In the Studio with Parade
The climate crisis cannot be ignored. Every Friday, Milk will be focusing on solutions and stories from the environment’s biggest supporters; through essays, photo stories, updates on the latest technologies, and tips to combat the climate crisis, we’ve got you covered. This week we’re in the studio with the founders of Parade, the sustainable underwear brand.
You may recognize this bright, multi-colored brand from your Instagram or perhaps you’ve passed one of their lifesize posters plastered all over New York City. Within weeks, Parade went from an idea to a movement. Barely four months old, the underwear brand is being celebrated by women and femme-identifying individuals in every state in the U.S. which has lead to several impressive collaborations with brands like Swarvoski and Bite Beauty. Always creating around their values of sustainability and sex education, Parade makes it a point to donate a portion of their profits to Planned Parenthood.
Cami Téllez and Jack DeFuria are changing the game when it comes to underwear. The pair of entrepreneurs, both 22, run their company out of a studio apartment in DUMBO, Brooklyn, with eight (soon to be ten) wonderful employees who share the same charisma.
What does a day in your studio look like? What’s the vibe?
Jack DeFuria: It’s a little crazy.
Cami Téllez: Yeah, um, I think that we’ve been in this office now for-
JD: 11 months.
CT: It’s been close to a year in this office—everything for Parade happens here. Our team is eight people and we’ll be ten soon. Ultimately it’s an apparel company, so there are tons of fittings–it’s funny, we’re blasting Future and there are lots of people running around in their underwear. We have a lot of members of the community, Parade Friends, in here all the time— we chat with them about what they want to see and where they want the brand to go next. It was important for this to feel like our apartment, like a space where we were raising something completely new–we couldn’t have started Parade in a WeWork.
JD: There’s definitely a lot of energy in the office, but it’s been a lot of fun. I mean, we’ve launched all of our campaigns around this table, so it’s crazy hectic running around loud music, but yeah, a ton of fun.
CT: It’s been a great place to launch a brand.
How did you guys meet? What came first, the business or the friendship?
JD: Both. I mean, we met in the context of work, but we became friends really, really quickly. Through college, we were best friends and had a lot of shared interest around work, around just generally how we saw the world and so it made partnering up a lot easier.
CT: Yeah, Jack and I were working together in Venture Capital and Jack had his own business in ed-tech but he sold it and I helped work with him on that. I think that we both just had a shared thesis about the cultural impacts that brands can have and I think that we both wanted to build a brand that we wish our younger selves had and that our younger selves could admire. We became really good friends and over the course of the three years that we knew each other, Jack really convinced me that I could be a founder. At the core of Parade is like a really deep friendship and shared worldview about the role that brands can play in shaping culture.
JD: Cami also helped me see that at the core this was a self-expression brand. True self-expression became the core of the friendship, and in turn, the guiding force of the brand.
Cami, you dropped out of Columbia, was that really scary at first?
CT: I dropped out with one semester left––like that Drake lyric! Of course, it was a huge leap of faith. I majored in English and Art History and it was essential in how I formed my lens on brand building. From my time in visual studies, I understood pretty immediately that underwear had this really constrained visual language that could be pretty easily exploded. My parents are both immigrants from Colombia and they’ve always told me–we’re so lucky to live in the one country where failure is accepted for entrepreneurs, so there’s nothing really to be afraid of. Jack and I always talk about leading from fear.
JD: Fear eats the soul!
CT: Right, fear eats the soul. We both have tattoos that say that. We got them before we went out to raise 3M this summer. It’s the reminder of the courage you have to manifest to make this work.
Did you always have this idea of wanting to have your own business?
CT: No, but I felt that at the center of all great companies is a great narrative and then it’s about persistence and grit in telling that story. Once I had the vision that Parade was rewriting the American underwear story — then it was simple: that was my role in the world and Parade was my legacy.
What about you (Jack)?
JD: Did I always want to be an entrepreneur? I mean, I grew up deeply in love with startups and the generative power of company building and got to work at some early-stage companies in New York as the tech scene here was developing and so it was always embedded in me, I had aspirations to be an entrepreneur. Working on Parade has been so special in that it feels like the story that I really do want to tell to the world, and being able to use your work to write a new cultural script and to reset a category that has been so backward on both ends and you know, to dedicate your life to something so meaningful has been the most special part of building Parade.
Was the fear of not being taken seriously a drawback for either of you?
CT: When we started going out to investors and talking to people about Parade, there was definitely a disconnect. Venture Capital is primarily like older white men, and I think that there was a little bit of a break in their understanding of why kind of 18 to 25-year-old women needed a new underwear brand and a real understanding of what the category looked like and how to build a brand in the space from the ground up. Ultimately the most powerful thing Jack and I have- our kind of superpower as founders is that we are the customer, we’re both 22 and we both are her and understand her and went to school with her and that allows us to be really decisive as founders and to be really creative and to more intimately understand how we can fit in her world how we can co-create with her. Ultimately, I think we were taken seriously because we just knew her better. So that was kind of the core reason why people understood that Parade was defensible and why it had massive potential to be a billion-dollar business.
Can you talk more about your marketing strategy? How did you get it out there so fast?
CT: Part of the core strategy for Parade from the beginning was that we knew that if we wanted to completely shift the category, previously underwear had been kind of top-down in the way that influence was built for these companies like Victoria’s Secret Angels telling a story of like, ‘you want to look like me, you want to be like me.’ We knew that we wanted to shift the category from the ground up, and it had to be grassroots. So we started last summer building out a community of people who we loved the way they showed up in the world, and we felt that they embodied, the freewheeling dynamic and kind of expressive nature of Parade, and these are people in cities all over the US, they go to school- colleges all over the US and they really helped us co-create and really, build and render the world that we have and how multidimensional it is, and how it has people of all different body types and ethnicities and social classes. When we launched, we had hundreds of people who were part of this community, and so that helped us start to create the kind of virality of the movement that is shifting the category significantly already in just 13 weeks.
