THE MAD HATTER.
Janessa Leoné graduated from the University of San Diego in 2009 with a degree in English literature. Shortly after she took a job as a nanny and started studying for the law school admission test. Hello GRE. But then, she hopped on a plane to Paris and her life changed. After stumbling into a thrift store in Paris' Marais neighborhood, she found a black fedora made in the 1940s.
She bought that hat for ten bucks. Under the headband of the hat she found the milliner's initials, and as fate would have it, he turned out to have the same last name her.
Now, eight years later, Leoné, 30, is running Janessa Leoné, her eponymous millinery label that sells in more than 450 stores worldwide, including at Barney’s, Nordstrom and at her Culver City, CA brick and mortar shop, opened last year. Chrissy Teigen, Lupita Nyongo and Jessica Alba all rock her creations. Her 2017 revenue was on track to top $3 million. Not bad for an almost lawyer and founder who doesn't have a background in design.
As a fellow with an English degree- EVERYONE said, what are you gonna do with that? But you've built a brand and a company that is in track to do 3 million in 2017. Can you chat a little about your journey?
After graduating college, I had the intention of going to law school, but didn’t feel like that was necessarily my preferred path or one that inspired me—it was just something I chose without knowing what else to do. What I really wanted to do was create something that was unique to me using my own taste and aesthetic. The original idea was to design clothes, but that wasn’t within my resources or skill set at the time. I wasn’t able to just jump into it. I had always loved hats, so I decided to start there with something more niche that would let me break into the market.
Does your degree work into your career in any way?
It does, a lot actually. I learned to communicate and convey ideas effectively. I have manufacturers all over the world, so being able to communicate clearly and efficiently has been a huge value-add. Going through college in general, regardless of degree, was very helpful. Learning to problem solve, work on a timeline, think critically—all those things have helped me in every aspect of running a business.
I want to talk about the hat you found in the Marais. It was made in the '40s but the design was still relevant. How did timelessness play into the brand from the beginning?
The hat I found was from a thrift shop in the Marais in Paris. My aesthetic, whether it’s clothing or home decor, isn’t period specific. I’m always drawn to things that use timeless and quality materials with colors that are classic and relevant during any era. I’ve always had the goal to design items that you can’t necessarily tie back to a specific time period. I want these things to be able to stand on their own with inherent qualities that exist outside of the time they were made. I’ve never gone the route of design based on trends. I do my best to make things that are classic and elegant beyond the era.
Was there ever a question about what you would call the company?
I always wanted to use my name so that I could to carry on my family’s name.
How did you begin to learn the ropes of the fashion world? You're self-funded. You continue to design yourself. Does it come naturally?
I learned a lot from just internet searches. I wasn’t formally trained in design, so I learned from just doing the actual work, asking questions, and researching. I have a natural interest and inclination towards design and things that are well designed—but the work itself does not come naturally. It requires a lot of space and care in order for the inspiration to come. It takes intentional discipline to make sure there’s an environment and a headspace that can allow ideas to come to fruition. It requires a lot of work, but from what I’ve learned from other people who do creative work, that’s a normal relationship. It’s important to be tuned into your taste continually, so you can always be immersing yourself in all different types of art that cultivates your aesthetic and style.
Speaking of being self-funding. In the beginning. You took 5% of $10,000 and spent it on gifting hats to fashion editors, including Hilary Kerr. It ended up paying off big time. Was that a big risk to you?
Yes, it was a huge risk for me at the time. I only had twenty hats in my entire inventory and I gave half of them away. I didn’t have a proper gifting budget, and just had to use my inventory that I had invested in. At the time, that was a big expense. I’m very grateful and appreciative, especially to Hillary, for supporting and helping me at the beginning.
What do you think people crave when they get dressed?
Confidence. They want to feel good. I think people crave pieces that accentuate their lifestyle and let them express themselves without hindering them or making them self-conscious. They want to be made more comfortable and more confident in who they are. Everyone wants to be comfortable in their lifestyle and whatever activity is entailed in that. So it’s about accentuating that lifestyle in a way that makes you look great and feel comfortable but also helps you go about your life without being hindered by what you’re wearing.
People crave pieces that accentuate their lifestyle and let them express themselves.
What would you call your superpower?
The support of my dad, boyfriend, and team who have not only given advice but have taken an active part in making this business possible every step of the way.
What's been the hardest part of your growth?
Managing the business side and the challenges that come along with that. That requires a lot of knowledge and skillsets that I wasn’t necessarily equipped for and had to learn quickly. There’s still a lot to learn on that side.
What would you tell budding entrepreneurs about the risk/reward of it all?
Spend time finding the part of your work that you’re passionate about and that fulfills you, and let that be what guides you and helps you persevere. The challenges involved and the sacrifices I’ve experienced have been far beyond anything I expected. But what has kept me going is that I love the work and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do something I find fulfilling.
Photo Credit: @davisfactor