Ayako Igari was inspired to start her own clothing line, vlv style, after traveling to 36 countries. From Buenos Aires to the Patagonias to Barcelona, Ayako had such amazing experiences and wanted to spread the message of “viva la vida! or, “live the life!” to girls around the world. Instead of getting the phrase tattooed on her wrist, she shortened the motto to vlv style and prints it on t-shirts and tank tops for girls and women to proudly wear and to remind themselves that they should “viva la vida!” Check out her awesome shirts and “viva la vida!”
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Ayako Igari: Never say ‘no.’ For example, if there’s a leadership opportunity (like running for class office) where you can step up and work with a team but you’re inclined to say no because you’ve never done it, change it up and say ‘yes.’ I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot about yourself by stepping out of your comfort zone. If your school or language class is organizing a trip abroad, go! You might think, “I can go to Florence next time.” But in reality, the next time could be years, sometimes decades from that moment. If all it takes is a ‘yes’ from you, say ‘yes’ and go. I think saying ‘yes’ is important because without experience and knowing what you don’t like, you don’t know. Say ‘yes’ to everything.
CJ: You were born in Tokyo. How was your experience moving to the United States?
AI: I went to English school in Tokyo and moved in the second grade. We moved to Hawaii first, and it was pretty easy for us to speak Japanese in our community. I think that provided a gradual transition from Japan to coming over to the mainland.
CJ: What did you major in at the University of Washington and how did you determine what to study?
AI: I majored in political science. I decided to major in political science because it was actually a pretty easy major to pick. It’s quite an awesome major in that it allows you to study a few different majors. You can study communications, political science, of course, and international relations. I really like the diversity of classes. I wasn’t really worried about undergrad in terms of how it would determine my career. I felt confident in my abilities and also my work experience that I felt like I could always go to grad school, but that I could also work and get into marketing.
CJ: What is the inspiration behind vlv style?
AI: The inspiration comes from my travels. I spent quite a long time in Spain and South America, and I just loved the Latin culture. I loved the hotness of people whether it’s just temperament to passion and music. My travel motto was “viva la vida!” or, “live the life!” When I came back to Seattle to settle down, a t-shirt company was something I always wanted to do, so I thought, why not? Let’s do it. I had always thought tattooing it on my wrist, but then I thought maybe I’ll do t-shirts instead and shortened it to vlv style. When I started the t-shirt company, I was thinking about girls and a way to inspire them. The phrase sends a positive message and is really powerful for me.
CJ: A portion of the proceeds from the vlv style pink ribbon edition tees benefit the American Cancer Society to raise awareness about breast cancer. How did you choose that organization and issue?
AI: One of my best friend’s mothers had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I drove her little sister to school and back twice a week, and I just really saw how affected the males are in the family by the cancer. The women were super strong and her little sister was strong, and it was just really inspiring for me to see a reversal in the roles in terms of the youngest in the family staying strong and being there for the parents. Cancer was something I didn’t really know about or how it affected families because I didn’t know anyone with cancer until then, so it kind of an awakening and I thought more people should know about preventative measures. I had some friends walking the Komen Walk for the Cure, so I was doing it for Komen and I also thought the American Cancer Society was a bit broader. My boyfriend’s also on the board of a foundation called Kyle Charvat Foundation because his frat brother in college died of cancer. They hold golf tournaments and the money they raise goes towards brain cancer research and helping students and young adults who do not have adequate financial resources to afford high medical bills. It was one of those things where I wanted to help out, and it just aligned with vlv style. I thought it would be a great way to merge the t-shirt line with important issues. If I don’t have the time to volunteer, donating money is one way I try to help.
CJ: What were you doing before vlv style?
CJ: What was the process for starting vlv style? What did you have to do to get the business up and running?
AI: It’s kind of a blur. There’s a lot of pinging friends who have t-shirt lines and asking them advice, everything from how many shirts should I print on a first run to what website did you use to just every little thing. I tried my best to ping people who could help me find resources in putting together a business plan. I felt like the t-shirt company I work with really helped me a lot, so I’m really grateful for them. They were really nice. They printed my shirts but they also gave me advice on different markets and first-run printing. I feel like I’m a pretty optimistic person and that translated over to my first business development plan. I think it’s great to set goals high, but you also need to set realistic expectations. I pinged photographer friends and people who could help me with websites. I picked a couple of sites that I liked locally, and figured one of those people work for a local design agency and that I could contact them. It was a lot of research.
CJ: How big is your team? How did you go about finding a company to print and produce your tees and tanks?
