Breastfeeding Culture, Womanhood, & Becoming an Entrepreneur: An Interview with Andrea Newberry of Leche Libre

September 16, 2016

Hi Andrea! Thank you for coming on the blog today! You are a mom and entrepreneur, and the owner of the newly launched breastfeeding apparel line Leche Libre whose self-described goal is to help women, "Look as powerful and confident as breastfeeding makes you feel" through stylish, flattering clothing, specially designed for breastfeeding and pumping! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what led you to starting Leche Libre?

Myname is Andrea Newberry.  I have two kiddos, Thora, 6 and Otto, 4.  We live in Chicago.  I do not have a formal background in fashion.  If you had told me 5 years ago, I would have my own fashion line, I would have laughed in your face.  I have an art degree with a background in photography, printmaking and bookbinding. I worked doing art restoration at a small firm specializing in book and paper. It was a really interesting job where I had the opportunity to work on such things like original Picasso sketches, original Frank Lloyd Wright Blue Prints, handwritten Abraham Lincoln letters and signed first edition books by Dickens and Hemingway just to name a few.    In 2009 the economy was in the pits.  The owner sold the company and I found myself pregnant and without a job.  I tried finding another job, but art restoration is a very small field. No one was hiring in general, and especially not a pregnant woman, SO.... I embraced being a stay-at-home-mom. 

At the time, I was also doing a food blog and working to build an audience. After I lost my job, I tried to monetize the blog more. I started doing underground supper club events but the events were a time suck and didn't make much money.    I also tried doing underground cooking classes out of my kitchen, but I hated promoting the events.  I tried doing catering, but I never really committed to it.  I didn't want to have to get licensed and certified and work outside of my home.  I wanted to start a business, I just didn't know WHAT I should do. I was feeling depressed just being at home, so I was looking for a project to help give me some more purpose.

I started sewing after my kids were born, and I had one little clothing venture before Leche Libre.  I started off making baby hats and bonnets myself and selling them on etsy and at local consignment shop.  I called it Poppy Cox Kids because my kids' last name is Cox.  It was fun, but I just felt like the children's clothing market was SO oversaturated and I wasn't that passioante about hats.  It wasn't really possible to make real money doing it either so it was just like a hobby.  I hate sales so much.  I really wanted to create a product which would sell itself.  When I came up with the idea for Leche Libre, I thought, this is it!  There is a need, and this will sell itself!  (That is not really true.  No matter how great something is you still have to sell it but I had to figure that out the hard way).

Oh man, yes, I think that is the mark of a true-entrepreneur. Being able to get past the lightbulb moment and into the hard work to sell the idea! How did the idea to start Leche Libre come about? What was your inspiration?

I was inspired to start Leche Libre after the birth of my two children.  I found it really hard to find clothing it was easy to breastfeed in.  After having kids, I felt like my whole life changed and I felt really resentful that my personal style had to change as well just to accommodate easy breastfeeding.  I saw women everywhere struggling with breastfeeding in public and I felt that the lack of stylish breastfeeding specific clothing was directly tied to this problem.

Idecided something needed to be done about this.  I had just started learning sewing so I started experimenting with altering patterns and making my own clothes.  While wearing my dresses, I would often have long conversationswith people at parties or on mass transitwhere they had no idea I was nursing the whole time.  I got such positive feedback on my dresses that I decided to go for it and teach myself fashion design and how to start a fashion line!

Did you have any personal experiences that sparked your idea?

Everywhere I went I heard women talking about breastfeeding in public.  I personally would get a few looks here and there, when I was nursing Thora, my oldest, but I didn’t really care.  I’m the rebellious type which doesn’t really shirk from negative confrontation.  I think people can perceive that I’m not easily bullied, so I don’t get a lot of passive aggressive comments generally.  It wasn't a huge deal for me to nurse in public, but I felt a lot of women struggling.  I made my original dress for myself after my son was born, not because I was afraid to nurse in public, but just that I was sick having to jerry-rig my fashion around breastfeeding.  The thing other women responded to most was how discreet it was and that it made breastfeeding look easy.  Any time women go against cultural norms, it is considered a subversive act.  A lot of women have a hard time with that.  We've been so conditioned to always need permission to do things.  I thought, I want to take that sense of confidence and rebelliousness which women admire in me and infuse it into clothing to empower women to claim our space and breastfeed confidently shame free.

