Julie O'Rourke of Rudy Jude Keeps Sustainability at the Core of Her Plant-Dyed Clothing Brand
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Rudy Jude's CEO and founder, Julie O'Rourke, has made a lasting impression on the clothing production industry with one major principle: sustainability. While she officially launched her brand—which uses plant dyes made from roots, berries, flowers, and more, to make pieces like utility jeans, tees, dresses, and skirts—in November of 2016, her love for creating garments actually began during childhood. "I started sewing very young, mostly because of my fascination with the actual sewing machine and wanting to understand how it worked," she tells MarthaStewart.com, noting that this fascination began in the first grade, when someone brought a machine into class.
"While everyone stared blankly at it, I very confidently stated that everyone stand back, I knew how to thread it. I don't remember if I actually did, but I remember how confident I was," she says. O'Rourke was, pun intended, hooked; she later channeled this interest into everything from construction and pattern-making to transforming 2D ideas into 3D objects, like clothing, pillows, and stuffed animals. The hobby saw her all the way through high school and college. "I studied Textile Design at [Rhode Island School of Design], where we dove very deeply into weaving, knitting, dyeing, and printing," O'Rourke shares. "It took me many years and many jobs post college to string everything together and see where it was leading, but when I look back, it all makes perfect sense to me on why I started Rudy Jude."
Rudy Jude officially launched with a small collection of plant-dyed kids clothes, just over one year after O'Rourke's first son, Diogo, was born. "At the time, there was a real hole in the market for solid color kids' clothing in simple, wearable shapes," she explains. "I started with something that was a staple to me in my wardrobe and shrunk it down, and that was our signature thermal set (which is still one of our best sellers)." Not only did these products fulfill a need style-wise, but they also created a sustainable option for little ones; here were pieces that kids really would wear all the time.
Today, she draws on this experience when preparing to put any item on the market. "Understanding the systems, impact, and processes of how things are made is crucial," she says. "My interest in clothing has never begun or ended with the aesthetics—the unseen parts are really what drives me. Understanding style, history, culture, agriculture, weaving, knitting, dyeing, marketing, sales, shopping, wearing, discarding—all of these intricacies that make up contemporary clothing—is where the real meat and bones is." After digging into each facet, creating sustainable pieces, like the Rudy Jude Kids and Baby Pointelle Tee ($46, rudyjude.com) and the Rudy Jude Adult Janey Dress ($320, rudyjude.com), became a no brainer.
Tapping Into Everyday Life
When it comes to curating articles of clothing to sell, O'Rourke starts by thinking about pieces that are "familiar, useful, and seasonal" to wear—and even taps into her own experiences to bring them to life. "I design based on activities, mostly gardening, sailing, [and] building. A lot of the clothing is a reflection of what we have going on in our life here as a young family in Maine," she shares. "This fall, we're building a house, so our new season feels very much like a nod to the back to the land movement. It's warm, utilitarian, simple, durable." Research is essential for her during this phase, too. "Say I want to add a collar to something, and my instinct is to make it round. I will look up the history of that shape and the times that it's been in style; then I try to understand why I'm attracted to it and if other people will be attracted to it," the entrepreneur adds. "I then work on construction based on this research—or sometimes I'll nix the idea all together."
She hand-makes samples in Maine before sending them out to her team in California. They further assess if her ideas can be made on a larger scale or if her fabric of choice is right for each piece. And then comes the color: "Dyeing with plants is not at all like conventional dyeing. Each color can shift based on water quality, air quality, and fabric quality," she shares. "Sometimes the seasonal color ideas start somewhere totally different than where we end up. I really love the uncertainty of this part though—it 100-percent feels like being in a collaboration with nature."
Building a Community
Every business gets its start by culling a community, and O'Rourke used one specific social media tool to start garnering her own. "When I started the brand, I had a small following on Instagram—an incredibly wonderful and supportive community of mostly new moms," she says, "many of whom I am still friends with and a few that were also growing businesses at the same time. Sarah Shabacon of Boheme Goods and Connie Matisse of East Fork Pottery are two of my earliest Instagram (now real-life) friends." Creating an authentic virtual neighborhood became the foundation for O'Rourke's success, something she still relishes to this day. "They were both also exploring new motherhood and creating businesses and I look back at that time on Instagram so fondly. It all felt so inspiring and fresh and exciting," she adds. "This small, but supportive audience gave way to a steady stream of supportive customers, and we have had incredible growth from day one."
Developing a Legacy
Today, O'Rourke continues to anchor her business around her own life (not the other way around), and keeps her mantra as a business owner pretty simple: "My mission as an entrepreneur is very much the same as my mission as just a person living in the world: To be honest and kind, to continue learning and growing, to make my own path, to share in successes and in failures, to live and work gently, to never stop being inspired and, in turn, to do my best to inspire others." As for her advice to fellow entrepreneurs fostering their own businesses? "There is no correct formula—success can look and feel different for everyone," she shares. "Businesses can take shape and grow and thrive in all different ways, so find what works for you."
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