A Childhood Dream Becomes Reality
Mary Cayten Brakefield dreamed of becoming a fashion designer since she was a little girl. Now, at the age of 24, Mary Cayten is the founder of Brakefields, a direct-to-consumer clothing label focused on fashion and function. Mary Cayten and her mother, Stephanie, design universal statement pieces that are comfortable, functional, and flattering on a variety of body types.
Mary Cayten’s mother, Stephanie, passed along the family tradition of sewing when Mary Cayten was only six years old. To pursue both her fashion design dreams and her passion for swimming, Mary Cayten studied Retailing and Consumer Services while swimming competitively at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. After her graduation in 2020, she returned home to Nashville to work side by side with her mother to launch Brakefields’s first collection. Currently, Mary Cayten is a Master of Marketing candidate at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. She hopes to gain expertise in marketing to leverage in her own business and derive a clear positioning for Brakefields.
Behind Brakefields’s Design for Disability
During her time in college, Mary Cayten participated in a leadership program for athletes. This program opened conversations about how athletes can use sports and their platforms as a form of inclusion for different groups, particularly those with disabilities. Through her time in the program, Mary Cayten quickly realized a gap in the marketplace for functional products designed for people with disabilities. Soon after that, Mary Cayten experienced some of the same difficulties people with disabilities face in the marketplace as she struggled with medical complications of her own. Designing for disability got very personal, very quickly. Mary Cayten began working in the adaptive clothing realm and doing pitch competitions in her senior year of college.
“We started getting funding, so we discovered the business was picking up momentum,” said Mary Cayten.
Fashion for All
In 2020, virtual communication allowed Mary Cayten to interview people across the world, run focus groups, and surveys with those willing to give their time for her market research.
“One of our early mistakes was that we had so many people telling us all the different things that they wish would change in their clothing,” Mary Cayten said. “We wanted to solve all their problems, but later we decided this was not the direction we wanted the business to go.”
In the research and development process, Mary Cayten and Stephanie began shifting their focus from adaptive design to the idea of universal design. They started designing their products not only for women with disabilities, but for all women who want or need more function in their clothing.
“Our pieces are perfect for women with disabilities, moms of young children, or simply anyone with an active lifestyle that doesn’t want to be held back by their closet.” Mary Cayten explained. “Some of our adaptations are more obvious, like a dual access insulin pocket or pull tabs in shirt hems, while others are less obvious but no less intentional like soft, stretchy fabrics and prints that don’t show fluids like sweat, drool, or breastmilk.”
The Future of Brakefields
At Owen, Mary Cayten is eager to learn how to approach universal design from a marketing perspective to create a message that is inclusive and helps find her target audience. Mary Cayten finds support in her mother and her faith to manage time for school and business. She chooses where to allocate her energy based on the “Juggling Glass and Rubber Balls” metaphor. She shared, “if I feel like I’m dropping the ball either in school, work, or social life, I evaluate each week which balls are glass, the ones I cannot drop and put those things in the top of my priority list and then which ones are rubber and will bounce back.”
Plans for the future of Brakefields include having an experiential and inclusive store for people with all abilities, bringing the bright design of Brakefields into a retail experience. Mary Cayten also shares her hopes to take Brakefields into the evening-wear and bridal realm one day, but she enjoys the early stages of the business. She compares persistence in her business to preparing for swimming competitions. She focuses on her goal and envisions the things she wants to see for her business. Also, relying on the entrepreneurship community and learning about other’s journeys has been game changing. Recently, she won the Firestarter Pitch Competition hosted by the Vanderbilt C4E. She is excited to get back to pitching and continue interacting with as many people as she can to build entrepreneurial relationships and grow her business.
“We believe in the power of a brand where women of all abilities can come together to enjoy the benefits of functional fashion and are excited to offer exactly that!” said Mary Cayten.