Ten years ago, despite a lack of fashion experience, Janessa Leoné launched her L.A.-based namesake fashion brand best known for “cool girl” hats. In the years since, after admittedly leaning heavily on Google to learn the ins and outs of running a fashion business, she’s grown the brand sustainably and without outside investment. It’s earned celeb fans including Meghan Markle and Taylor Swift and, as of 2021, it has a store in Los Angeles.
“I started this [brand] quite blindly; I didn’t have a business plan or go out with this extraordinary intentionality,” Leoné said on the latest episode of the Glossy Podcast. “If I did, I might not have done it, because I didn’t realize what was actually required.”
Leoné owed the brand’s success to its authenticity and slow, organic growth. Its birth at the start of the Instagram era, as well as its early fans in the fashion industry, worked to get it off the ground. More recently, Leoné has worked out some kinks in-house to ensure the brand’s growth trajectory.
“I used Covid to pause and assess and analyze what was working and what wasn’t working,” she said. “There were a lot of broken systems within the business, plus unsustainable ways that I was trying to show up in this business and that I was expecting other people to show up. And so we went through a metamorphosis… I hired a contract COO to help me problem-solve and look at the org chart, and say, ‘What roles are we missing?’ We now have extraordinary subject matter experts, and it feels like this massive machine that is growing.”
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
Bringing back brands with soul
“Brand is the primary focus for me. The slow way that we’ve been forced to grow this business … has actually been our biggest asset. The creative, the visual storytelling, the aesthetic and the quality of the product are all so connected, and they’re the actual lifeblood of this brand. We have now expanded into different channels of marketing — influencers and paid marketing, and all these different things. But at the core of the actual brand are the visuals, the authenticity — really, the soul. I feel like, in the age of DTC businesses, because of how quickly we’ve been able to grow brands, there has sometimes been a complete disregard [for soul]— because digital marketing has almost been like a lever: the more you spend, the more you get out. That system has broken after Covid, which I’m personally very grateful for, because I think we need to go back to the soul of the things that we’re buying and we’re producing, because it does make a difference.”
The benefits and challenges of operating without investment
“I don’t plan on taking investment. … Right now, we’re so focused on the impact and the potential that regenerative luxury fashion can have. But if I’m approached with the right opportunity and it makes sense, and it’s something that will serve the impact going forward — I’m never gonna say never. But really, it’s not the focus for me. The focus for me is to grow this brand in a thoughtful, sustainable way. And it’s something that, as you do it and as the wheels kind of turn, you can go faster and faster, because the profits that you’re making are more and more. And so, we’ve modeled the growth that I want without fundraising. And it’s possible. It’s definitely harder on the team, and it’s harder on me. But I’m not afraid of hard. And I think that it demands a lot of careful interrogation of every dollar that’s spent, every product that’s produced — and I really like that type of business. I like a business that does things really, really thoughtfully, and that [considers making] a product, and that’s like, ‘Should this product exist in the world? Do we have something unique enough, and is there a reason for it to be, instead of just being?’ I like that tension, and I like the constraint. And I think it really helps our business.”
Setting an example for big luxury brands
“We are a relatively small brand. If we can be the proof of concept that [regenerative agriculture] works, and that we can make this at scale and be profitable — because at the end of the day, if the business is not profitable, then no one’s going to be paying attention and there’s no reason for that business to necessarily exist — then I would love to just take [the details of our processes] and be like, ‘Here,” to all the other, massive companies. They may not be able to go back and reinvent [what we’ve figured out] and do it all from scratch while still maintaining their business operations going forward, but they could [mirror our processes] and make an impact. I’m fine with being the proof of concept and saying, ‘Here are our supply chains. Take them and go make your beautiful thing.’ Because I believe in this so much.”