How the founder of beloved gender neutral clothing brand TomboyX overcame her strict religious upbringing and built an inclusive business with her wife – Business Insider

  • Naomi Gonzalez, the cofounder of clothing startup TomboyX, was 12 years old when she donned her first pair of pants, bucking her strict religious upbringing that taught women are subordinate and must abstain from wearing clothes “made for men.” 
  • Gonzalez’s sartorial choice would change her life’s trajectory, eventually leading her to launch the inclusive brand TomboyX with her wife Fran Dunaway. 
  • At a time when many retailers are permanently closed or watching sales dip due to the pandemic, TomboyX’s revenue is steadily growing at least 50% year-over-year. 
  • Gonzalez took her childhood experiences of feeling different, uncomfortable, and ostracized to create a brand that aims to alleviate those same emotions for customers.
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Naomi Gonzalez was 12 years old when she donned her first pair of pants.

Growing up in the ’80s and attending the Local Christian Assembly in Queens, New York — a group she now describes as a “cult” — she’d been taught that women were subordinate to men and must abstain from wearing clothes “made for men.” 

“I felt something inside of me that could never be reconciled with the beliefs of the church because I was inherently different,” said Gonzalez, now 46, adding that her only option for activewear at the time was culottes, a type of flowy trouser that’s cut to resemble a skirt. 

What Gonzalez didn’t know then was that her first pair of pants would change her life’s trajectory, eventually leading her to launch the inclusive, gender-neutral clothing brand TomboyX

Today, the Seattle-based startup is thriving as many retailers permanently close or watch sales dip due to the pandemic. Revenue at the eight-year-old company has been steadily growing at least 50% year-over-year since 2017, according to historical revenue documents reviewed by Business Insider, and the company expects that pattern to continue through the rest of 2020, said Fran Dunaway, cofounder of TomboyX and Gonzalez’s wife. 

Dunaway wouldn’t disclose TomboyX’s revenue but said the 25-person company expects to become profitable in 2021 and has raised a total of $18 million in funding.

What separates TomboyX from less successful brands may be its authenticity. Gonzalez took her childhood experiences of feeling different, uncomfortable, and ostracized and channeled them into creating a brand that aims to alleviate those same emotions for customers. TomboyX’s gender-neutral clothes include underwear, swimwear, and loungewear, and range in size from XS to 6XL. 

“If something doesn’t make sense, there’s no reason why I can’t do it my own way,” said Gonzalez. “As an entrepreneur, if you see something that doesn’t make sense, there’s a drive to make it better and do it your own way.” 

Tomboy turned entrepreneur 

Gonzalez and Dunaway met in 2009, when a mutual friend introduced the pair. Their first outing was at a WNBA game, and after a year of friendship, they started dating. 

In 2012, Dunaway complained to Gonzalez that she couldn’t find a flattering button-down shirt. The pair scoured retailers to find something suitable but left empty-handed, thus spurring the initial idea for a clothing line geared toward women who identified as tomboys. 

The concept seemed fitting since Gonzalez was a life-long tomboy. Her parents emigrated from Cuba in 1957 and settled in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where they raised Gonzalez and her two older brothers. Gonzalez relished playing baseball with her siblings and their friends but her parents didn’t approve of such behavior: Their church believed, among other things, that women were meant to marry men, produce children, and that men were the heads of the households, Gonzalez said. Nowhere on that list was playing baseball with boys.

“I remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t make sense because my mom is actually much better with money than my dad,'” Gonzalez said.

Despite this, her parents remained with the church for years. The Local Christian Assembly resembles a Branhamite splinter group, the term for followers of christian minister William Branham, said Rick Alan Ross, the executive director of the Cult Education Institute. These groups fit the profile of personality-driven cults, which are run by leaders who exert control over members using various techniques, Ross added.

However, even as a young child, Gonzalez had big plans for her life that didn’t align with her parents’ wishes. She started dreaming as a 5-year-old about becoming a sports massage therapist for the US Olympic swim team, imagining that their competition would take place in Athens, Greece. 

Gonzalez quit the church when she was 12 and described the following four and a half years as “extremely contentious.” She frequently fought with her parents as her teenage rebellion butted against their strict rules. In one instance, she cut her long hair — an action that went against the church’s teachings for women — and her mother called the police hoping they would put her in jail for the night. 

