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The founder of Irro Irro, Marie Miao, is a kindred spirit of sorts, balancing a career in the medical field with an entrepreneurial creative endeavor. Her company was born out of the recognition that the fashion industry was lacking in their inclusiveness of people with medical disabilities. Her experience with cancer patients has given her a unique perspective and her dedication to making a difference in the lives of those affected is very inspirational. Her efforts in creating an eco-lifestyle brand inclusive of adaptive lives is apparent in Irro Irro’s minimalist yet functional designs. More wondrous is her determination to create social change and her brazen advice for others who wish to do the same through creative work.
Hi Marie! Before we begin talking about Irro Irro, can you let our readers know a little bit about yourself?
Hi! Thank you for having me.
Outside of Irro Irro, I wear a few hats as a mother, wife, and oncology social worker. I am Japanese, but much of my early childhood was spent in Hong Kong, so I identify with Chinese culture as well. I am a total extroverted introvert. I push the extrovert out during pop-markets and social gatherings, but love and crave complete solace to rejuvenate.
I, too, am an extroverted introvert! Sometimes this polarity helps to grow a person and stretches their ability to fill in different roles. For example, I heard that your career as a social worker in the medical field inspired the creation of Irro Irro. How did that inspiration come about?
The inspiration came when I started making my own clothing for work. I have never been a slacks person, and find tight clothing uncomfortable (except during hot yoga), so I made a similar version of the current Chloe dress in our soft double gauze. When I wore the dress to work, I started receiving comments from my patients stating, “I wish I had something like this to wear during treatment.” That was my “AHA” moment … the moment when both of my passions (fashion and helping others) aligned.
From there, I altered the pattern knowing the physical ailments and side effects that can come from treatment. I also interviewed physical and occupational therapists and individuals that encounter daily hurdles with dressing. Simple tasks like putting clothes on/off can be the biggest frustration for someone’s morning, and if I can ease some of that, I think it’s a start. There are very few modern adaptive clothing lines, and I’m hoping I can make a difference for a community that is often overlooked.
I think it’s wonderful that you’ve made medical inclusivity a pillar of your branding. It doesn’t cross the minds of most, and I feel that it is important to bring this awareness into the fashion industry. The ability to dress yourself, among other tasks, is a very powerful, albeit simple, affirmation for medically compromised patients.
But your dedication does not stop there. I heard that you also have a philanthropic pursuit that gives back to cancer patients?
You are too kind, thank you. Currently, 1% of Irro Irro proceeds goes to Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery (CLIMB). CLIMB provides training to clinical professionals (like myself) to incorporate CLIMB into their hospital or Cancer Center, which allows the organization to provide a support group for children ages 6-12 whose parent has been diagnosed with cancer. I run the program where I work, and I have personally seen the impact it can make on a family who is feeling lost or overwhelmed by a Cancer diagnosis.
Often the children and family members are overlooked because the main focus is, of course, the patient. But usually, the patient’s first thought is, “How do I tell my children?” or “How do I support my family?” This program provides a bridge for some of those worries, and I’m hoping as the brand grows, the percentage of proceeds will grow as well.
I am curious… what your feelings are about how the creative aspect of Irro Irrro feeds your medical profession, and vice versa? Do you feel as if the two are unrelated or work hand-in-hand?
Initially, I thought it was unrelated. As I grew more confident in the brand, I started to question “Why the divide?” Irro Irro wouldn’t be what it is without my professional background but naturally, the inner dialogue in my head kept minimizing my knowledge because I didn’t come from fashion. It’s interesting though, to be part-time corporate and part-time entrepreneurial and seeing the pros and cons to both. I’m not sure what the future will look like, but I’ve realized that this is part of my story, my unique journey, and I have to embrace each part.
Surely, working two professions requires more time and effort than working one. How do you find a balance between the two?
I’m not sure there’s a perfect balance, but I do prioritize self-care and I am an avid planner (with a color coordinated physical planner). To be honest, I am NEVER balanced in all areas of my life. Some days, I feel like an awesome mom, and some days, I’m left with guilt because I’m focusing on the business. My daughter is at an age where she loves to help, so I do try to involve her as much as possible, which helps with the guilt. And really, the mom guilt will always exist, I’m just learning to cope with it.
The biggest help for me to stay emotionally, mentally, and physically sane is hot yoga. My life has changed drastically since practicing hot yoga. It has challenged me in all aspects of my life, and I feel like I’m flushing out the toxins out of my body every time I take a class. It’s also one hour to myself to unplug, be in silence, and meditate. I make sure to add hot yoga in my calendar at least 3-4x week. It’s also helpful that I have a supportive husband who cheers me on even when I’m stuck in the office when he’d rather I be on the couch watching TV next to him. The sacrifices are real!