Let’s talk about the products you use?
CT: At Parade, we call our product Creative Basics and Creative Basics are expressive underwear that celebrate who you are today. We do that by telling a story of dynamic design and sustainable fabric innovation and expressive color. Our first kind of fabric platform that we launched is called Re-play and it’s made of superfine 360 stretch recycled nylon.
I never worked in apparel before, neither had Jack, so we’ve been working really hard for a year and a half, to both collaborate with people who come from companies like Lu Lu Lemon and Gap and Alexander Wang, to help build what we believe is the best pair of underwear for $9. Also in that, I think that there was a feeling that we had of building great underwear is a connective tissue between your body which is so identity-driven and emotional and your style, which is really creative, and I think really important to our customer. There was a feeling that we had to build a product that honored the people of every gender identity and every body and honors the body that they are in. We really feel like we’ve done that, and beyond that, to also honor the way that fashion is changing and that sustainability is becoming a more and more important thing. I worked in sustainability NGOs, in high school, I’d pass legislation around composting. We came into this a little naive, but sometimes being naive is a huge benefit. To start we were like, ‘Alright, well, all the packaging has to be compostable, and the fabric has to be recycled’ and it just allowed us to build a different business from the beginning.
How do you practice sustainability in your everyday life?
CT: We’ve just been really interested in supporting other entrepreneurs that have set out and built sustainable businesses and have done that from day one. Blueland is one of them that we love supporting. Our friends started that and it’s super genius, it’s essentially cutting down all the waste from cleaning supplies and making into these tiny, capsules-
JD: With a reusable bottle, and it cuts down the carbon footprint of transporting gallons of Clorox.
CT: In our daily lives we really seek to support brands that, you know we vote with our dollars in the same way our customer does, so we really look to support other entrepreneurs that are building their business from a conscious place.
I know the focus on sustainability was really important for you, but where did the focus on sex education and Planned Parenthood come from?
JD: It’s always been super important to Cami and I planned parenthood as an organization. We both grew up going to Catholic school and I mean, I came out in an all-boys Catholic school with no sex-ed programs, so Planned Parenthood was, in my life, was a really important place for programs beyond what people typically associate with Planned Parenthood. So it was really important for us, being able to use our growth and use what we’re building to support an organization that’s so dear to our hearts. I think sex education for the business that we’ve built and the way that we see Parade in the world, it’s the most important cause we can support.
CT: Also, we really see ourselves as a self-expression brand. Both gender identity, sexual expression and sexual health and sexual education are such important parts of self-expression. We see our role with Planned Parenthood and volunteering with them, alongside our broader community, as ways in which we can continue to push forward the work of protecting and celebrating self-expression.
I know by October you guys had donated over $12,000 to Planned Parenthood, now that the holidays are over, how much has the number gone up?
CT: At this point, we’ve donated over $25,000 to sex-ed programs.
So given how sexualized the underwear industry is, how do you think you’ve made it so mainstream? So many girls are just so confident posting themselves in your underwear on Instagram. Why do you think that is?
CT: Yeah, We fundamentally believe that all women and femme-identifying people are freewheeling, expressive, and bold and I think that was already part of their nature and they were just missing a brand that celebrated that, and for us, we really believe in ourselves and our self-expression brand as I was saying earlier, so that’s really what’s most impactful about these photos, I mean Jack and I every day are just-
JD: Blown away by what the community does.
CT: One in every five people who buy Parade posts in their underwear, which is a huge leap of faith and, I mean it’s not easy to post in your underwear. What’s so powerful about those images is that it’s not necessarily about sexiness, or who’s watching or a male gaze or anything, it’s really more about a gesture, and a real act of self-expression, which is what we wanted all along.
JD: And celebrating exactly who you are, in every moment, and every day, and not some idealized version of yourself.
So you’ve had a Swarovski collab, a Bite collab, do you have any more collaborations coming up?
CT: There’s some things in the works, but nothing we can talk about yet.
Where do you see this thing going? How big do you want it to be?
CT: Jack and I, we have huge ambitions for this brand, we set out to build the next big American underwear company.
JT: Already, we’re so proud that we’ve sold Parade in every state, and have been able to see our impact beyond our community in New York or on the West Coast, but that we’ve been able to speak our message into communities across the country. That’s really the ambition here – we want to build the next great American underwear company. We want to rewrite the story and bring a new story of self-expression to people across the country.
Do you ever want to go global?
CT: For sure. We definitely get a lot of messages, there are a lot of enthusiastic fans of Parade in other countries and we’re really a community-first business and we built our community here, but we see a huge opportunity abroad as well. There’s no reason this can’t be a global brand.
Before we wrap up, where does the name come from?
JD: The million-dollar question.
CT: It was two things. First, we think of Parade as this grassroots movement of celebration, self-expression, joy, and fun. We really believe fun is such an underappreciated emotion, that gets so many people to get out of bed every single day, and not a lot of brands are tapping into that. The second reason is that we also believe that there’s a level of organization and I would say even radical optimism and the resistance that we have against the prevailing view of what underwear should be and how it should make you feel. Ultimately, Parade just stands for that juncture of both, radical joy and turning a new page for the category. We’re a movement, not a corporation.
Stay tuned to Milk for more climate crisis solutions and more studio visits.