Chair of the board for Leading Spas of Canada, Kathryn Gallagher wants to change the industry for the better.
A self-taught designer, Vancouver native Noel Asmar founded Noel Asmar Uniforms (then SpaUniforms.com) in 2002. The company transformed the spa industry’s utilitarian-style uniforms with its focus on high-performance fabrics and designs made for the way spa professionals move. Today, the company designs uniforms for spas, hotels and fitness and medical facilities, including The Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and MGM Grand. The Noel Asmar Group of Companies also includes Asmar Equestrian and Pedicure Bowls, which makes portable, lightweight bowls so spas and nail salons can “spa anywhere.”
You started to dabble in textiles in your free time, while working in the hotel industry. How did that lead to Noel Asmar Uniforms?
My sister is an esthetician and my mom’s a nurse. I started to see that my sister was showing up to work without anything professional to wear and so I designed a tunic for her and one for my mom. And then I started to do some research and back then, estheticians and spa professionals were actually wearing boxy medical scrubs. There wasn’t anything specifically designed for them and the way they move. I launched SpaUniforms.com at the end of 2002.
When you started Noel Asmar Uniforms, what problem did you want to fix?
The whole starting point for everything is, what’s not working and how can we fix that? So for the spa industry, with the types of products that are used, oils, waxes, muds, coloured dyes, it is really challenging to make sure that you can use fabrics. So I would say it all started with designing and developing the fabric, which took me over a year. It breathes. It doesn’t shrink, the blacks never fade.
And as an employer who’s buying a uniform, it is a solid investment. They are not going to be replacing their uniforms every three months; our uniforms last three to five years.
So functionality, I’d say, was the fix. They stretched, so massage therapists could move; pedicure therapists could squat on those tiny little low chairs and move around. And they are stylish. You want to feel good, you don’t want to feel like you’re stepping into a drab uniform.
What are some changes you’ve seen in the industry since you started?
We’ve really made leaps and bounds in terms of spa professionals being taken a lot more seriously, and I believe the uniforms play a big role in that. If you show up prepared, looking professional, your customers treat you with more respect – they treat the profession with more respect. I got really passionate about how clothing empowered people, and what it did for them.
How important is sustainability to you?
We are moving to recycled, sustainable, traceable yarn – knowing where the yarns come from. All of our yarns are Oeko-Tex certified, so there are no harmful chemicals in our dyes.
In 2019, we went to the Global Wellness Summit in Singapore and launched our sustainability initiative, Hospitality Lifecycle. Think about every single textile piece that is used in a hotel – your sheets, towels, blankets, slippers, uniforms, table linens. But nobody’s tracking or talking about what happens to garments in the professional setting after they can’t be worn or used anymore. So we’re leading with an initiative to bring awareness to the way we do business and to talk about solutions.
How has COVID-19 affected your company?
Our industry has been hit hard. We jumped on that quickly to design a very specific type of face mask for spa professionals. We wanted to make sure they still looked inviting and not distant behind the mask. It’s sustainable because it washes and it also matches your uniform. It is truly an extension of the uniform. And we are all expecting that masks are going to be around for a while, even when the vaccine is out, so it doesn’t look like an afterthought.
You spend time mentoring other women entrepreneurs. What would you tell a woman just starting out?
I would want her to know that she’s not alone. Ask lots of questions. Reach out to someone you admire to have a conversation. I think networking is really important. I also think maybe the number one thing is to know your values; your integrity is key, and you should build your contact of suppliers accordingly. Make sure that they fit in with your values and your long-term vision, and I always believe that your customers follow. You will attract the customer that aligns with your values.
During this challenging time, what would your message be to the industry?
I think we have to remain optimistic. I feel the world has woken up and realized that our health and wellness is paramount. There has never been a more opportune time for our industry to step up.
And I think the one share I would have as a businesswoman is it has shown that spa and wellness is way behind digitally. The industry was caught off-guard and had no fallback plan. If a spa was closed, more than likely, they didn’t have a website to keep selling their products and they had no revenue. So I think diversifying the spa business model is really important. We need to be looking at how sustainable our business model is through a period like this.
But I think, rather than looking at the negative shortfalls, I see a massive opportunity in this industry to grow. I think there are really good times coming.