And vacations! Those are necessary even if it’s a stay-cation. It’s hard to shut my entrepreneurial brain off sometimes, but vacations help me feel passionate, inspired, and rejuvenated.
“Irro” is a Japanese term, isn’t it? Would you care to share what Irro Irro means?
Irro Irro together means variety. I have always been fascinated by colors and I could stare at abstract paintings for hours just enjoying the depth and uniqueness of one color. It’s funny you ask, because while I’ve been trying to add more colors, many of my customers request black (which I totally get)! I’m working on a project that involves more color, so I’m hoping I can share that next year.
I am definitely one of those guilty of requesting black (or gray or beige…)! Your brand, however, still embodies a very minimalist design. How do your roots play a factor? Have you always been attracted to neutral palettes and stream-lined shapes?
Traveling to Japan and other countries always brings me some sort of inspiration, but I have always loved my neutrals and the sense of calm, peace, and centered-ness that they bring. I’m embarrassed to share how many white shirts I own!
I do love a good bold color and pattern though; it evokes a different type of feeling. I think the same goes for shapes. My go-to’s are usually clean shapes but once in a while I love big statement pieces, especially for outerwear. One day, I hope to incorporate that into Irro Irro, as well.
I love how you mentioned centered-ness. I believe that simplicity helps to create space for a meaningful lifestyle. What are your thoughts on how minimalism (both in fashion and in the everyday) can foster an intentional life?
I do believe a minimalist lifestyle brings forth intention, challenging you to only purchase what you need, and purchasing items that will bring long-term value into your life. Since fostering a minimalist wardrobe and lifestyle, I don’t press the “purchase” button so quickly, and scouring secondhand gems have been a fun challenge. It’s also challenged me to be creative, styling what I already have differently, and shopping around the home when re-decorating. I’ve always related a clutter-free home to a clutter-free mind. Simplifying all parts of my life, not over-extending myself (although I’m still working on that one!), and keeping routines as simple as possible has improved my overall mental health.
In this space, I try to highlight not only small businesses, but more specifically, people trying to create environmentally conscious products in socially responsible ways. Would you mind sharing with our readers ways in which you are trying to ethically produce your products, source materials that are eco-friendly, and reduce the amount of waste from your production line?
Of course! All of our textiles are 100% cotton or organic cotton and we are newly launching an up-cycled home line with the left over scraps from our production! I am also conscious about how our items are packaged, minimizing the amount of labels, using recycled wrapping paper, and bio-degradable mailers. I produce in small batches, so once the items are sold out, the color or style may never come back, making it more unique. Some other eco-friendly options I have been looking into are other textiles such as hemp, linen, recycled cotton, up-cycled denim, and incorporating more pieces made out of deadstock. I think there’s always room for improvement in this area, and I’m constantly thinking of ways to be better.
How would you advise others wishing to leverage creativity for social change?
What I love about creativity is that there is no right or wrong, and the sky is the limit. You could specialize in the most logical or scientific field and still be creative. I think if you’re passionate about bringing change into the world, just go for it! You are your own best advocate, and no one will have the passion and tenacity like you would about a fight you believe in. If you’re angry or frustrated about something, use that anger to bring positive change.
I have been told numerous times that Irro Irro wouldn’t succeed, but that has pushed me to prove them wrong. It’s helpful to have clear goals about the change you’d like to see, then start planning from there. Bringing social change can be uncomfortable for some people, so while it may take a bit longer, keep up the perseverance. It has been a roller coaster since the beginning, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You’ve already accomplished so much with Irro Irro, having launched a mommy and baby line, as well as a number of accessories. How will Irro Irro grow from here?
Thank you. There is so much I want to do with the brand, with some bigger projects that has been in the works behind the scenes. But for now, my goal is an eco-lifestyle brand inclusive of adaptive lives – adding in more modern adaptive styles for adults and children. I am self-funded, so the growth is taking longer than I’d like. But, I also believe good things take time, and I’m enjoying the journey for what it is.
Lastly, would you care to share some of your favorite socially and environmentally conscious brands?
There are so many that I love and admire, but a few that I personally love because of the people behind the brand are Hey Moon Designs, Two Days Off, and Selah Collection.
That’s awesome! I have already interviewed Gina Stovall of Two Days Off and am actually in the process of interviewing the founder of Selah Collection! What a small world.
If you would care to see what Marie has in store, check out Irro Irro and support local small business owners trying to create a positive impact in their community.