Anjni | Kali Active
Being a designer in the corporate world taught me many things. While there were many valuable lessons, there were things that needed to be forgotten. I was taught to distance myself from individuality. There was no “me” in these environments. You had to be one with the brand and become another cog in their wheel. It’s hard to stay creative when you feel so replaceable and unvalued. I knew I needed a change. I worked in the design world for about 13 years before throwing myself out there and creating a brand all my own – Kali Active.
Despite being in the industry for so long I didn’t always expect to fall into fashion – it just kind of happened. I went to a business school for college and ended up studying both design and merchandising hoping to learn all I could about fashion marketing. Growing up I was always creative so I figured I would take as many marketing electives I could to figure out what I wanted to do. The more I started getting interested in fashion the more I realized I had to disguise this interest with the veil of “Marketing” to my parents simply to appease them and get them off my back. Being a Southeast Asian girl moving into the design world isn’t the easiest thing to do when it comes to your parents so it was a must.
My parents never really understood my desire to be creative. Growing up my parents would use other Southeast Asian families as points of reference. It was all the typical stuff – “why aren’t you trying to be a lawyer, doctor, businessperson” and so on. I was fortunate though that there were times they indulged me. I can think back to a few times when my Dad would buy me extra sets of crayons or comics that I would use to draw from. My mom was hesitant about this, she would tell my dad not to buy too much of this stuff because she thought it would stick with me. Guess she was right because it did.
I found a job pretty fast right after graduation. Good news right? Not for my parents – for a few reasons. The job was in design, it was in NYC and it was only a short while after 9/11 happened…all things that caused my parents to worry and have pause. My brother eventually stepped in and was able to help convince my parents that I should try it out for a year and see what happens. So I had a year. I moved in with my friend and slept on her couch for 3 months before saving up to find my own place. I was in NYC, working in design, living my dream – Everything was going great…until it wasn’t.
The job just didn’t pan out the way I was hoping. There was a culmination of reasons why I didn’t feel happy - there’s so much to be said about being in the right environment. So I ended up going back home. You can tell my parents had a bit of the “I told you so” brewing in them but they were welcoming all the same.
After that followed a series of new jobs and departures as I was trying to find the right fit. Each time I found a new position it came through help of a former colleague who wanted to bring me on board to their new gig. It was a blessing to not ever have to look very hard to find a new place to design. Some of these places really let me work with some awesome teams – people I still stay in touch with today. The one thing that was constant in each new job was the great people, which I was grateful for. Some of these companies folded over or had issues or just wasn’t right for me and left me back at the drawing board. I moved around some more and encountered management teams that led to rocky experiences. To me – I just hated the whole “Devil Wears Prada” mentality I kept encountering. “Well when I started this is how I was treated…It’s just the way it is”…etc. There’s no reason to treat people a certain way because you had to undergo it – why not treat people better and create a new cycle- something positive? I never understood that and knew that if I ever had my own company – that would be a core value. Another thing I learned was from an instance I shifted to footwear vs apparel, which was completely out of my comfort zone, but I went for it. If I ever wanted to work for or create a brand like Nike – I thought why not build my skills in untapped areas. That became a theme for me in the future – to try new things and not be afraid.
I kept noticing places I was working had people very comfortable with where they were in the grand scheme of things. They were happy to just show up to work and do the same thing every day and get a paycheck. That just wasn’t for me. I’m the type of person that when everyone went left, I went right – it was just how I was built. I wasn’t comfortable being comfortable.
I ended up asking to be transferred to the Santa Monica office from one of my jobs to start anew. They didn’t want to at first but at this point I had nothing to lose. For me – the lack of challenge and motivation was rock bottom so I was happy walking away with or without a job. This was a pretty big moment for me as it awoke a confident feeling in myself that was dormant. They gave in and transferred me. I didn’t actually end up staying there much longer after but it helped get me to where I wanted to be.
LA was fresh and gave me a renewed sense of passion. The fitness scene just started to blow up and everywhere I would turn there was some type of boutique fitness gym or yoga class. While it was cool, I kept thinking to myself who are these people in the ads? They were so commercial, so “fluffy” – I guess it was the New Yorker in me wondering “where was the grit?!” That really got my juices flowing about potential ideas and filling in the gap in the market place. Maybe it was time for me stop trying to find the right fit and just create my own…do my own thing. And just like that, I thought let’s do it!
I ended up traveling back to NYC for help with pattern making and samples as much of my contacts were located there and it just so happened as soon as I told myself I’m ready to create my own brand – I got contacted by a pretty big brand who wanted to interview me. The timing was so terrible – I just finished telling myself I was ready to leave the corporate world and follow this entrepreneurial path and now I seemed to be getting sucked right back in. I thought it only made sense to interview to see what happens. As luck would have it – they went with someone else. I wasn’t bitter though because it was almost like validation. It was a sign that I needed to keep pushing and create my vision.
At first, my brand was going to just feature functional apparel with an edgy vibe. I needed something to ground the idea so I picked boxing/kickboxing as a theme as it was something I used to be involved with before some of my injury setbacks. The way felt when I used to train is what I wanted my brand to feel like. Raw,.. motivational…gritty. I applied to be in this trade show and around the same time I was just getting back to going to the gym and wanted to buy some wraps to train with. I was frustrated by the lack of options for women. It seemed like everything was just pink. There was no thought behind the products…just embarrassingly color-coded palettes like we were little girls. It was at that moment I decided; why not make some wraps for women who feel the same way. For those who are being slighted and want to feel like a bad chick hitting the bag. I rushed the production and was able to have them ready for the trade show and people fell in love with them. They almost didn’t even look at the apparel we made because of its popularity. It was just different.
I looked at them as a great marketing tool and started just giving them out for free. Everyone else was giving out shirts – I had these unique wraps – it made us stand out. I also started an outreach campaign with cool new gyms and my timing synced with the opening of @ShadowboxNYC where I found Jaws (@jawsnelson) through social media. I took a shot and sent her a few pairs hoping she’d like them. She and her team not only loved them but also used them at a press event and had everyone asking about them.
We then launched the site (kaliactive.com) in August with a new pivot focusing entirely on the boxing theme because of the demand. People loved what we were doing. We then added actual boxing gloves which was a total challenge for me on the manufacturing side but we made it happen and again they sold out extremely fast. It told me that people were connecting with our message. We aren’t the biggest name out there, but even as just a small start up the message behind Kali Active is one people can resonate with.
Not many people actually know the meaning behind the name “Kali Active”. Most people assume it’s the connection to being based out in California but in actuality it has significance culturally. Kali is the name of an Indian goddess who balances light and dark, but also the goddess of empowerment. She fit in with our brand so perfectly. This whole thing started by trying to relate to every day women. Giving them not just a product but also people behind the marketing and campaigns that are real. People like you and me – every day women. Everyone deserves to feel good about themselves and that’s what I wanted to inspire in people.
The hardest thing about this whole process was that it’s such a different approach. While most companies try appealing to women by just adjusting the color palette, we’re really going the extra mile to make them feel like they’re not just an after thought. The design process starts with them top of mind. And because of that, there’s not really a blue print to follow from the big guys in this space. That makes things hard but also makes things very exciting. You have to put all your trust in your tribe, your following…your audience.
Everything in life comes down to how bad you want it. We focus so much on what other people think…our friends…our parents. We’re so afraid to fail when in fact listening to those doubts is the recipe for failure. I’ve learned the only road to success is to stop doubting yourself and just believe. When you have confidence in yourself anything is really possible. Open up your mind and say, “I can do it”.