From ice skater to fashion designer, Kristi Yamaguchi has seen and done it all. About two years ago, she debuted her own line of fitness apparel, and Yamaguchi has continued to launch new collections each season. Levo got a chance to talk with Yamaguchi about her major career change, and how her athletic success helped her along the way.
How did you get the idea to start your clothing line?
It’s twofold. The main motivation behind it was creating a lifestyle brand that gave back to the community. I was very much inspired by Newman’s Own and Tom’s Shoes, to name a few. I really wanted to do something as a product with purpose, so that’s what we like to say we are. I have a foundation, the Always Dream Foundation, that focuses on early childhood literacy, so I’m always looking for new ways to create revenue for the reading programs that we bring into schools.
Did you have any mentors that helped you get started?
It was trial and error. A lot of things started this path five years ago or so, and I just kind of plugged away. For eight years I worked with a fiber company, and the marketing woman there helped me out with advice here and there, and my husband has been pretty much a constant through different phases of this project. Now he helps me run the business side of it.
Did starting your own line feel like a risk?
It definitely felt like a risk. It’s something that you don’t hear: Two athletes venturing into a startup on their own. I think we knew it was going to be a huge learning curve, and we learned a lot along the way. We’re still learning a lot. We really had a lot of great friends and people around that advised us and helped us move in the right direction. I think we were good at not being too proud to ask for help out there, and here we are.
When did you realize it was going to work out?
I think we’re still getting there. I think we are really happy with our product and what we’ve produced and the direction of it. It’s just a matter of getting out there now.
What inspired you to start the Always Dream Foundation?
After the Olympics I started touring with Stars on Ice, and the tour benefited the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We worked really closely with a lot of the kids and families from Make-A-Wish. It was my first time being hands-on with an organization, and it was just eye-opening. I think learning that, as athletes, we have the power to make a positive difference was huge. My family has always been very community oriented, so we started doing small things in the community, and I realized that I could possibly do something bigger. I wanted to start my own foundation and to really gear the focus toward the issues I wanted to address. We focus on children and, more recently now, we’re focused on early childhood literacy.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned through your work at the foundation?
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is one, the need out there—really you can’t do enough for so many different things. It was hard to narrow down our mission and just focus on literacy because there’s so much out there. And number two, just how generous people are out there. There are people out there who want to help and want to make a difference, so it’s been very fulfilling.
How has being a mother changed you, or shaped your career?
I was at a point in my career where I was no longer touring, I was ready to make a change in my life and start a family. So I think I was lucky to have had that opportunity to experience the full career before I became a mother, and I was able to focus on my children and dive into motherhood. They’re older now, so it’s given me an opportunity while they’re in school to do some other things like expand the foundation and start this business. The way it’s changed is that obviously I’m not the most important person in my life anymore. As an athlete it’s very self-centered. Especially with figure skating being an individual sport, it’s a very focused and self-centered, singular goal you have. Now as a mom, I feel like I can’t do enough for my own kids. Helping them pursue their own dreams is my focus now.
Tell me about the children’s books you’ve written.
My inspiration was entering motherhood and having that routine and learning the importance of reading to the kids every night. We had our ritual of reading books before bedtime, and you know eventually it became the same one book or certain books over and over because it was a favorite. I always wanted to do a children’s book and when they were two and four, I was kind of like, well, this is the perfect time to go after that and do a book for them. They were the inspiration behind that.
What was your favorite part about being on Dancing with the Stars?
It was lots of fun. I think it was really having the opportunity to learn to ballroom dance and to learn from the best. It was an incredible experience and obviously hugely challenging, but what greater opportunity to learn something so fun and creative and have the chance to learn dances and actually perform them and wear fun costumes and things like that? It was a great time.
As you look back, what are you most proud of in your career?
I think the obvious answer is the Olympic experience and having had the honor to represent our country and bring home the gold. It was a life changer.
If you could give your 20-year-old self advice, what would it be?
I would say, go for it. Feel free to dream. It’s not going to be instant, it’s going to take a lot of work and overcoming obstacles, but if you stick to it and believe in yourself and think it’s the most important thing, it makes it all worthwhile in the end. Just knowing you went for it and, succeed or fail, at least you won’t have regrets.
Definitely check out the clothing line if you’re looking for some fun, active, comfortable clothes, and always dream.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Photos: Courtesy of Tsu.ya Brand