We sat down with Suzanne Mckenzie, Founder, CEO, and Creative Director of Able Made, an active lifestyle brand that inspires healthy living. Suzanne is an award-winning creative director with experience in branding for the FEED Foundation, Tom Ford, Maria Sharapova, MoMA, and more. She believes that design can drive lasting change. Through Able Made, she creates thoughtful and innovative pieces that raise awareness while encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Able Made is committed to fair wages, safe work environments, low environmental impact, and responsible practices. They have collaborated with American manufacturers that build their process on innovation and can push the boundaries of luxury, eco-tech, and sustainability. Through the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation, they support the health of the next generation. Ten percent of all proceeds from every product funds special initiatives that empower the world to be healthier.
Suzanne, where did you grow up and how did it impact and inspire your creative process?
I grew up in Maine around the Portland area. I was surrounded by nature. I played a lot of outdoor sports. I went to college in Boston and double majored in graphic design and advertising. I went back for a graduate degree. I knew I wanted to be in communications and art in some form. That led me to pursue a variety of different paths.
What was your first design job after college?
I landed a job in advertising at Arnold right after school. I was there for eight years. They had big accounts, such as The Truth and Volkswagen. They ended up doing a big project on the awareness of the tobacco industry. It was a work experience that allowed me to build a lot of relationships.
I started as project manager and was promoted into the creative group. I was able to touch all of the accounts that the agency had, which included national and sometimes international clients. These clients had budgets, but it was also during the time of 9/11, so they did see lots of layoffs. It was a very unstable time at the beginning of my career.
Media buying is totally different from social media today. I started my career in print, but the idea concepts of the work and the base creative process is the same. The execution always evolves, but a good creative is still a good creative.
After Arnold I went to Continuum for two years. I worked on Sprint, American Express and a variety of large clients. Throughout my career, I always wanted to do my own thing. I always did my own thing or community related work on the side. I was President of AIGA in Boston.
Did you have any favorite clients or projects?
The Truth was my favorite. It was a campaign to prevent teen smoking. I have always gravitated towards things that made a difference in our community.
When was Able Made born?
I left Continuum after two years with the mission of wanting to do my own thing. I had a tragedy in my life. My husband passed away right after I left my job, and it was just completely horrible. You can’t put words into that experience. He passed away from a cardiac arrest while playing soccer. I started a foundation in his honor called the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation. I worked with Nike, Whole Foods, and other really significant leaders in the art community space.
I created this campaign with original artwork from Ideo and Pentagram and curated it and sold it to fund the foundation, and then I had a meeting with Vogue and realized that these products do well and could fund the foundation. Vogue linked me up with Rag & Bone and the idea of Able Made was born. I would do my projects but open it up to the community. Brands could jump in. We collaborated with Threadless and S’well bottles. We have worked with a lot of amazing people. We made a capsule collection with Puma. We launched with a lot of collaborations. We have always been very sustainable, so we make a lot of organic and upcycled fabric. We fund really important projects for our community here.
Do you have a favorite brand collaboration?
I love all of them. But one compelling collaboration was the Threadless project. It was a global design challenge where people from all over the world donated artwork and we raised money for the VH1 Save the Music Foundation. They have all been really powerful in their own ways.
What was the past year like for Able Made?
Last year was really interesting! We were invited to do a pop up at 1 Hotel in Brooklyn and were discovered by Good Morning America! There’s a hunger for authenticity and content that’s compelling for a lot of brand partnerships, which is great for us as these collaborations are a way to give back to the community. We are a B Corporation so our mission is to do good and do it well.
What’s something you have learned from creating Able Made?
People want overnight success. But I’m really glad we didn’t raise millions to launch. I self-funded a lot. The money we generated we put back into the business. We learned about our customers. We got our branding established. We did a lot on our own. We are now at a proven point to talk to investors. I’m glad we took time to figure that out before taking on capital. We learned a lot. We really know what works.
What is one of the largest challenges you have faced with creating Able Made?
One of the hardest things is managing your emotions. One day you can have the best day and the next can be all of these challenges. Hour to hour can be really different. This is coming from such a place of passion and it’s coming from a place that’s really emotional. I see that with peer entrepreneurs. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. That’s one thing that isn’t talked about enough.
I’m trying to take time out and learn to be balanced. On Sundays I’m trying to prepare a meal to organize for the week. It’s also a great source of relaxation. Also, taking time to run each day is important. You can just work all the time, so you have to take time for yourself to stay sane. I like to workout and cook.
What does it mean for you to be powerful?
I think how I approach any experience to empower others is how I approach anything I can do. I want to show that art can do really powerful things. Art got me through the darkest times. It really gave me the momentum to move forward. It’s the first thing that gets cut out of school budgets. But art is everything, and art is powerful. It is a great way to build businesses, to build community. I want to make sure everything is fair for the people that work on our businesses. Again, not sacrificing the design part. We are trying to approach it with design thinking at every step. We are trying to address a lot of things in the way that we approach it.
What’s coming up for Able Made?
We have just launched exclusive sock collaborations with Barnes Foundation and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. We have some exciting in-person experiences this year once retail begins opening safely in the new era of COVID-19. And we launched our Purposely podcast with iHeartRadio, with our second episode coming out this week.