After moving to the Washington, D.C., area from the Philippines in 1996, Anne Marie Johnson experienced a variety of hardships. Emotional and physical trauma left her with feelings of unworthiness, wrecking her self-image for many years.
Through a lot of work on self-rediscovery, Johnson found healing and purpose by helping other women, often by sharing her own story, which she found to be both liberating and empowering, coming to the realization that “through bitterness comes grace.”
Johnson subsequently opened Bitter Grace in 2018 as an online-only clothing and lifestyle brand, followed by the opening of the company’s first flagship store in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Johnson intentionally selects every sustainable product carried, with the intent of assisting customers rebuild their self-image and foster a sense of community by offering a welcoming and inclusive environment. And 10% of sales are donated to Women’s HQ, a nonprofit working with survivors of domestic violence and assault.
Fortune recently spoke with founder Anne Marie Johnson about Bitter Grace‘s first few years in business and plans for its future.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Can you share a bit about your professional background prior to launching Bitter Grace?
Johnson: I was a certified project manager for a software company in Maryland for six years. And before that, I was in government consulting and worked at the White House and State Department while I was in graduate school in 2012.
What prompted you to start your own label? What’s the inspiration behind Bitter Grace?
I’ve always had a desire to use fashion as a medium to unite women of all walks of life, to use clothing as a way to remind women of their unique gifts, and the innate beauty and power they can offer to the world. After our self-care retreat in Washington, D.C., in 2019, I realized that it was important to build a company beyond clothing; a holistic and lifestyle approach that helps us align our external self (the person we show to the world) with our inner self (the person we envision ourselves to be) in order to be our most authentic and magnetic selves.
Bitter Grace today represents this commitment, along with two other main pillars—community and sustainability—that bring our mission to full circle. Integrity and authenticity are some of our primary core values that are driving forces behind every decision and action we take to make the world a better place for the collective. Through our Inner Elegance community platform that helps elevate the self-image and our unique and personalized styling experiences, we help women feel bolder and more confident to step into their power and live a life of limitless possibilities.
Bitter Grace started out as an online-only operation, and then shifted toward brick-and-mortar with the first store opening last year. Why the progression in that direction—let alone to bricks and mortar at all anymore? Also, what was it like opening a brick-and-mortar location in 2020 as so many consumers were encouraged to stay home amid the pandemic?
I believe we need to create more spaces that inspire people to do more and be more; each of us has incredible and unique gifts—oftentimes, untapped talents—to serve, to create positive change, and be impactful in this world. Before I signed the lease for our space, I already had an inner knowing to create and build a space that fosters beauty and community, an inviting space that reminds people that anything is possible if you believe it. Bitter Grace is an inclusive space for everyone, a space to forge and build meaningful connections that move us forward.
While starting a business is never an easy task, and especially in the middle of a pandemic that added a layer of complexity and challenges, opening our flagship store was the best decision I ever made. I truly believe in attracting the right people and opportunities at the right time you need them. We opened in mid-October 2020 and had a lot to celebrate and be grateful for, generating a revenue of over $50,000 in less than three months, not including our online store sales. It allowed us to create a foundation that carried us into 2021 and build an organic and authentic customer base that continues to grow and shine today. It allowed us to plant the seeds, creating the appropriate partnerships that align with our mission and values, building our team, and the opportunity to be part of the creative process of developing our very first collection, our sustainable athleisure wear capsule collection “Elevated Every Day,” which launched on Sept. 7.
Bitter Grace recently launched an athleisure line. A few years ago—well before the pandemic—it might have been argued that athleisure was just a passing fad after the Great Recession. But after the huge shift for so many people working from home, it looks like the style is here to stay. Why do you think consumers gravitate toward athleisure?
Athleisure wear is easy. During the pandemic, people realized that they didn’t want to compromise comfort anymore (myself included). The Elevated Every Day capsule collection is to make dressing more fun and effortless in the mornings, to empower women that you can look elevated and refined by simply wearing basics that make you feel good and comfortable within a few minutes.
Our pieces were developed and made intentionally from the start with quality and buttery-soft fabrics that are great for your skin and great for the planet. These pieces are not your everyday black yoga pants; they are elevated styles that are great for any occasion and that transition with you through many years. At Bitter Grace, we promote sustainable living, encouraging our customers to invest in pieces that make you feel good and comfortable and pieces that will evolve with you and last a lifetime.
Looking forward, where do you want to see Bitter Grace in five years? How do you want to grow the brand and product line?
I already see so much growth and progress with Bitter Grace today, doing things with faith and purpose, and it’s exciting to see. I’m more optimistic about the future. We are in the preliminary works of expanding our collection and hope to launch sometime next year. My goal is to slowly expand our collection to be more inclusive and sustainable. I also envision multiple locations for Bitter Grace so we can continue to broaden our reach and make the world a better place to live.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.