In My Backyard
The power in networking across is REAL. I’ve seen some of my favorites do some of the best and coolest work in the biz, in collaborative ways, right here in New England. Yet, sometimes there’s still a slight stigma attached to doing this work and staying based in smaller cities.
That has to change.
I want to highlight the power in starting where you are. Working with the people around you, whether within the creative scene in your own backyard or within an online community that you frequent, with people who are just as passionate and determined to put out work that they take pride in.
An integral part of this work is knowing who some of these talented and creative people are in your own backyard.
That said, I present In My Backyard, a limited interview series highlighting the stories behind some of my favorite makers and creatives killing it in my own backyard.
First up, Esther Wallace of Playa Society Sportswear.
I think the first time I met Esther was some years ago at a big yearly marketing conference. We pretty quickly connected over our years playing ball, mutual connections, and the grind and passion behind starting brands on our own.
Playa Society wasn’t officially formed yet at the time, but Esther talked about still working out of her apartment on sportswear pieces for New England area schools and teams. Now, the company has been covered by several outlets, including ESPN, and has sportswear pieces worn by countless professional athletes.
Playa Society Sportswear, established in 2018 by Esther Wallace, is a brand on a mission to celebrate and empower women in sports. It specializes in sportswear that brings awareness to social issues impacting women in sports, and does so in ways that push for social change as the company says, one t-shirt at a time.
In this interview, I got the opportunity to learn more about Esther’s journey starting the company, establishing the well-known Female Athlete t-shirt and the story behind Candace Parker wearing it on ESPN, and navigating through trials along the way.
First Year Project’s full interview below, lightly edited for content and clarity.
What do you do and why do you do it?
I’m the founder and designer behind Playa Society Sportswear - a brand that female athletes can relate to. It reflects the culture of sports while promoting a message and mission that puts women first. I specialize in making t-shirts that empower female athletes.
There are so many reasons why I started Playa Society – but the main influence was my personal experience as an athlete. Growing up, I never wanted to play basketball, I actually wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology and become a fashion designer. But, once I started playing I fell in love with it.
Ultimately, Playa Society is all about creating and promoting positive representations and uplifting women in sports as a community.
How did you launch the brand and what the response was like?
I was selling t-shirts online from 2015 to 2017. But that whole time I knew that I wanted to build a brand with a different message. I had just designed The Athlete T-shirt and that became the foundation that I moved forward with. I gave myself a few months to develop branding and an overall concept. Then, at the end of January 2018, I launched Playa Society to my existing audience.
I had really tried to step-up my social media game so I did my best to take some good photos of my athlete friends wearing my products. That helped a lot and I slowly started getting more traction on Instagram. That traction turned into sales, and the next thing I knew I was fulfilling an order for 350 t-shirts for a school in Connecticut. I haven’t slept much since right around that time!
What was the first year like doing this work? How did you get your start?
This first year running Playa Society, has been so humbling. I wasn’t prepared for what the year had in-store, but one of the things I learned through playing basketball is how to adapt and adjust quickly. I’ve had to adapt to so many changes and demands with my business, all while still maintaining a full-time job.
I’ve been designing professionally since 2013 when I had my first internship. By 2015 I decided to start designing for myself instead of going to work for another sportswear brand. I launched Playa Society early this year after designing a t-shirt that captured the vision and the message that I wanted to communicate.
In the early years of this work, what was one of the toughest moments that you recall and how did you get through it?
The toughest moments have been the disappointments that have come from bad deals or partnerships that have fallen through. There isn’t one that stand out particularly, because they are all frustrating. I just try not to be too hard on myself though, and I try to learn from each failure or “loss.” I know that I can’t afford to lose too often, so it only fuels me to be better.
What was the process like from simply getting started on designing t-shirts to honing in on your specific niche with the Athlete T-Shirt? What came out of this transition? What was one of the most memorable moments during this time and why?
Initially, I was designing t-shirts for basketball players – both men and women. It was a struggle because I knew that I wanted to just focus on female athletes, but honestly, I was afraid to try a unique approach to sportswear. There was a lot of second guessing and apprehension that kept me from following my vision early on. But, I realized that I couldn’t let fear get in the way of me developing my idea. I took a leap of faith.
When Sylvia Fowles, one of the WNBA players I’ve always looked up to, wore one of my t-shirts, it was a defining moment! A handful of other players slowly started supporting my designs as well, and it honestly helped give me the confidence I needed.
The difference in designing for a niche is in the connections. I’ve had an opportunity to connect with so many athletes who resonate with Playa Society’s message including some of my favorite basketball players.
What’s the story behind WNBA superstar Candace Parker wearing your shirt on an episode of Kevin Garnett’s Area 21 show during the NBA Playoffs? How did you connect with Parker and how did that opportunity come about?
Candace Parker – I still can’t even believe that myself!
The truth is, I had nothing to do with it though. During NBA All-Star Weekend, a few months prior to the Area 21 episode, I sent CP a t-shirt. I watched everything that happened that weekend to try to get a glimpse of her wearing it, and I finally saw her with it on at a spades tournament under a leather jacket. I was excited, but I thought that was the end of it.
Fast forward to the playoffs, and I’m at home fulfilling orders from my website when one of my customers tags me in a photo on Instagram, and it’s Candace Parker on KG’s Area 21! I was caught so off-guard. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had though, to sit and watch my favorite basketball player talk to my other favorite basketball player, while wearing my t-shirt design!
I had the chance to meet Candace a few months after and I let her know how much that meant to me. But I don’t know if she truly ever will understand the impact. To a certain extent, her support of the message and the design has helped keep me motivated and almost gives me a sense of obligation to execute the overall vision for my brand. Like, I can’t let CP down.
What’s one lesson you had to learn very quickly while building your brand? How has that experience shaped where you and your brand are today?
Trust my gut. I think this is a lesson that I’ll keep on learning and one that I’m not always comfortable with. I have to keep reminding myself that my instincts and my vision have gotten Playa Society this far, so I have to be confident and trust myself.
Everything that I’ve accomplished so far has been a result of instincts. Sure, I have some formal education, but that doesn’t compare to making real life decisions. Business school doesn’t teach you what to create for a specific audience – that’s all instinct. I’m in a position where every decision, especially if it involves money, is crucial to Playa Society’s success. So, it can be tough for me at times, but it always comes down to trusting my gut feeling. Being accepting of the end result, win or lose, is also a big part of that.
What’s next for your brand? What are you looking forward to as your brand continues to grow?
I want to do more partnerships and collaborations. I’ll really be focusing more on that going into this next year. I’m hoping to partner with nonprofits who work with young female athletes, women’s sports leagues, and brands who have similar missions as Playa Society. Honestly, I think 2019 is going to be a big year for women’s sports and a lot of progress will be made towards gender equality, so I’m excited to be a part of it.
I’m also really excited to expand on some designs and products for Playa Society. I’ve been working tirelessly on finishing this year strong, but I’m also planning ahead. Whenever my customers mention that they’d like to see something, I try to explore making it happen. Hopefully I can deliver on some things they’ve been wanting.