Xi Chen, Founder and Designer at Sonderlier®, is building a sustainable fashion brand that offers women versatile and comfortable designer clothing to fit their body and schedule.
Xi’s life-long dream was to become a fashion designer, but she initially pursued a seemingly more practical path in engineering. After struggling for years to find clothes that would allow her to be comfortable yet still look polished, she discovered that many other women shared the same problem. She decided to fill this gap by combining her engineering background with her desire to produce clothing that sat at the intersection of style, functionality, and sustainability. Thus, Sonderlier® was born.
We asked Xi about 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 behind your company’s founding: How and why did you start working on Sonderlier®?
A: Fashion design was a childhood dream of mine, though I initially pursued a more “practical” career in engineering. For years, I struggled with finding clothes that I loved and worked well for my everyday life. The nice “real” clothes I had would be collecting dust in the closet because they were too uncomfortable or too high-maintenance for daily wear, while the comfy clothes that I ended up wearing would leave me feeling frumpy and bored. After talking with my girlfriends, I found that almost all of them shared the same struggle. This is happening to so many of us because designer fashion is both designed and consumed largely with only special occasions in mind. We were basically creating glamorous clothes for only five to 10 percent of our life while ignoring the practical needs in the other 90 percent that is our every day. In 2019, I decided to found Sonderlier to reverse this mindset. I want to design for women’s everyday well-being, so that she can look good 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 clothes. Each piece is designed to help women navigate the ever-changing settings of their everyday life with minimal effort, and to have different ways to wear for work, lounge, travel, and play. Second is our equal emphasis on style and comfort. We draw inspiration from timeless and structured silhouettes that traditionally have been uncomfortable to wear, and we transform them into something that feels like pajamas. Another core value of Sonderlier is our commitment to sustainable fashion and ethical production. Our designs adopt the “capsule wardrobe” concept, which reduces clothing waste and cost to the customer. Our clothes are currently made in a small all-women factory in Ohio where our seamstresses receive a living wage.
Q: Have you ever felt like you’re “different”? If yes, in what ways has this contributed to your journey as an entrepreneur?
A: As a fashion brand founder and designer, I have a very “different” background. I never had formal fashion training. In fact, I was trained as an engineer. A very real impact of this is a steep learning curve—I had to learn everything from scratch. I remember not even knowing what terms to search for in the very beginning. On the other hand, it also allowed me to form my unique approach and perspective to fashion that very much combines aesthetics with an engineer’s focus on functionality.
Q: What were the most difficult and most impactful lessons you’ve learned since starting and running a company?
A: Where resistance appears is often also where the most unexpected rewards happen. As the founder of a small business, making new connections, showing up and telling my story is crucial. But as an introvert, it’s also one of the hardest and most uncomfortable parts for me. In the early days, I often felt like I had to drag myself to show up on social media or do public interviews. But one of the most rewarding parts of my journey is meeting lots of incredible people, including customers, along the way. And it all happened because of the initial decision to push myself to expand my comfort zone. I also learned that when something feels scary, the first step is the hardest one. Whatever it is isn’t as scary as the thing in your imagination, and you get a little more comfortable each time you do it. It’s about getting better, not being perfect.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception that others have around entrepreneurship?
A: I think a lot of us, women especially, think you first need to become an expert before starting a company in a certain field. I actually believe that the fresh perspective that an outsider brings is highly undervalued, and that’s where some of the coolest innovations happen. Plus, what you don’t know, you can always learn.
Q: We dare you to brag: What achievements are you most proud of?
A: Our first collection launched on Kickstarter last year and was fully funded in under 24 hours. But more importantly, I’m super proud of the feedback we’ve gotten from our customers since then—we’ve received 100 percent five-star reviews thus far. My favorite part is getting messages from customers telling me how our designs make their day-to-day a little better in various ways. We’ve had working moms who felt like they were “a constant mess,” and now with our designs are comfortably switching between mom duty and being 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. This is a bottomline for us throughout our processes from materials and design to manufacturing and packaging. Despite the added challenges that come with this, I’m really proud that we were able to deliver products without sacrificing style, functionality, or sustainability.
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 key performance indicators like revenue and conversion rate. I think these indicators are still important metrics for monitoring 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 our customers’ and makers’ lives and whether I can maintain an open mind and joyful heart while growing continuously as a founder and a person.
Q: What resources or people have contributed the most to your successes?
A: To me, the support of family and friends has been absolutely essential. I’m really blessed to have the best support system who believed in me even when it was hard to believe in myself and who were always there to lend a helping hand and a listening ear. As a solopreneur, the journey can get really lonely at times, and joining entrepreneur communities like Dreamers & Doers has been really helpful in many ways. I also found that joining industry specific programs like Startup Fashion and Learn to Make A Product was instrumental in helping flatten the learning curve for someone like me who did not receive formal fashion training.
Q: What would you tell your younger self if you were to start your entrepreneurial journey all over again?
A: You are going to face a lot of uncomfortable situations, and that’s totally OK because you’ll grow so much from them. Protect your passion, trust your intuition, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and remember to slow down and recharge yourself. 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’m planning to release them in the coming months, so stay tuned!
Xi is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.
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