Hidden Gem of San Diego - SDVoyager
Interview with Civile Apparel Founder, Aubri Steele.
Hi Aubri, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Everyone agrees, 2020 was an incredibly difficult year. The part I found the most challenging was being a parent amid the divisive sentiments of our country. It felt impossible to stand firmly behind the beliefs on which I was raised. The instructions of our own parents to “play nicely” seemed distant aspirations, at best. How could we possibly ask this of our children when the world at large seemed to be slipping ever so swiftly into a pattern where manners didn’t matter and rigidity of beliefs exacerbated controversy, inappropriate behavior, and a seemingly infectious absence of empathy.
This is not a political statement; this is a reflection of the human experience. As a human race, we seemed to have lost our way. As a parent, this was a heartbreaking glimpse into a future I did not want for my children. When my husband decided to paint a pickleball court in the front driveway, it seemed a fun but insignificant gesture at the time. Knowing little about the sport, we thought it would be a fun way to engage our five teenage children and to keep them active amid the closure of schools, sports, and their social lives.
Pickleball was a sport we knew our parents and their friends played. The smaller court and dink-style play allowed for varying levels of exertion and therefore was accessible for people of all ages. We quickly became well-versed in the game and began inviting neighbors and friends to play, all while maintaining social distance and excessive sanitizing of equipment. This was the sport we could play with our parents and our children. Birthdays and holidays in 2020 were always spent eating outdoors and rotating through a few games of pickleball. Simply put, pickleball brought us together.
As it turns out, this would also be the very last year I would have with my father. It was 43 years ago when my father Paul opened the doors of a small manufacturing business in Burbank, CA. A college dropout, dad saw a need in the semiconductor industry and took the chance on running his own business. Some of my earliest memories were of time spent in the office where my mom did the books. The smell of cut metal from the machine shop still lingers delicately in the corners of my conscience. His plan was a simple and humble one. If the business was a success, he would use his profits to feed his young family and, when we were no longer in need, he would sell off the equipment and close the doors.
Twenty-eight years later, my father sold that business to an Austrian company and retired comfortably. But over those 28 years, I watched as he employed everyone in our family, most of our extended family, all of his brothers, many of their wives, and children, and siblings. He built success stories from high school graduates and sent many of his employee’s children to college. He donated millions to charity and truly enriched the lives of everyone he touched. I watched, in awe and admiration, as he built his metaphorical boat, loaded us all inside, and led us to a brighter future.
So, as you can imagine, when my father succumbed to his battle with cancer on August 28 of 2020, that vessel came crashing onto a desolate and unfriendly shore. For months, I laid on that shore, angry and consumed by the loss of the greatest man I had ever known. Staring frustratingly at the fragments of wreckage littering the space around me, I wanted desperately to create a legacy in the way that he had but felt so ill-equipped to do so and so paralyzed by devastation I could not escape. It was then I started to realize that the pieces of wood now scattered around me were the parts with which I could build my own boat and maybe, just maybe, keep some of his legacy alive.
Of all of my goals with Civile Apparel, the biggest of these is to “build the boat”. A boat which will carry people to a better place. A boat that will rise with the tide. A boat that will house families, teach them to sail, and bring us all to a better and brighter destination. So, with dad as my honorary captain, Civile Apparel became my boat.
Upon diving further into the fashion of pickleball, I noticed that there was no urban-facing apparel brand that married my active lifestyle with who I am as a woman, and definitely nothing out there that felt as multifaceted as I do. I want to be able to go from my office to the pickleball court, to the store, golfing with my husband, and maybe out for drinks, all with a great performance fabric fashion piece as the base. We at Civile Apparel see pickleball as the unifying sport of 2020 that offered everyone an accessible, fun, and competitive outdoor respite. We’re just making it more fashionable.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s hard not to laugh aloud reading this question. Entrepreneurship is no joke and not for the faint of heart. My inspiration is bountiful and my work ethic endless, but even on the best of days, I recognize that this will take everything I have to get it off the ground. I have an incredible team around me to help, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Women who stand behind me with the necessary belief to keep pushing when things are tough. Women who have built empires of their own and whose experience I am so blessed to leverage. Women whose compassion embraces me in the face of my fears.
I recognize how lucky I am to have this opportunity, and if imposter syndrome stops waking me every other night or so, I should be just fine.
Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
At the age of 43, I have had a colorful and fulfilling career. Fresh out of college, I worked in commercial real estate for a few years until I became pregnant with my first child. Upon becoming a mother, I leaned on my master’s in Education to spend the majority of my professional life in teaching at the high school and college level. In the beginning of 2019, I found myself back in the commercial real estate world, working with an incredible group of all men. I worked on all aspects of the business but always found myself leaning into the creative side of things. The team loved AND honored my artistic marketing capabilities and encouraged my witty but articulate attitude that was often rolled into my work – this often brought a fresh and welcome face to projects we worked on.
Fast forward to the death of my father in 2020 amidst the pandemic, and the wheels fell off. I was then juggling raising my five teenagers (2 biological, 3 step) children who were all homeschooling due to the pandemic, working a 40+ hour/week job, and managing my mother after the death of her partner of 50 years. The weight became too substantial to bear. I decided I would need to step back from work and put my family first. That didn’t last long. A few months later, I found myself toying with the idea of starting a fun, modern pickleball company… never imagining what it would become.
Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?
Jill Hacker – My mother, who helped me fund this whole idea and who has always made me believe I was entirely capable of anything and everything I could ever dream of.
Cody Steele – The love of my life, for being my steadfast support, my calm in the eye of the storm, and whose own inspired creativity brings so much into my life and this brand.
Kate Nowlan – CoFounder of Graced by Grit. Has acted as an advisor to me from very early in the process. Without her, this company would not be where it is. Simple.
Casey Ladd – One of the very first people to stop me and ask to be a part of this. Her belief in what I was doing has fueled my fire to keep pushing, more than she’ll ever know. She brings such a strong sales skill set to the team and an enthusiasm that is infectious.
Sheri Tieman – My best friend in the world, and now our Head of Production. When I have no faith or gas left in the tank, she fills my cup and sends me on my way to conquer the world.
Kerby Hatfield Capri – Originally our fit model and now a dear friend, Kerby is deeply involved in product design and development. Kerby is a game-changer and brings a smart and beautiful perspective to our design.
To all the girls who put up with me on the pickleball court and who send me their thoughts and feedback. I appreciate you!!
Bob Rief – Bob was a dear friend of my father’s and also happened to be an incredible mentor and advisor to so many who have been in my shoes. His knowledge and kindness have been such an incredible gift.
Mirko Mangum – Another giant in the world of apparel, Mirko has seen and done it all. He is a dear friend and has been a constant support and advisor from the very beginning. I feel incredibly lucky to know him as a person and business advisor.
And of course, my father. For everything.