SAN FRANCISCO — Catalina Girald sits in the middle of the world headquarters of Naja, a new lingerie company with manufacturing facilities in Medellin, Colombia.
Naja offices consist of a warren of small rooms filled with boxes, whiteboards, an assistant and a tiny dog named Blueberry. The company headquarters actually is the CEO's apartment, on the fourth floor of a building in a neighborhood not big on glam. And there is no elevator.
But spend any time with Girald, and you start to see not what is, but what can be.
"If I'm not radically changing things; I'm not interested," says Girald, who gives her age as somewhere in the 30s. "My aim is beyond making high-quality bras and panties. I want to create a lifestyle brand. I see it as the Athleta of what happens in your bedroom and bath."
While she may be at the beginning of that lofty journey, Girald is bent on her goal. She and her few employees — that is, her entire staff — hustled over to Paris in June in order to showcase Naja's wares on that fabled catwalk and talk to lingerie wholesalers about carrying the brand in Europe.
Girald's mission is to be an alternative to Victoria's Secret, which commands half the $14 billion lingerie industry. While that brand trucks unabashedly in glamour and sex appeal, Naja (pronounced nah-yah) sells clothing inspired by the founder's global travels and touts an underpinning of social consciousness to boot.
The Tropical Jungle bra features printed batik-like motifs that recall Girald's time living in Indonesian villages. The Talavera Red collection pays homage to Mexican designs. Panties come etched with inspirational sayings, such as "He offered her the world, she said she had her own."
Underpinning the collection is a desire to do good. The company's Underwear for Hope program donates a percentage of purchases to the Golondrinas Foundation in Medellin, where Girald was born. The foundation teaches poor women skills such as sewing which allows them to support their families. They sew the wash-bags that come with each Naja purchase.
"These days there's certainly less tolerance by consumers for companies that don't play well with society, whether that's polluters or those who don't treat employees well," says Olivia Khalili, a social business consultant with CauseCapitalism.com. "Some companies talk the talk, but don't back it up with action, and that will backfire."
Naja's site tries to make the company's mission plain, featuring videos of Golondrinas recipients such as Maria Jaramillo. Gang warfare claimed the life of her sister, leaving Jaramillo to care for her own and her sister's daughters, five in all. She now supports that large family with sewing work for Naja.
GOING FOR SOUL, NOT SEX
As motivational for Girald is a desire to make products that celebrate women.
"I think Victoria's Secret makes very nice products, but it's a company sending out a message to women that they have to be very sexual, which I don't think is a good message to send out to our girls," she says. "I'm aiming for a brand with soul."
That's a vision that hooked Hap Klopp, co-founder of The North Face, who serves on Naja's board of advisers.
"I found a kindred spirit in her, given her desire to have a corporate policy of giving back, her passion for changing the world and her determination to be disruptive in a space," says Klopp. "Besides, you gotta love someone who takes a break to go live in a yurt in Mongolia."
True enough. In fact, Girald's meandering life story sometimes defies credulity. She moved with her Colombian parents to Connecticut at age 4, after her father, a New York University-trained neurologist, settled into a practice. She decamped to Amherst at age 16 to play tennis for the college, but "I was 16 and hated everything."
She bounced around Europe, studying art in Paris, then returned to Texas, where her father had transferred, and attended Texas A&M. That led to law school at Boston College, a legal job with Skadden in New York, and not long after a trip west to Stanford University for business school.
By the time she graduated in 2006, she was already hammering away at her first start-up, Moxsie, which was aimed at helping businesses connect with consumers. When it foundered in 2009, she bought a one-way plane ticket for parts unknown.
"I was disillusioned with Silicon Valley, so for 18 months, I was out there," she says. "I lived with nomads in Mongolia who are eagle hunters. In Indonesia, I was fascinated by the weaving cultures and their designs. In Vietnam, I lived with the Hmong, whose hands are dyed blue from indigo. Then I went back to Colombia and went into investment banking."
A LIFE OF CONTRADICTIONS
You get the picture. Girald's life is a dizzying if electrifying pastiche of experiences, held together by a fierce curiosity about other cultures. It's therefore not too surprising that she's a bit of a contradiction herself. On the one hand, she's quick to decry the "materialism" of Western culture, but on the other she's the first to admit she loves to shop, particularly for shoes.
In a very real sense, Naja is her attempt to reconcile those two parts of her psyche. By producing goods that people need and want but in a manner that acknowledges the strength of women the world over, she could well tap into a new vein that takes conscious consumerism to a new level.
And if not, it'll at least be another wonderfully crazy stop on Girald's unpredictable journey through life.
"I'd like to also start selling soap," Girald announces, Blueberry lounging in her lap. "I think you can give people luxurious bars at fair prices. Did I tell you that I studied soap manufacturing while I was in Indonesia?"
But of course she did.
ABOUT CATALINA GIRALD, 30something
What: Founder of Naja, a new lingerie company inspired by her travels
Where: San Francisco
What did you learn from the ultimately unsuccessful run of your first company, Moxsie? "A lot of why that company failed was me not standing up for myself as much as I should have. Some big decisions were made for me (by investors). I held my thoughts in. As I traveled the world, I met so many poor but proud women who were never afraid to tell villagers how they felt."
Why were you convinced the market needed another lingerie company? "I interviewed 600 women to understand the market, and had a private Facebook page where women could freely express themselves. Beyond learning about people's lingerie-buying habits, I also learned that if you get women together in a safe environment they will share things about health and other issues, to help each other out. I felt a company that stood for that would be good."
One pair of underwear garnered a 'cease-and-desist' letter from Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. "Yes, the undies had 'Not Bossy, Boss,' written on them, which was our tribute to the whole Lean In movement. But apparently that's something she says, not that that's intellectual property. But we changed it. Now they read, 'Very Bossy,' and beneath that, 'Boss.'"