Justine Liu is the President of the ethical activewear brand, Girlfriend Collective, and the mother of two. Before joining Girlfriend Collective, she was the Director of Brand Marketing at Reformation and the founder of Billie the Label and Lett Clothing.
Imagine living in Los Angeles, among the palm trees and dreamy sunsets, working for a highly-coveted fashion brand, but being almost eight months pregnant and only seeing your husband on weekends. Welcome to Justine Liu’s world circa 2016.
“I had an opportunity to head up the buying team at Reformation and I couldn't say no, so we did long distance for a year and a half,” says Liu of her husband Michael, a video game engineer who was back in Boston. Luckily, she had some experience leaving something she loved behind to take a chance having departed a five-year job at Saks in order to attend Harvard Business School.
“We’d take turns, either every weekend or every other weekend, flying back and forth,” Justine says of her bicoastal marriage. “It wasn’t until I was 7½ months pregnant that we conceded we should probably live in the same place.”
With so much family in Beantown (“My husband is from a very large Irish Catholic family. Everyone lives within an hour of each other!” she says), they decided to live there. But Liu didn’t realize how much giving up her job — and those palm trees and dreamy sunsets — would affect her.
“While I was mentally prepared for [the move] and realized [being out of work] wouldn’t be permanent — that I would never not go back to work — I kind of assumed I’d find my groove in Boston. But it ended up being a really rough year if I’m being totally candid, especially from an industry standpoint. Boston doesn’t really have a community of folks who work in fashion or retail startups.”
What’s more, it was freezing: “It was just a bad winter. There was a period of time right after my son was born that it was minus 15 degrees for three weeks straight. I was with our newborn son day in and day out and I was like, ‘We need to go back to LA.’”
The whole family returned to La La Land together, but things were completely different this time around for a myriad of reasons, but especially one: Liu was now a Mom.
“That was definitely a tricky period; realizing how much my life had shifted from being this person who was so focused on career,” she says. “My self-confidence had changed being out of the workforce for so long. My mind was racing about the new things in the industry that I didn’t know about because I hadn’t been eating and living and breathing it for the last 10 months.”
Thankfully, Reformation welcomed her back, and she was able to work with a group of women who were understanding and supportive as she found her feet as a new working mom.
“It took me a few months to really find my groove again, but it was so great to be with a company that allowed me to slowly get my feet wet in terms of a work routine and what it means to hand my child off to a nanny in the morning. Eventually I realized I can trust my decisions, still have the business savvy to run a team, and be a mom.”
From there, it was full steam ahead and Liu soon found herself recruited by online retail start-up Verishop to launch her own line — two, actually — which isn’t something she ever thought she’d do.
“I liked orbiting in that area; working with those industries, but I think — whether it’s imposter syndrome or what — I just didn’t think it was in my DNA. I’m a huge introvert,” says Liu. “My husband laughs when I say that. But it takes a lot for me to go out and talk and network. My mind is always racing in those situations.”
Still, she jumped on the opportunity to create her own clothing lines and fondly recalls the nine months leading up to the debut of the brands, Lett Clothing and Billie the Label. She remembers the time as truly rewarding because she had to be completely vulnerable and learn to trust her intuition.
“There’s so much of yourself that goes into building something like that from scratch. It’s highly personal,” she says. “But nobody roots for you to fail. For sure you need to hustle, but there’s no one on the other side who’s gunning for you. Realizing that opened up a lot more possibilities about how I thought about business. You know that cliche, ‘If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re not learning anything’? That was one of those times where it was totally true.”
Unbeknownst to her, it would continue to be the case. Only six months after launching her new brands, Covid hit and, despite having truly successful first collections, it became clear pretty quickly that it would be tough to sell the likes of a chic suit during quarantine. “Same for a great cotton linen dress,” Liu adds. “Where is she going in this? The grocery store?”
So, when one of the co-founders of the athleisure brand Girlfriend Collective approached her for help scaling his company, which was suddenly soaring due to the pandemic, Liu knew it was time for another leap.
“It wasn’t a decision I took lightly having launched these brands that I cared about deeply, which were like children at this point,” says Liu. “But again, going back to that [idea of] ‘Does it make you feel a little uncomfortable...’”
Taking the leap into uncertainty again paid off. Now, as president of Girlfriend Collective, Liu looks back on all the moving around, be it for personal or professional reasons, as just part of her path.
“I don’t know if I’m being too hocus-pocus-y by saying this, but if I hadn’t taken myself out of the workplace for business school, and then gone on this incredible journey of motherhood, I don’t think I would have jumped at the opportunity to launch my own brand. And I don’t think I would’ve thought about who I am as a person and what matters to me [to then jump to Girlfriend Collective],” says Liu. “If I’m going to be spending time away from my family, I want to make sure it’s worth it. I want to make sure I’m fulfilled and working towards something that's more than just a paycheck.”
In other words, she’s now living the dream: palm trees, sunsets, a fulfilling career, and a husband — plus two kids; she’s due any day now with her second — who all live in the same city.
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