Answering the door of her New York apartment, Hilary Swank introduces herself with a handshake and a broad smile. However recognizable the two-time Oscar winner is, she has completely immersed herself in the real-life role of founder of the new direct-to-consumer Mission Statement e-commerce business.
“All-in” borders on inadequate when describing her entrepreneurialism with the ath-leisure label that launches today. Instead of taking on myriad fashion deals as many celebrities have, Swank spent two years devising a business plan, sourcing production and rooting out the right contacts for her self-funded operation. High-energy throughout a lengthy interview, Swank said she was compelled to start Mission because she couldn’t find workout-worthy attire that could pass for stylish sportswear on city streets or airborne at 30,000 feet. When a few tables and couches needed to be moved for a photo shoot, Swank went right to it, insisting the tables were too heavy for others to move.
Swank swam in the Junior Olympics and later became a state finalist in gymnastics. Whether in the gym, practicing yoga, spinning or playing 10 hours of tennis a week, exercise is still part of her daily routine. “I grew up as an athlete so working out for me is like breathing, sleeping, eating, drinking water — it is a really vital part of my life,” she said, adding that like many women her days roll on right from the morning workout without any time to change. “No one was hitting the mark in my opinion. There’s not really a crossover brand. How make high-performance wear that meets high fashion. How do I find that? I couldn’t so I created it.”
While others admire the view of lower Manhattan from her expansive windows, Swank compares it to a bird’s nest, an indication that her perspective hasn’t skewed since describing herself at the 2005 Oscars as “just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.” Phys ed was her favorite school subject, but not for the fresh air it provided. “I grew up in a lower socioeconomic background, so I found that sports were always the great equalizer. We’re all equal when we’re out there,” she said. “Sports gave me the ability to support other women, to be encouraged by other women, to push myself through seeming barriers. It really formulated the way that I work in my life. When I feel I can’t go any further or it’s too hard, I remember my gymnastics coach, who said, ‘Can’t means won’t and won’t means push-ups.’ So that word was not something that I carried into my life.’”
In truth, physicality is an integral part of her acting career. In preparation for her Oscar-winning performance in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank lived as a man for a month and dropped her body fat to 7 percent. For Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” she learned to box, training for five and a half hours a day, six days a week, taking three different subways one bone-cold winter to get to Gleason’s Gym beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. “I would eat 210 grams of protein everyday, so I was eating every hour and a half. Even in the night, I would wake up and drink protein shakes. I had to eat 60 egg whites a day and I couldn’t, so I’d drink them,” she said. “By the time it was over, I put on 23 pounds of muscle.”
Her company’s name is meant to make shoppers ask, “What is your personal mission?” Mission started to take shape at UCLA Medical Center, where Swank spent many hours with her father, who had a lung transplant in 2014. Serving as his sole caretaker in the time since, she was able to develop the company and her charity, The Hilaroo Foundation, that brings together underprivileged children with rescue dogs. A percentage of sales from Mission will benefit Hilaroo, which hosts after-school programs and camps, and aims to have an accredited school for 150 students. Recalling her first business meeting with her cofounder Carolyn Risoli — who helped launch Marc by Marc Jacobs — two years ago at Café Cluny, Swank said, “I think I had just come from the gym. I was like, ‘See? I need it. I look like I’m in my workout clothes.’”
To motivate other women, Mission will profile the personal stories of various women every two weeks or so on its web site. Unlike in her 20s and 30s when she felt alone in her insecurities, at 42, Swank now realizes we all have our insecurities. Reminded that some may question her even having insecurities, she said, “Really?” and offered a few.
“The idea that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any point, when you grow up with nothing, you always have that fear that that can circle back around. That is very real, very alive and I have to work with that,” she said. “This sounds kind of silly, some insecurities are silly, I have this fear of I don’t want to run out of food, so I carry food around. My friends laugh at me. Yesterday I carried this juice around with me all day because I thought, ‘Oh, I might get hungry and I might need it.’ And we’re in New York — so that’s how deep-seeded that is in me.”
Those concerns remain prevalent despite wrapping two new films — “55 Steps” with Helena Bonham Carter and the Steven Soderbergh-directed “Logan Lucky.” Of the Bille August-directed “55 Steps,” Swank said, “it takes mental illness, turns it upside down and makes you question what’s sane and what’s insane.”
