This year, I was asked to ride in a Veterans Day parade. I was flattered and humbled by the invitation but, after agreeing, I was struck by that infamous question that so often plagues women: what am I gonna wear? I own one or two shirts that speak to my service but they are HUGE. I searched in vain online for a shirt that was in my size and in stock. Thankfully, Nadine Noky and Lady Brigade have now solved this problem for me and all the women veterans like me.
Nadine Noky joined the Army at just seventeen. She served five years as a Radar Technician before leaving the Army to pursue a degree in graphic design at her dream college, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After graduating, Nadine moved to Florida to work as a full-time graphic designer in an environment that would let her raise her son on her terms. Recently, Nadine began thinking about a way to combine her graphic design talent with her interest in veterans affairs. The result is Lady Brigade.
Lady Brigade is an online retail site that currently specializes in apparel for women veterans. Officially launched two weeks ago, it contains several t-shirt, tank top, and hoodie options designed by Nadine herself. I had the chance to talk to the bubbly, perpetually-in-motion force behind Lady Brigade and here’s some of what she had to say:
Me: What prompted you to start Lady Brigade?
One day, I’m at the VA wearing a shirt that says ‘veteran’ and people are like, oh, you served? And I’m like, no, I just wear it at the VA to be ironic. And then, on Veterans Day, I was wearing a veteran shirt and sitting next to this Marine and he was shocked that I’d served. That kind of thing happens all the time. And then, women don’t always associate with the word veteran. Men are all walking around with shirts and stickers and everything that say VET really big and women are more modest and aren’t as expressive and publicly proud of being a veteran. And I wanted to change that. I mean, there are younger girls who need that role model. And, you know, doing that 12-mile ruck march, jogging the whole way while the six foot guy is just walking along, just to get the same respect. You did it, you earned it, you were part of something bigger, you should be proud of that and wear it on your sleeve every now and then.
Me: Walk me through some of the choices you made and the process you took to create Lady Brigade.
I started building Lady Brigade in March; mostly generating interest, and then launched a couple of weeks ago. I decided early on that I wanted to control the whole experience, so I decided not to use a distribution service – you know, one where you design the shirt but they print and ship them for you. Instead, I started exploring manufacturers and ordering samples, so I could compare the quality and consistency of the product. I tried one and I ordered several of the same size and none of them were even remotely close to each other, and it was important to me that my customers would get the same product every time.
Also, I decided I would only use American-made. I could have had cheap shirts, but it was more important to me to have them made here. I don’t know how you can sell patriotic merchandise that is made in other countries.
Once I had the inventory, then I had to determine the designs. I had to ask myself, how do you be patriotic without having to be red, white, and blue or use the standard symbols? And how do you represent the whole veteran aspect without being too manly and also be feminine without just going pink? Ultimately, I think I found a good middle ground.
Me: Your background is in graphic design, not business. Was it a challenge to get the business up and running? And what lessons did you learn that could be useful for other veterans thinking of starting their own business?
Laughs. Starting a business is seriously anxiety-ridden. I knew nothing about business. And I made so many mistakes. I didn’t take advantage of any veteran-related resources – I didn’t even know about most of them. I did go through the Small Business Administration’s business plan class. And I spoke to a Certified Public Accountant – God, I don’t even want to think about filing taxes for the first time!
You hear a lot of business people say that researching is an excuse to procrastinate, so I was like I’m not procrastinating, I’m doing. But that’s not always the best way. For other veterans thinking of opening a business, I would say research companies who are doing something similar. And get someone to mentor you – through SCORE or some other avenue. If I had done that, I could have avoided a bunch of silly mistakes.
Me: Currently Lady Brigade is primarily a retail site, but you’d like to see it blossom into a community for women veterans. Can you talk a little about that?
Being a female veteran can be very isolating. I run into male veterans all the time, but I almost never come across another female veteran. And, really, it’s so important to find them because they can relate and you can build a community on those relationships.
Me: Lady Brigade isn’t the only avenue you’re exploring for helping women veterans connect with one another. Can you tell me about the other venue you’re working on?
Yes! I’m helping plan the First Statewide Florida Women Veterans’ Conference. It’s going to be held April 17-19, 2015. We’ve got a really great venue lined up – the Sandcastle Resort at Lido Beach in Sarasota. We figured, women could bring their families, make it a sort of vacation.
Our theme is: Your Next Mission. And we’ve got speakers lined up and breakout sessions on entrepreneurship and education and services planned. We’ve got room for up to 180 attendees and registration will open in January. Attendees can register for one day or for all three days and we’ve secured a discounted rate at the resort, which will be offered for several days before and after the conference. We’re still working on costs and we’re hoping to secure enough fundraising to provide scholarships for some attendees as well. It’ll be a great opportunity to get women veterans together, to help build that community.
Be sure to take advantage of Lady Brigade's Black Friday sale: 25% off all orders and FREE shipping for orders over $50 (quantities limited so don’t wait!). You can also check out Lady Brigade on Facebook and Twitter. And you can find out more about the First Statewide Florida Women Veterans Conference here.
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