In Conversation With Janessa Leone
The L.A.-based accessories designer does everything with true intention, from the stunning, sustainable hats she dreams up to how she spends her precious energy and time.
My first introduction to designer Janessa Leone was via her amazing line of hats, which I wear almost exclusively. I eventually reached out to her as a fellow female business owner. Being the generous human that she is, she offered to chat with me and we became fast friends. Janessa launched her eponymous line of hats and accessories in 2013, quickly gaining a cult following for their effortless, tailored look. I love how thoughtful she is when it comes to her business and her vivacious approach to life. She never compromises on the highest quality materials, hand-crafted construction and a commitment to sustainable practices, making her a model for a new wave of fashion design with a conscious approach to their environmental impact.
Read on to learn more about how listening to her own voice helped shape the company she wanted, her unique way she stays focused and present during hectic days and the surprising passion she has for science.
Janessa, why and when did you start your company?
I started it in 2012, which is when we launched. I mean, I had the idea when I graduated college in 2009. I went to Paris with my then boyfriend and fell in love with a vintage hat I found. I was in a spot in my life where there was an after-college midlife crisis. I graduated and inherited the financial crisis. There were no jobs. I studied English literature and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. The obvious path was law school, but that didn’t fit. So I was having this anxious moment about what am I going to do with my life. Then I found this hat. I loved the idea that Lanvin started with hats. Chanel started with hats. I always wanted to do a ready-to-wear collection. I had $10,000 from a nanny job I had during college that I had saved. That was my capital investment. So when I looked at the samples for the ready-to-wear, it was just not possible. It was $80,000 for my first sample set. So I loved the idea that like Lanvin, Halston and Chanel, it started with hats. It was a great thing for me to start with a small niche item. I'm a nobody from San Diego, I don’t have any fashion contacts. I can get my foot in the door. Hillary Kerr [cofounder of WhoWhatWear, Byrdie and MyDomaine] actually launched the business for me. I just seeded her blindly. I had a friend that connected me with the publicist who connected me with Hillary. It was all kismet. Hillary was going to Coachella that weekend and her hat was too small. And she said, “Can you come over and give me a larger size? I would love to wear it this weekend.” I had literally just read her book. So I drove to her office and we just became fast friends. She connected me with Rachel Zoe, Joe Zee, and Vogue. By the time I drove back to my dad’s house in San Diego (I was living there at the time to save money), she had sent emails to every fashion editor saying, “You have to know this girl. She just launched.” I got an email from Barneys asking me to send a line sheet. I immediately Googled “What’s a line sheet?” I shot the first collection on my dad’s kitchen table with an iPhone and made my first line sheet.
What has been the hardest part about growing your business?
For me, it was the confidence to know that I could trust my gut and my intuition because I felt so inadequate. I never took a single business class in school. I had this story around why I couldn't do this and why I felt really inferior. And all of it was around my inability to run a business of this size and as it was scaling and as it was growing, I got more and more insecure. I would be talking to business people and financial terms. I would write it down and Google it later. I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Then I realized no one really knows what they’re doing. I’ve started this and run it based on intuition, and I’m doing a good job. I could run things really conservatively because it’s mine and because I don’t have investors. And it might not be the best way to do it, it might not be the most scalable way, but just trusting what feels right when I’m thinking about my business has served me really well. So I think that has been the hardest part, is just having the confidence and now I’m at a point where I don’t need the MBA. I’m doing okay, I’m fine.
I want the business to have its own merit in the world so that we can justify the reason why we exist, and not just put out a ton of products.
You’re obviously building the company in a very different way. Where does that conviction come from? What are your goals for the business?
