“Phoebe Jon” might sound like the name of another student in a big lecture class in a Boston College classroom. But it’s not a person—it’s a start-up fashion line created by women, for women. Manyaqi Wang, BC ’20, is the woman behind the brand.
The brand name is meant to feel like a friend with “feminine energy,” Wang, who is pursuing her MBA at BC, said. The name “Jon” was added as an homage to her favorite literary character, Jonathan from Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.
Wang’s degree in philosophy on the Perspectives track may not seem like it would have paved the way for a career as an entrepreneur, but it actually pointed her toward following her long-time interest in fashion, she said.
“Turning to fashion was kind of straightforward for me because, I mean, [the Perspectives track] talks a lot about this, it’s finding the intersection of the three: what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and what you can do for this world,” she said. “And for me … something that came intuitively was fashion.”
Wang was an Executive Board member for the Fashion Club. She also volunteered with the Appalachia Volunteer Program for two years, participated in Ascend, and was in the Accelerate@Shea Program with the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship.
It was at the Shea Center where she developed the business plan for Phoebe Jon. Through this program, Wang was fortunate enough to be able to connect with many judges from case competitions who were in the corporate world, she said.
The Shea Center is also how Christie Lau, CSOM ’22, met Wang and became Phoebe Jon’s director of business development. The two connected at the Shea Center Startup & Entrepreneurship Fair last year, where Lau realized that Phoebe Jon combined two of her interests—fashion and startups. Soon after, she started helping Wang expand Phoebe Jon’s brand and customer base, which she did for over a year.
Phoebe Jon specifically focuses on women’s workwear. Wang was inspired by her mother, who was a 5 feet 4 inches tall business woman working among 6 feet tall men and who wore her 3 inch heels to commute, work, and attend events, according to the brand’s website.
Because of her mother, Wang noticed a deficit in the fashion sector and started building her brand. During her time at BC, Wang spoke to over 50 women across a wide range of ages and industries about women’s fashion. She found these women by developing a strong network of mentors through participating in startup accelerators, pitch competitions, and networking events while at BC, she said.
She then utilized this diverse range of BC mentors and their connections to gather valuable customer insight about women’s workwear. She sent out an email survey, which also asked if the individual was willing to speak with her over the phone for more in-depth data. Many of the women responded that the current workwear options were not sized correctly, uncomfortable, or were too expensive, she said.
“A lot of companies, when they push out a fashion line it’s very much aesthetic-focused, especially for female lines,” Wang said. “I don’t like that it’s rare when they think about,
‘Oh yeah, let’s pick a material that’s super comfy’ or ‘Let’s pick some designs where we can actually imagine women wear to work.’”
Wang believes that her way of structuring Phoebe Jon—a delicate balance between fashion as an artistic expression and fashion as a functional part of everyday life—makes her designs unique. According to Wang, other companies do not think enough about user experience when it comes to fashion.
“It’s got to have some functionality to it, like it’s got to be more than an art form,” Wang said. “And I think that’s where the fashion industry is a bit lacking is understanding the utility side of things.”
Lau also noticed this deficit in the industry, and immediately saw the appeal of Phoebe Jon’s workwear based on her own experiences.
“The product is super unique,” Lau said. “I’ve always dreaded wearing like ‘the suit’ and everything when I went to networking sessions and stuff so I just thought the idea of the multifunctional wear pants were super unique. Plus, being both women-founded and founded by a BC alum definitely resonated with me a lot.”
To help create Phoebe Jon’s Monica Cuffed Pant, Wang went into a variety of clothing stores and bought different types of work pants already on the market. She then dissected them to compare what makes each pair of pants different and what is effective. Wang found that more expensive pants last longer, feel more high end, and are more thoughtful when it comes to the structure, such as the inclusion of inseams, she said.
Wang used these insights to design her product, and then began the daunting task of breaking into the fashion industry. The fashion industry is particularly hard to enter due to its competitive nature, the barriers for accessing materials, and the difficulties of entering the industry without strong connections to producers or without owning a factory, she said. Despite this, Wang continued to work toward founding Phoebe Jon.
“I think when you have a really strong passion for something and you know you kind of just, you pay attention to what, where, what’s in trend and like what’s happening within the industry every day,” Wang said.
There were many challenges of founding Phoebe Jon. To start, Wang founded the company right after graduation. She knew she was taking a non-traditional career route for a young woman, but she believed in her product and her ability to lead and dream big, she said. She also struggled to find manufacturers at first due to being new to the fashion industry.
“I just bought a one-way ticket to New York [the summer before junior year] and I was walking the streets of the Thurman district for a few weeks, just knocking on doors … and asking people about their price point and pitching them my idea for workwear,” Wang said. “Of course, many, many, many people said no, but there were some that were willing to learn more … and that’s how I was able to find suppliers and manufacturers for my brand.”
The next challenge for Phoebe Jon was advertising, which is a large part of Lau’s job as director of business development. Lau helped create social media pages, as well as did more behind the scenes work such as reaching out to influencers to do affiliate marketing, she said. In doing so, Lau was able to help spread the word for Phoebe Jon’s first official launch, she said.
Currently, Phoebe Jon’s main way of advertising is working with micro-influencers. The company looks for any women who are in Phoebe Jon’s target age group and who already have a following, with a focus on influencers who are working women in metropolitan areas. Overall, their marketing focuses on empowering women, Lau said.
Despite the hurdles of starting a brand as a recent graduate in a difficult industry to enter, Wang has found silver linings due to being a brand by women, for women, she said.
“I feel like now more than ever, people are cautious about who’s behind the brand … like, what does the brand value with so many movements during the COVID pandemic? People … are more conscious consumers of anything so I feel like there’s more space than ever for women and minority founders for sure,” Wang said.
Regarding the future of Phoebe Jon, Wang is currently designing and developing two new styles of workwear pants, the Sabrina Pants—for women who are working from home—and the Gloria Pants—a trendy pair of professional flared pants. Long term, the company is looking to do more in-person pop-up events around the East Coast, improve on their size range, and have a line of around twenty staple workwear products to suit the needs of all types of working women.
“We’re really excited to kind of experiment that and release it and see what people are thinking, and right now the feedback we’re getting for the Monica Pants is really exciting because [people] love them, like, people love the design,” Wang said.
Throughout her journey with Phoebe Jon—from cultivating a love for fashion as a young girl to finding supply chains and expanding customers—Wang has reminded herself of her values that are driving this company, she said.
“Knowing that I’m passionate about the fashion industry and what I’m starting and contributing is a different viewpoint, to help working women feel comfortable and feel confident in [workwear] … [and] helping them to perform better in a workspace where there might be an inequality that they have to deal with … I feel like this is the right place for me to be, and that’s why I decided to start.”
For any future entrepreneurs at BC, Wang recommends researching nearby resources such as the Shea Center and the Accelerate@Shea program. Wang said that through programs like Accelerate@Shea, students can meet with entrepreneurs and decide if and to what degree they want to be a part of a start-up. Whether it is joining a team or founding a completely new startup, these Shea Center mentors can help students get to know more about the entrepreneurial landscape.
Photo Courtesy of Manyaqi Wang