Gina Röckenwagner: Founder of Poppy + Pima

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I recently got to chat with Gina Röckenwagner, owner and designer at Poppy+Pima, a small ethical and sustainable knitwear company based out of Brooklyn.  She opens up about her background in fashion, her decision to start her own company and the hurdles she had to overcome starting a business as woman.  You check out Poppy+Pima's entire spring collection here.

Tell us a little about yourself...Where were you born?  How did your upbringing influence your vision for Poppy & Pima?

I was born in Los Angeles and that’s where I grew up.  My dad is an immigrant so I have always been raised around hardworking people and been socially conscious.  My parents used to own a restaurant together and watching them try to make it and being creative really influenced me to be a creative person.  They were one of the first California cuisine restaurants in 1985/1984 on Abbott Kinney.  My parents never worked for other people so I never grew up thinking you have to grow up, get a job and work for the man because I never saw anyone do that.

How old is Poppy & Pima?

It’s just about a year old now.

So you are located in New York? What made you move from LA?

I am in Brooklyn.  I actually moved to Chicago to go to college and I knew that when I graduated if I wanted to get a job in the fashion industry that New York was the destination for me.  And then I moved to New York in October of 2010.

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What did do for work before starting Poppy & Pima?

I worked in the industry for a couple of years.  I made a lot of stuff.  I had different jobs as a professional knit designer.  I worked for Anthropologie in a lot of different capacities.  I dug in my heels in the fashion industry and tried to get as involved with other designers and yarn people as possible.

Your business is still pretty new, but what were the most difficult aspects of starting Poppy & Pima?

I think the hardest thing was overcoming my own fears about starting a business as a woman.  I feel like when men want to do something there is never any question...like oh yeah you want to do that and they are confident and they can go for it.  I really had to overcome things that old bosses would say to me, doubting me or criticizing me.  I really had to overcome my own hangups: I’m not good enough, I’ll never be able to support myself,  I’m not talented, I’ll never be a business person.  So many doubts come up when you want to start this.

I was actually involved in a little pilot program put on by the founder of Spanx, Sarah Blakely, it was basically about overcoming the voice in your head because no man has the voice in their head telling them they can’t do it.  

Did you feel like there were any additional outside hurdles you had to overcome as a woman?

There are definitely outside forces at work against women.  When I went to meet with the first factory I ever worked with, I brought my boyfriend along and I remember the owner of the factory just talking to him the entire time.  I remember thinking this is so crazy, he has zero expertise in this, he’s just coming along to support me and be an extra set of eyes.  Why does everyone immediately speak to him and not to me?

You walk into factories and people doubt you.  I was really young at the time and they see you and think , “oh this young girl, she’s never going to follow through.” At the end when they say, “when you’re ready let me know.” Obviously I was coming to them because I was ready.

You are pretty transparent about your brand—where things are sourced and made— where did this motivation come from? What was the hardest thing about deciding to move in a sustainable direction?

I was really affected by the 2014 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.  When that happened I was working in Peru at the handknitting co-op that my job used to send me to and I saw that thousands of people were killed or injured in this terrible disaster that was completely man-made.  I was working in the fashion industry so I was thinking, what I do has the potential to directly put these people in harm’s way.  I never want to be a part of that, that fast fashion world, not only because I am really uncomfortable with doing anything that puts people in harm’s way but also it is not the way that I design.  I don’t design products that are meant to be worn once and thrown away.  I grew up as a maker and I just really like making this.  I think that gives you a greater connection to material things.  So when I see something in the store I don’t see something as a product.  I see the people that had to touch that thing, how many hands went into making it.  It’s not something that just magically appears on the rack and you get to buy it.

I was going to Peru at the time working with this ethical sustainable co-op and seeing how they were employing women and really making a difference in the community they were located in. I saw that and said that’s what I want to do.  I want to be a part of that.  Fast fashion is destroying people’s lives and destroying our planet.  

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What has the most inspiring aspect of running your business been?

The most inspiring thing to me is getting to work with the artisans that I work with.  That’s my bliss—being able to go to Peru and work with these amazing women that are devoted making this beautiful product and give their lives to it.  Getting to work with these amazing materials is just a bonus.  Peru has some of the most amazing fibers in the world—cottons, alpacas, wools. What do you see for the future of Poppy & Pima?

I hope to keep making great sweaters that really inspire people. My clothes are some of my best friends and I hope that my clothing can be that to some people. It doesn’t have to be the clothing line for everyone, but I love seeing people responding to the brand.  That would really make me happy.

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What would your advice be for young fashion designers or young women that are looking to start their our business?

Work in the industry that you want to be in.  When you see someone else do something it really gives you ideas for how you’d do it yourself.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s like going to grad school but you get paid.  You learn a lot on the job about the business side of the industry and the people that you meet working in the industry are invaluable.