Wow, just hearing that gives me goosebumps. What an amazing mission, that goes far beyond just the stylish clothing. How long of a process was it from the start of your idea, to now, seeing it come to fruition?

My son is 4, so it's been about 4 years from the first little seed of an idea to where it is today.  As I said earlier, I didn’t have any experience in fashion or know how to design clothes, so I would say I spent about a year working on figuring out the basics of designing, learning from project runway and by trial and error. Then I spent another year figuring out the basics on how to get clothing manufactured, then another year after the launch of Leche Libre website figuring out how to run the website and fine tune the designs based on feedback from my first sales.  This last year has been about growing the business. I needed money to do a large run to grow and so I went the crowd funding route. 

That sounds like a long process, but I always find that my best ideas are the ones that I take the time to carefully work through, rather than just trying to rush in. I am curious to hear, through this process, what sorts of challenges did you have to overcome to get your idea off the ground?

There are endless problems and endless mistakes made when one is starting out.  It's hard not to get sucked into them.  Starting this business has been such a huge exercise for me in establishing my self worth as completely separate from my business.  Because with all the problems you have to face, it's easy to get sucked into the negativity hole and if you start defining yourself by that negativity, OUCH.  I keep going and figure out each small problem as I go along.

I think balancing the sustainable and ethical element while keeping my prices accessible has been very hard.  I started with an all organic line but realized women couldn't pay the prices for that material.  I had already ordered hundreds of yards, so I pivoted.  I'm selling those dresses for less of a profit margin and I'm working on bringing my costs down.  It's important to me that my line be as accessible in price as I can possibly make it.  I feel like it would be totally hypocritical if I was only empowering women of an upper middle class income.  My goal is to make Leche Libre as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I try to do my best to walk the line between price and maintaining my ethical standards. 

I’m also self-taught without a huge start up budget, so figuring out how to move forward at times has been tough.  I worked with a consulting firm which gave me a really good deal for some basic coaching, but beside that I’ve been on my own.  I’ve done a lot of trial and error learning.  There have been times when I’ve wanted to just throw everything in a fire pit and run in the opposite direction, but I just take a break, gather my calm again and get back in there.  I have a goal and a mission and I want to see it through.  (This is the part where you start playing Eye of the Tiger.)

What has surprised you about yourself as you go through this process of launching a business and creating a product?

LIfe is funny.  I've always done all these various things which didn't really seem to fit together, art restoration, food blogs, making baby hats...  I have always wanted to envision my life like a giant staircase, like I would always be working to build something and keep improving on it, but for a lot of my professional life, I've sort of bounced around zig zagging from thing to thing.  I think the most rewarding part of Leche Libre is seeing how everything I've ever done is coming together.  I'm taking the lessons I've learned from all my different ventures and fusing them together to build this business.

Leche Libre has really been a spiritual journey for me.  When I got the idea to do Leche Libre, it just felt right, and everything was in place for me. It is a great concept, there is a huge need in the market, the culture is ready for it and I felt like I was doing something valuable to improve women's lives.  Even though learning to do fashion design and the business ends of things with two small children at home has been intensely hard, I just had this feeling that it was the right thing to do, that it was worth my time.  I realized in my past attempts, I had never really committed to them.  I had a lot of self-limiting behaviors and self-victimization stuff in play from baggage I was carrying around from childhood.  I was ready to commit to this business and so I finally had the motivation to sit down and really plunge into some self development work.

One thing I've had to confront is my tendencies toward workaholism. Can I take a minute to go on my workaholism rant?  It drives me nuts that our culture is so codependent with workaholism.  I know so many entrepreneurs who brag about it, they think it's just PART of the process, something you HAVE to be to do your own business.  I went to this orientation for this entrepreneur incubator and in it they said there were two rules to the incubator (oh isn't that cute, only two!). Anyway the first was that "You must work incessantly." And then the guy was like, "Oh but I know I DON'T have to tell YOU guys that."  And they all chuckled. I was like, "SERIOUSLY FUCK THAT!"  No, the answer is no. 

