Alyssa Wasko cold-called her way into a job a Chanel. For most, that sounds like a dream job. (And it was.) But after six years at the fashion house, the budding designer struck out on her own, launching DONNI (previously Donni Charm). Wasko named the brand after her late father, whom she lost during her time at Chanel. She started making scarves as a way to cope with his passing, but it quickly turned into something more.
Today, DONNI, is a collection of everyday essentials, each with endless ways to wear. Scarves, capes, and more are made in Los Angeles by women who are like family to the brand. Something her dad would certainly be proud of.
You started you career at an incredibly chic fashion house. How did you land the job?
Persistence. I called the head of Chanel USA’s Visuals and Image department every day for about 3 months leaving him voicemails until he finally called me back. I think he gave me the job so I would stop bothering him. He was my boss for 6 years and now one of my closest friends.
Where does that drive and ability to pick up the phone come from?
I think it was how I was raised. If you want something go and get it. But, above all, I am old fashioned and I believe that the best things happen from a phone call. Every day there seems to be a new means of communication and I just like to keep it classic. The phone leaves no room for misinterpretation.
What did you learn while working there?
So much. What to do, what not to do. Working for a big corporation, you learn about infrastructure and procedures, experience that have proven invaluable for running Donni. I think my biggest take away is how important it is for each team member to see how their work directly affects the outcome and the brand’s success. Every email, phone call, meeting, brainstorming session, or even mistakes, by a member at Donni directly correlates to our growth and I think that is such a rewarding feeling. And I hope what makes them happy and excited to come to work each day!
When did you decide to strike out on your own?
I had already started Donni when I was working at Chanel, there were a few years of overlap. I was very lucky that my bosses were so supportive of Donni from the beginning. My father passed away during my first summer working with them so they lived through it all with me in a sense. Because I was able to sustain both for a while, it was hard to figure out when made sense to focus fully on Donni. But, as they say, man plans and g-d laughs and it just kind of happened after a few big orders and trips to our factory in LA. It just became too hard to sustain both and I wasn’t able to put 100% into both anymore.
Sometimes it’s the hardest moments that lead to our greatest development. Can you chat a little about this and how the loss of your dad gave birth to a new chapter?
My mantra and truly my survival was constantly telling myself to act and make decisions that would make my dad proud. A lot of people told me to take a semester off of school to cope, and while I considered it an option I knew my dad would have laughed and said “get your tush in gear. Wasko’s don’t give up.” I not only went back to school, but I took on another 3 classes to my already full course load and a few odd jobs. When that wasn’t enough, on an afternoon that wasn’t sufficiently busy I decided to make a scarf for myself and a friend adding a good luck charm to each. I had always loved scarves and found them so to be comforting yet effortless. Before I knew it, my piers wanted these scarves, and I was so confused! I went to school in Arizona where it was 90 degrees daily. But that’s how I realized my product was a real business, because people wanted more than just the scarf, they were buying into the idea, and the feel good component that it represented.
What would you encourage young female entrepreneurs to test out before they dip their toes in the startup world?
It sounds cliché, but don’t just start a brand to start a brand, let the idea find you—make sure you are truly solving a problem or filling a need, and make sure each of your products goes back to your fundamental solution. But furthermore, anyone can have an idea, and it is execution that determines your success or failure.
What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about starting a business?
That it has this glamour to it. It doesn’t. You are always on the clock, always schlepping, always thinking of how to make things better—even when they are great. There is always room for improvement. I think a lot of people think you start something and hire all of these people and you can go on vacation whenever you want. Couldn’t be farther from the reality, its hard work! And it never stops. Ever.
You did a slight rebrand this year. Can you chat about that decision and why now was the right time?
Who knows if it was the right time, but it just happened. I felt simply that we had outgrown the Charm. I started this brand in college, and I have grown up a lot since then, so I wanted the name to reflect the more sophisticated lifestyle brand that we have grown into.
How do you expect DONNI to grow and change?
Retail is changing a lot these days, so I do see expanding our Direct to Consumer business, but I also try not to worry about the future, and just keep allowing the change as it comes. So far all of our growth has been such an organic evolution. Each pivot and change coming when something presents itself. I hope that that is how it continues. For a very long time.