She is more circumspect about the premise of Soderbergh’s return from retirement with “Logan Lucky,” which also stars Daniel Craig, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver. Swank is producing a movie “Falling Out of Fashion,” about a twentysomething fashion editor working at a magazine like Jane.
Calvin Klein was the first to introduce her to the designer world. After seeing “Boys Don’t Cry,” the night it opened, he invited Swank to the showroom the following day. “He said, ‘I want you to take anything you want.’ I think I picked out a sweater. He said, ‘No — anything.’ Maybe I picked out a pair of pants. He was, like, ‘No, she doesn’t get it,’” Swank recalled. “Then they all [went to work]. I think I walked out with five bags — all beautiful clothes. He was so generous and so kind. It was just so humbling that my work had moved someone like that and had inspired them to have me be a part of their art.”
Her breakthrough acting as Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry” earned her $3,000, a fact she confirms but does not offer. “I had an Academy Award and no health insurance. It was crazy,” she said, “but I never became an actor to make money. I got the role of a lifetime.” (At 15, Swank lived in a car with her mother for a little while, when they first relocated to California with $75. A time she recalls with similar zeal. “To me, it wasn’t anything. I was 15 and a half. I was like, ‘Yay, I’m moving to California. Yay, I’m going to pursue my dream.’ My mom, was like, ‘How do we do this?’ ‘How do we make this happen?’ But she somehow did.”)
Valentino flew Swank to Paris for her first fashion show. “I call that fashion world good theater. It’s like theater, right? You see the women go down the runway, and all the chaos that’s going on backstage,” she said. Marc Jacobs was another early supporter, and while living in Paris for three years, Swank spent time at Azzedine Alaïa’s atelier. “Alaia is so fun. If you go into their showroom, there’s a kitchen in the back. He cooks for you.”
Joseph Altuzarra is another designer friend. But Swank, who is codesigning her line with Dorothy Keedy, hasn’t shown Mission to any of them yet.
The 40-style collection is being made in five factories in Italy and two in Portugal. Retail prices start at $125 for sports bras with intricate back straps and hover around $1,125 for a leather jacket. Swank made sure the reversible laser-cut tennis dress, the high-waisted tuxedo striped pants that can be worn as foot adhesives for Pilates and the rest of the collection was machine washable, testing them in her own home. The bra tops are made in a lingerie factory and are offered in cup sizes since Swank deemed small, medium, large “ridiculous.” The majority of the items are convertible, including a lightweight down jacket with zippered sleeves and pockets and a cotton cashmere shoulder shrug that can also be worn as a sleeveless hooded top.
The line’s versatility was a selling point with friends of Swank’s and Risoli’s who averaged $2,000 in pre-orders at two private shopping events in the Hamptons and Los Angeles this summer. For the time being, Mission will focus on going direct to consumers via e-tailing, but the plan is to wholesale eventually.
Swank has always been laser-focused about dressing for her on-screen roles. “Your clothes are the first thing that people see about your character so I am adamant about the smallest detail. If I asked you your favorite color, your worst childhood memory or what makes you the most excited you would know it. You know why you chose that dress, those earrings. I love all those specificities and that when people see you for the first time, that’s what they see first. Dressing is such a big part of telling the story of who we are.”
Asked about how, if at all, the business success of Jessica Alba and Gwyneth Paltrow inspired her, Swank said, “Well, anyone who creates something is inspiring to me. Anyone who says, ‘I have an idea and I want to see it into fruition.’”
Strangers routinely offer a different sense of motivation. Swank said she is often approached and told, “‘You’ve come from nothing, you’ve pursued your dream, you’re living it and now you’ve inspired me to never give up on mine.’ Nothing inspires me more than people who persevere through adversity. It pushes me to be a better person, to work hard, to persevere through my own stuff,” she said. “This is a common denominator for all of us. There’s this movement where women are really wanting to support other women, and I thought how can I continue that? The underlying purpose of the brand and the reason it’s called Mission Statement is because I want to encourage women to continue to find that purpose — whatever that purpose is for themselves.”
Before leaving for a charity event, Swank assured Risoli, a model, and others to take whatever time they needed to finish the shoot in her apartment. She did so with one condition — that no one had to bother to move three tables back to where they belonged because “they’re too heavy,” Swank said. “I will do it when I get back.”