I can't remember the second rule.  I never went back.  Workaholism is self sabotage. I will not work incessantly.  I am going to take time for my family and I'm going to take time for me!  Workaholism means that you derive your personal worth from how much work you do or how "successful" you are at it.  It's a total trap because you can never work hard enough.  You'll never be successful enough.  If you look for your self worth outside of your body, YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT!  Cause its hiding inside of us. The only way to find it, is to stop looking for it and just start being it.  When I realized this, I felt like I was Bill Murray at the end of Scrouged!  I get it now and it's great. It's better than I've felt in a long long time.

Anyway, I've worked on identifying these limiting behaviors and I've just been making friends with them. I tried fighting them for a while, but that didn't work for me.  I felt at war with myself.  Now, I just try and say, "Oh hi there Workaholic!  I like how much you get done, but now lets go have some fun."  "Oh hey there Neurotic Fear, thanks so much for helping me troubleshoot and look out for problems. We've done all we can to avoid them and now its time go to get a drink!"  On and on.  I feel like doing Leche Libre has been this awesome thing which has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone that in order to cope I had to come to terms with me and start loving myself.  I know it sounds cheesy but thats ok, because I really like cheese. 

THAT is an incredible journey, and one that I think we can ALL relate with, whether or not we are business owners, stay-at-home-moms, or working a regular 9-5pm job. That self-discovery process, and learning to work through what we need to, but recognize when it is then time to let go and let the process unfold. Thank you for sharing that. So tell me more about Leche Libre: what makes it unique, and what is that you hope to accomplish through Leche Libre?

Garments targeted toward moms are often overly feminized, with a very soft and frilly sort of aesthetic targeting a “mommy” clientele. Leche Libre is about defining a new modern motherhood.  Breastfeeding women are doing the most powerful thing any human being can do: give birth and sustain life through the power of their own bodies.  I want to help women channel this power by creating clothing which represents strength and confidence.  If women feel beautiful wearing Leche Libre,  that’s awesome but it's not my main goal.  My main goal is to make them look powerful and kickass.  Leche Libre targets women who want to live their lives as individuals AND moms.  Women who know they are are more than just “mommy”. Leche Libre is creating edgy fashion forward apparel for women who want to integrate motherhood into their dynamic lives, breastfeeding on the go and looking totally rad while doing it.

I have so many ideas of innovating designs, continuing with my zipper access concept but also expanding out to other forms of closuresand access to make full collections of versatile.  It's going to be fun to keep going!

Oh I bet!! Speaking of modern breastfeeding and motherhood, what do you see as some of the challenges facing breastfeeding mothers today, and how do you see yourself breaking down some of those challenges?

One thing which has always irked me about being a woman, and listening to the struggles of my women friends, is that we've been taught, both subtly and in overt ways that we need to ask permission for everything we do.  I find myself constantly apologizing for asking questions or taking up too much space.  For a lot of women breastfeeding in public,  it's about more then just breastfeeding, It's about asserting our rights in a world where we have been taught not to. 

Leche Libre is about empowering women to take up our space and do what we need to do for ourselves and our children.  Breastfeeding in public is legally protected, so really it's just cultural norms we're up against. As a woman, the act of going against social norms is always a subversive act and can be stressful to many women.  I design my clothing to make it super easy to breastfeed discreetly,  So you can just go about living your life and do your thing and not have to worry.

I feel passionately about normalizing public breastfeeding not only to empower moms but as a way of fighting the objectification of women's bodies in general.  Breasts are specifically meant for breastfeeding, so if we can break down the cultural barriers to public breastfeeding we can empower women in general to reclaim ownership of our own bodies.  This passion has helped me push through the fear and insecurities of starting a business in a field where I had no experience. 

Amazing! I know that I feel energized and excited just hearing your story, and the depth behind Leche Libre. Thank you for sharing it with us today, and I wish you all the best moving forward! I'll be watching closely to see where you go next.

Andrea Newberry is a Chicago-based entrepreneur and owner of Leche Libre. Between now and December you can get 15% off apparel from her shop by participating in the Leche Libre pre-sale order.