her bucket when her customers feel beautiful.
“If something doesn't fit, it's not you. We say, ‘Let's find something that does, because you're a beautiful goddess.’ When people come out of that fitting room and you can see that twinkle in their eye, you can tell they have never felt good in the clothes they're wearing. I want for every single person to be able to look into that mirror and know they are beautiful and deserve to feel that way. It just makes my heart so happy.”
Before starting her boutique and nonprofit, Julie had no experience in retail or philanthropy.
“But I love people and I have a mission. If I'm not good at something, I will find somebody to partner with who is good at something…you just have to have the mission in your heart and know how to find people who can do the nitty gritty stuff.”
Julie hosts fun parties in the boutique, when people come with their friends to shop together and be assisted by a stylist. Masks are required and all clothes are steamed after they are tried on. (They served wine before COVID.)
Julie has written a book about her experiences: The Courage to Hope will be coming out later this year. Julie shares about her struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and obsessive/compulsive disorder and lays out her path to recovery.
I asked Julie what advice she has for others who want to create companies that care.
“Find something you care about, something you are very passionate about and that can get you through hard days…when you have a bigger mission to what you are doing, that is what will get you through those hard days and give you motivation to keep going…find whatever you are passionate about, whatever fills your cup and can fill others’ cups…find whatever that is for you and stick to that and filter everything that you do through that lens. Ask, ‘Is this serving my greater purpose of why I am in business?’”
I conducted a post-interview with Julie after reading that she’s been rebooting her inventory to be more sustainable. She realized how damaging the fashion industry is for the environment. The pandemic brought everything into perspective for her.
“The fashion industry is terrible for our planet. It's the third leading contributor to overall waste and pollution in our world…I couldn't unsee it…we had a massive, almost 5000-square-foot warehouse…I remember going in there to prep for a live sale and seeing endless rows of clothes on plastic hangers and all the plastic that the garments came in. It was just overwhelmingly shocking to me how much stuff was there.”
This epiphany caused Julie to completely shift the way she was doing business. “Fast fashion” helped her business survive COVID, but she knew she had to put a stop to it. She realized her efforts to promote size inclusion and dismantle diet culture were inadvertently contributing to the environmental and ethical damages of the fashion industry.
“When you know better, you need to do better, so that's what we're doing… at Mary Rose we are committing to sustainability, inclusion, and social justice on all forms…we have got to do our part…we were part of the problem on many levels, and now we are going to be part of the solution.”
The volume of clothing purchased in the United States has tripled since the 1970s, the majority of which will be thrown in the trash. Not only does the fashion industry result in massive waste in our landfills, it also emits 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year (nearly 10 percent of annual global emissions) and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. But what concerned Julie even more was learning about child labor and sweatshops. The International Labour Office estimates that 170 million children are making textiles and garments to satisfy the high demand for fast fashion.
“There's no such thing as cheap fashion…somebody, somewhere is paying for it…whether it's you or I on the consumer end, or whether it's the worker that is not paid an ethical wage…”
Julie ended up cutting out 90 percent of her vendors. While the business shift lost her a few customers, she’s gained a lot as well. It’s been a positive change overall.
She’s had a real challenge finding sustainable clothing in inclusive sizes. Now she is working to develop her own line of sustainable, size-inclusive clothing.
“Why aren't there plus sizes in sustainable clothing? There's an underlying message there that people that live in larger bodies clearly do not care about the environment…that's the underlying message, and that is so not okay. It's time to disrupt this crap.”
Julie recently hired an executive director for the Mary Rose Foundation, which allows her to focus more on helping girls and women. She is particularly interested in helping middle school youth. The foundation is working to develop education and outreach programs to help increase youth self-esteem, promote body acceptance, body love, and self-love; and create positive coping skills to prevent eating disorders. She recently sold a hoodie designed by Ampersand, raising $8,000+ for the foundation.
“I love disrupting things.”
Julie was such a fun, dynamic guest and I look forward to visiting the Mary Rose Boutique Northwest in person and finally meeting Julie.
Next week I go back to the Finding Fertile Ground podcast (stories of grit and resilience) with Melissa Pierce, who was suddenly widowed at a young age not long after she and her husband had adopted two young boys. Now she supports others who were thrown into widowhood. Then the week after that I’ll be back to Companies That Care with Wendy Horng Brawer, a leadership consultant.
On both of my podcasts I strive to highlight voices from underrepresented populations, especially people of color, women, people who are LGBTQIA, non- Christian, and immigrants, people who don't always get a platform. You can find all the information on my website and social media.
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