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Alone in Shanghai, Claire Theaker-Brown was in urgent need of pants that fit.
“It was difficult to find pants that were made for my shape. And if I would get pants tailored, they wouldn’t necessarily accommodate my hips and butt and a smaller waist, especially before I had kids,” she says of the notoriously small-fitting Asian clothing market.
The answer was a belt. And little did she know this solution would one day put her business on the red carpet at the Oscars.
Theaker-Brown conceived UnBelts in 2011 with the goal of providing aesthetically pleasing, comfortable belts that are inclusive in sizing. She wanted to create an ethical fashion brand while combating the stereotype that products made in China are of low quality.
“I had a product named and I felt like I had a functional solution, but I felt like I also had a manufacturing solution just in my own neighbourhood. I wanted to pay my neighbours really well for the sewing work that they wanted,” says Theaker-Brown, who opened a brick-and-mortar store on Edmonton’s south side after moving back in 2014.
She was busy managing her budding accessories business when the pandemic set in and public health officials recommended the public wear masks. With a direct supply to resources, distributors and a manufacturing capacity, Theaker-Brown made the decision to pivot and started producing and distributing ethically-sustainable face masks.
“From prototyping and testing at home with my own family and kids during the day and liaising with factories at night it meant that we went from zero to final design in less than a week,” says Theaker-Brown.
Last September, UnBelts provided 20,000 masks directly to school teachers across Edmonton.
Also a mother of two young children, juggling multiple responsibilities during the pandemic took its toll and Theaker-Brown was struggling to figure out how to shift back to her original goal of selling belts.
She booked a trip to Los Angeles to meet up with friends who themselves were business owners and shared similar frustrations. There, she reconnected with an old high school pal, Lauren Selman, who was doing production work for the 2022 Oscars hosted a few weeks ago at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
Selman asked Theaker-Brown about her belts because she couldn’t find a functional and flattering belt to wear while working dressed in a ballgown. Theaker-Brown sent Selman some samples as potential matches for her ritzy awards-day outfit.
“An hour after the show ended, she texted me, ‘Go ahead, you can share!’” Theaker-Brown says about the photo of Selman wearing the ‘Classic UnBelts’ on the red carpet that was promoted through social media immediately the next morning.
Theaker-Brown says this bit of Oscar publicity was about friendships and being able to uplift one another professionally.
When describing herself as an entrepreneur, woman and mother in today’s business environment, Theaker-Brown doesn’t hesitate to talk about the reverse culture and business shock she experienced after returning from China. She found the North American business scene closed off in comparison to the collaborative environment she was used to back in China.
“When I started having kids, I definitely felt I had to find my own way through a community that still doesn’t cater very well to parents with babies,” she says.
The pandemic showed that without external supports, many families across the globe struggled to balance the labours of child-rearing, caregiving and bread-winning responsibilities.
“I hope that this will forever make the business world or the entrepreneurial community not only more welcoming but more actively supportive for those who are carrying those responsibilities,” says Theaker-Brown.
You can visit UnBelts at 9909 72 Ave. Tuesdays to Fridays, and online at unbelts.ca.