“I had a daily sense of dread since I never knew what I was coming home to,” said Gonzalez, who would hide her contraband pants on the fire escape outside of her window, since they weren’t technically “in the house.”

“I figured out how to make life work in the middle of the sadness, anger, and fighting,” she said. 

Everything changed the year Gonzalez turned 17. Months before she left for Pine Manor College in Newton, Massachusetts, where she would study biopsychology, her brother outed her as a lesbian. Her parents kicked her out of the house and she spent the summer living on a friend’s couch. 

“The fact that Naomi had to overcome obstacles and come to like herself, despite the rejection she faced, comes through in the brand,” Dunaway said. “It shaped the way we want our customers to feel, which is good about themselves and included.” 

Naomi Gonzalez and Fran Dunaway

Naomi Gonzalez, right, and Fran Dunaway are the cofounders of inclusive clothing brand TomboyX.
(Courtesy of Scott Thompson)

A life of resilience built for entrepreneurship

Gonzalez and Dunaway perfected the design of their button down shirt and raised $75,000 on Kickstarter in 2013 to fuel production. Two years later, the brand found its hero product in boxer briefs for women and were accepted into then-accelerator MergeLane to scale the business. They got married that year — during halftime of a pickup football game between friends — before heading to Boulder, Colorado, for the three-month program. 

When the pair began working with MergeLane, they argued with investors who suggested they broaden the target clientel beyond lesbian women, said Sue Heilbronner, cofounder of MergeLane. The cofounders refused to change their focus.

“It took a ton of strength to continue down the path of narrow targeted messaging for an audience,” said Heilbronner, who continues to run MergeLane, now an investment fund focused on women-led businesses. “If they hadn’t stuck to their guns as they found their way to product-market-fit, I don’t think they’d still exist today.” 

Gonzalez already had a resilient work ethic before launching into entrepreneurship. As a college student, she created internships for sports massage therapy that didn’t exist, giving her the opportunity to work with college athletes. 

And then, 25 years after Gonzalez first dreamt of Athens, her wish came true: She was hired in 2004 to work with the US women’s national soccer team as they competed in the Summer Olympics. The location: Greece. 

During the semifinals, Gonzalez bought a Cuban cigar to celebrate her 30th birthday. One night, after dark, she found a chair on the grass, lit her cigar, and thought, “Oh my god, I f—ing did it.” The team went on to win the gold medal.  

“I learned from the best athletes in the world what it takes to have a goal, see yourself through the ups and downs, and make it to the bitter end,” Gonzalez said. “That was a massive factor in building [TomboyX], because there was no quitting.” 

When comfort and community come together

Today, TomboyX’s boy shorts are its most popular product and have 2,053 reviews, including comments like, “Never had more comfortable underwear. Makes me feel a bit better about my body.”

TomboyX’s clothing is well-positioned in the $223 billion US adult apparel market as consumers gravitate toward functional and comfortable options during the pandemic, said Alexis DeSalva Kahler, a senior analyst of retail and e-commerce at market research firm Mintel. 

What’s more, customers are hyper-aware of their purchase power and patronizing businesses that match their self-expression, Kahler added. “People want to align with a brand that reflects them and makes them feel seen,” she said. “TomboyX’s approach is inclusive and unlikely to isolate a potential shopper, but rather make them feel like there’s something there for them.” 

Inclusivity stretches beyond TomboyX’s apparel: The company has donated $278,000 to date to philanthropic organizations that support women, the LGBTQ community, homeless youth, and the Black Lives Matter movement, Gonzalez said. 

Compassion and culottes

As TomboyX scaled from an idea to a thriving business, Gonzalez reflected on her upbringing and reconnected with members of her family, including her mother, who she says now “loves” Dunaway.

“They didn’t intentionally set out to hurt me, they were learning alongside me,” Gonzalez said. “Once I came to terms that they were genuinely doing the best they could with who they were, I was able to set things aside.” 

However, specific aspects of Gonzalez’s early life will continue to inform how she runs her business. For instance, Gonzalez said, she is certain her company will never sell culottes.