Phoebe Kunitomi, the CEO and Founder of okko, Makes Bodywear with Minimalism in Mind
Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.
For Phoebe Kunitomi, the CEO and founder of the bodywear brand, okko, the inspiration to make quality undergarment pieces came from her family.
"I was raised by a Korean mother and Japanese father, so my upbringing was centered on values grounded in minimalism," says Kunitomi. "My parents taught me that quality always trumps quantity and eliminating the unnecessary creates the clarity and focus to cherish what matters—family, education, and happiness."
Before launching okko in November 2018, she noticed that the top drawer of her own dresser didn't quite align with that ethos. "It was filled with a lot of stuff, but I enjoyed wearing very little of it, like ill-fitting bras, embarrassingly old underwear, and mismatched socks," she recalls.
Creating her own undergarments brand dedicated to cutting—not creating—clutter by prioritizing comfort, versatility, and reliability became her focus. With a conscious approach and anti-fast fashion practices, she created a company that speaks to her lifestyle: "Every material possession, down to the foundational layer, should add value to your life," she explains. Ahead, Kunitomi relays her business' origin story—and shares where she's headed.
Kunitomi began laying out her plans for okko in October 2017 while pursuing her MBA at The Wharton School, but she knew for most of her life—thanks to her family—that she wanted to be an entrepreneur to support her loved ones and make a difference worldwide.
"My mom, her parents, and her siblings immigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles after the Korean War," she says. "They created a good life for themselves and future generations (me!) through business—my mom with flower shops and my grandparents with a small restaurant."
This foundation gave her the confidence to get started, but the resources she established inside and outside of the classroom, along with her network, helped her grow out of the ideation phase that autumn; okko's soft launch took place the following year.
To get her business up and running, the CEO had a few main workstreams—starting with product design, which she says was the most important step.
"During the early days, I spoke with over 100 women to inform the design of our initial product set: our wireless bra ($42, loveokko.co), seamless underwear ($14, loveokko.co), and nipple covers ($17, loveokko.co)," shares Kunitomi. "These interviews helped determine everything from the colors, fabric, features, and styles to incorporate in our first products. Many of these initial ideas are still in place today."
From there, she set her sights on finding an ethical manufacturer that would be able to fill small-batch bodywear orders. Finally, she funded those first inventory orders with the help of friends and family. "I can't emphasize the 'friends and family' part of it enough," she says. "Our first and only investors are people like my former bosses and colleagues, parents of my friends, and business school classmates!"
People from her community at Wharton were also her first customers. "For the first week, I posted up during the lunch break in the cafeteria and sold out of a cardboard box," Kunitomi says. "It was a bootstrapped way (to say the least) to start generating revenue, but frankly, these early days were the most fun. I was shocked and deeply humbled by how many classmates showed up to support."
She notes that this was a slower way to grow, but it was ultimately a profitable route. "Although we eventually expanded our reach outside of campus, I did not start running paid ads for more than a year after our launch," she adds. "To this day, my approach to investing in marketing is disciplined: Don't spend outside of your means."
Perfecting the Signature Pieces
Kunitomi's mission is to inspire her customers to do more with less when wearing an undergarment from okko. Her versatile essentials are meant to last, which stops consumers from over-buying pieces they don't truly want or need. Stopping this cycle, however, meant that she needed to create the best possible product. Her implicit goal, however, wasn't to make the best underwear; it was to create undergarments that could be forgotten.
"Turns out, the word 'forgotten' carries a negative connotation in most scenarios, except when we're talking underwear," the founder notes. "Invisibility is versatility. Characteristics of underwear our customers want to wear often and for a long time do not include the words rolling, pinching, digging, or showing through."
As she fine-tuned okko's offerings, she also listened to her audience—getting their thoughts on each and every piece of bodywear helped them get the garments just right. "We obsessively collect feedback from hundreds of customers and are not afraid to revamp a style," Kunitomi says. "We work closely with the okko Design Collective, a group of passionate customers and fans, to figure out what to create next. Our customers are what makes us experts in our craft."
Built to Last
There are two main pieces of advice Kunitomi has for new business owners striving for success in their fields. First things first: Surround yourself with the right people, especially since the early days of the business will be some of the most challenging. "If you have serious interpersonal issues with an early team member, those issues can turn into disruptive problems," she says. Her suggestion? "Date" them first before bringing them onboard.
"Start off with a discrete project with clearly defined goals, then assess the relationship to see if there is a longer-term opportunity to work together," she recommends. Second of all, "do less, then obsess" when building your brand. Meaning, focus on a few things at a time, then perfect them. "This is my guiding light for everything, from how I organize priorities on a given day to how we approach expanding our product collection," adds Kunitomi. "It's the secret sauce to maintaining my sanity and driving our company's success."
When it comes to the impact the entrepreneur wants to make in her industry, she hopes that she can illustrate how to make quality pieces outside of the fast fashion model. "I'd love to see a meaningful number of brands that don't push trendy 'must-have' drops consumers feel compelled to purchase just because," Kunitomi says. "There is a conscious way to make money that prioritizes reliability and excellence over newness and novelty."
She has provided the roadmap through her business model—and has a few new projects on the horizon. Hint: She's planning to launch new product categories within the okko oeuvre, including styles that don't necessarily need to be worn under clothes. Plus, she's adding "extra woman-power" by expanding her team and connecting more with their community. As for how she wants to influence her customers' lives? It's simple: "My sole purpose is to prove that a simpler life is a happier life. Material possessions don't prove our value—what's inside does."
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