We have big goals, and we've refined these goals recently. Goals change which I think is also totally fine for a business to start out one way and then evolve as it grows. Originally, I didn’t want to raise money—it was a control thing. I didn’t want someone else to tell me how to do things. I think that actually stemmed from the fact that because I didn’t have experience, I wanted to figure it out and I didn’t want someone to come in and say, “You have to do this.” And then feel compelled to do it because I have their money.” I wanted to be my own boss. And then as it grew, I watched these massive brands just rise and fall. I remember specifically I was at a point in the business where I thought I might want to take on funding. But I always felt conflicted about the fact that if they’re not profitable, what is the business? What’s the point of a business that’s not making money? It can’t sustain itself. I’m a big activist, I’m very passionate about the environment. And so if it can’t actually sustain itself and if it’s just depleting resources, what’s the point? We can’t do this. I want the business to have its own merit in the world so that we can justify the reason why we exist, and not just put out a ton of products—contributing to the problem of overconsumption and overproduction in the fashion industry. I also want to treat people differently. I never had a corporate job, but I was an intern. I realized that there comes a point in a business where they lose their humanity. You see the problem with these massive corporations that have lost touch with their humanity and the driving force is no longer the people that are making it possible. My business wouldn’t be possible without the minds that I have in it. I have a specific point of view, aesthetically. I know what I like and I know how to curate good people as well. That is where my talent lies. Those are the two things I can do well and that’s been the entire success of the business. But when you infuse capital and you start to make it the lifeblood of the business, you lose the essence. There is a reason that founder/CEO brands are successful. The moment the founder leaves and a new CEO comes in, the statistics are pretty obvious. They lose their soul. They lose their lifeblood. I want to keep our lifeblood. I want this to be my thing. I want to do this forever. I’m really passionate about it and I don’t want there to be an external force that is going to tear it down unnecessarily.
You obviously give a lot to your work. How do you recharge?
I create an extraordinary amount of boundaries to my energy. I’m a free spirit and I do not like confines, but I do structure my schedule in a way that I literally have an hour of breathing in the middle of the day to reground myself. I have an infrared sauna at my house. It is a religious, almost sacred time that I have each morning. I have to have this very quiet routine filled with obviously coffee, but also quiet, prayer, meditation and sauna. I need to have a really regimented, quiet start of my day. I am also really careful about how I spend my energy. So I give myself ten coins. This is going to sound insane, but I don’t mind if you let people know how insane I am. So I give myself ten coins to start the day. If I have a really difficult conversation with an employee, that’s three coins off the table. If I have to do design work, which takes the most energy out of me, which is beautiful and I love giving myself over to design, that’s six coins. So I literally take my energy and quantify it. And so if I’m out of coins, I’m out of coins. Then I go and do things that fill myself back up. So a beach walk puts coins back into my bank. So, I’m on a coin program. It took me about three months to figure out how many coins I could possibly do and still be a normal human at the end of the day. And I don’t get nearly as much stuff done, but I can guarantee you, when you look at a time on a larger scale, I’m going to be so much more productive and efficient and be able to overflow so much more to my employees and to my work because I’m being really, really careful about my energy. I feel so much better and I’m so much happier. Problems always happen. And if I were depleted, this would be a disaster. I wouldn’t be able to show up and actually problem solve anything if I were depleted right now.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Let’s see. I don’t know if this is surprising, but I am a science buff. I wanted to be a doctor, so I was pre-med to start. So in my spare time, I read medical journals and listen to medical podcasts. So, yeah. I mean, anyone that might know me will say, “Yeah, you’re such a nerd.” It boils down to I am a really big nerd and I love science, and I love learning about the brain, and I love learning about optimizing the body, like mitochondria and cellular oxidation. I'm so into it. I know fatty acid profiles. I really, really love science.
What's your dream holiday destination?
I have been dying for someone, anyone out there that wants to take me on a five-star African safari that doesn’t mind if I jump out and snuggle with a baby lion. It might be the end of my life, but I’m happy to go out that way.
What are some of your most beloved and cherished things?
I have a few. They're all very sentimental things. I have a handwritten note that my dad wrote to me four days before he passed away.
What is your favorite charity or non-profit organization?
Rodale Institute. They have been leading the charge in restoration and education to repair our planet’s soil via regenerative agriculture.
If you could have anyone’s singing voice, who would it be?
Janessa is graciously offering a discount for the VIDA community. Enter code VINTNERS at checkout for $20 off your first purchase at janessaleone.com