AI: I found a print company called Choke Print Shop through a referral and they were just nice guys and we clicked and started working. It’s just myself on the team, which is a bit tough because without investors or teammates, who bring different skill sets to your team, you have to hire other people to do individual jobs, such as graphic designing or photography, which all costs money. It’s really hard unless you’re printing them yourself to make money from them.
CJ: What skills did you have that were useful in starting your own business, and what do you wish you had known before taking the leap?
AI: Drive is an important skill to have. I was determined to get the business up and running, and to see where I could take it. Little things like pinging people I didn’t know and not being shy was important. I think confidence in what I was doing also helped. I think people could sense that this girl is serious, saying what she wants, and telling her story behind her idea. Perseverance was another big part. For example, people are busy, so while they might want to help you, they might forget about you if you only reach out to them once. Make sure you send a friendly follow-up email. I actually learned that from my advertising sales experience back in college. Following up, taking notes on everything, assessing whether you are meeting your goals. One thing I wish I knew before starting my t-shirt line is to know that it is not as easy as it seems.
CJ: What should a teenager or young adult who wants to start and run their own business do to set themselves up for success?
AI: Reach out to those you look up to or those who are doing what you want to be doing, whether it is through social media or email. Even just dropping into someone’s office and saying, “Hi, I’m a student and I find your work fascinating, do you have a couple of minutes to talk? Are you hiring interns for the summer?” is huge. I definitely think that’s impressive to a lot of people. Make an impression and put yourself out there. Setting yourself apart really makes a difference. When talking to people, always come prepared with specific questions.
CJ: What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned from starting your own business?
AI: My lesson from all this is that people are always willing to help. I was pleasantly surprised by how helpful people were. I learned to network more effectively as it’s important to get out there and promote your product. But also, hear people out. It’s like having a focus group.
For people specifically looking to start a t-shirt line, I would tell them that it’s much more cost-efficient to print your own shirts.
If you’re young, consult your parents. I think your parents are people who will tell you the truth. They’ll say, “Do you have these skills? Are you sure you can sell this many shirts or bags?” They will ask questions you may not have thought of. Value your parents and ask them for advice, and they may even have people they can introduce you to for help. Consulting others is definitely something I would recommend.
CJ: How do you balance running vlv style with your day job?
AI: Right now I’m spending 50-70 hours on my full-time, all day every day job. vlv style started a few years ago, and now that everything is ready and I have the shirts printed, it’s really me getting out there and connecting with groups to promote the line. While I don’t spend that much time on vlv syle anymore, I find that it can still make a difference through donations and raising awareness.
CJ: What does a day in your life look like?
AI: Wake up, check Twitter, tweet, check my mail, set-up meetings for the rest of the week, think of different marketing plans for Seattle, work on promotions, meet people around the community, and attend events in the evening. I’m on my phone tweeting all day while I’m doing these things.
CJ: What activities were you involved in throughout high school and college? Were there any experiences that were most memorable or life changing?
AI: Being involved with a lot of different clubs in school definitely got me through school. I became friends with a lot of different types of people. I was on the cheer squad and that was a lot of fun. I played lacrosse and soccer. Sports is a great thing to be involved in because it teaches you communication skills, teamwork, and humility. Cheer and leadership provided me opportunities to be in front of crowds, so that helps me now as I have to get in front of groups for presentations.
I cut back on activities in college. Studying was number one. I also worked through college trying to save to travel.
CJ: Traveling is a huge part of your life. Where have you loved traveling the most? How do you go about planning a trip?
AI: I love Barcelona. Most of my travels were done by ear. I made travel buddies at hostels, as I met a lot of fun people. That means my plans were easily changed, not derailed, since I definitely kept an open mind and stayed flexible with my plans. Hostels are a great place for travelers on their own and for the community. You are surrounded by like-minded people who enjoy traveling. In Barcelona I hung out with people that I love and I still keep in touch with them.
During the summer after sophomore year in college, I volunteered abroad for two weeks in Australia at a wildlife park. It was my first time traveling alone. The next two weeks was spent on a Greyhound traveling up the coast. I spent a week in Fiji, and then I ended up traveling through New Zealand by myself. That kicked off my solo travels!
CJ: What motivates you in your everyday life – at the office and/or during your personal down time?
AI: Happiness motivates me. I love learning from people who are smarter and better at what I do. This allows me to grow as a marketer. I also really appreciate a nice work/life balance. It’s important to change things up as soon as you realize you’re not happy anymore.
CJ: Who is your role model?
AI: My mom. She is such an independent woman. She brought us over from Japan, worked for a few years, and then she went to beauty school and has her own salon now.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
AI: Study abroad in Japan.