This LA-based panel features Lauren Alexander, co-founder of LNA Clothing. Lauren discusses how she built her brand from the ground up and offers advice for those trying to build something they believe in. Below you will find tips on translating your vision into a reality, and advice on maintaining a brand after the exciting launch phase.
We had this idea to make a t-shirt line, and two weeks later, we had samples. That was the start of LNA. We didn’t waste any time and I think that momentum has really kept us going. That was the tone we set in 2006. In the beginning, a lot people would say to us, “You guys are so young. You don’t know what you’re doing. There are so many t-shirt brands. It’s never going to succeed.” But we had the perfect storm of being naive, a little arrogant, and just thinking, “We’re going to prove you wrong.” It didn’t matter that an owner of a multi-million dollar denim line told us, “You’re never going to make money selling t-shirts.” I was like, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” That’s the level of arrogance and tenacity that we had. You never let that get in the way, because anybody can give you a reason not to do something. If you don’t believe in your idea, I guarantee you no one else will.
From the moment we started, we never wanted to have a small, indie brand. Our goal from the very beginning was to do something global. We set our goals high and that has also kept us moving forward, because that’s a tall order. We didn’t want to think small. If you want something, don’t be afraid of wanting it. Want everything.
We went to our first trade show in Vegas a month in. We came back with all these orders, and I called my sister and said, “Remember how I started that t-shirt company? I need you to quit your job and work for us because I don’t know who else we’re going to hire.” And she said, “No, you’re insane.” Eventually I convinced her to move to LA and help us with this company. She got paid before I did. In the beginning, we weren’t being paid. We were just trying to make t-shirts and pay the bills with any leftover cash. We didn’t have anyone else, so we really learned how to do every single job in this business. That’s so important—to know the ins and outs of your company. I know how to do the job of everyone who works for me because I’ve done it before. I’ve taped the box. I’ve packed the order. I’ve designed the clothes. I designed our logo on Word in 2006 in Ariel Black font. I made my own line sheets. I photographed things on walls. We were renting an electrical closet in our factory. It was this tiny little room with phones and heaters and wires and we sat on the floor. We shipped our first million dollars out of that little office ourselves.
When you’re young and starting out, people give you a lot of advice. You’re getting so much conflicting advice from everywhere. It can get very confusing. Three years in, we went through a phase when I started to feel a little bit lost. We weren’t just the new, hot brand anymore. I was trying to grab advice from anywhere that I could, and that ended up hurting the brand. I stopped listening to what I truly wanted for the brand and listened to everyone else instead. I wish at the time that I could’ve believed in myself a little bit more and thought, "Let’s stick it out. Keep doing what we’re doing.” But I was going through an insecure patch—I wanted to feel like I was a real designer and that we were a real brand. I wanted us to be taken seriously. It took a while for me to gain my confidence in what I was doing. But I didn’t have a choice—failure was not an option. During that time, my investor literally said to me, “I need you to know that this is a real business and failure is not an option.” At 26, that’s scary. It scared me to realize that I had something that I could potentially lose. I had to go back to the drawing board, regroup, and move forward again. Essentially, it made LNA stronger and me a better designer.
Maintaining is tougher than launching, 100%. In the beginning it’s so exciting. People love new brands and you’re just kind of going with it. After two years or three years, you have to learn how to run a business and how to stay relevant. Staying relevant is hard. There’s also so much more on the line, the stakes are higher. When I was young, I don’t think I thought about failure and risk as much. I would just do what I needed to do to get the job done. Now if I make a mistake, there’s a lot more is riding on it. I think you have this idea that ten years in, the company will be cruising. And sure, the company’s very stable and we’re growing, but the pressure now is so much greater. I have a responsibility as a business owner to my customers and my employees—to keep them happy, and keep my team inspired. That’s the challenge now: what’s next? How do you keep it interesting? Every year there is a new hurdle. We conquer one thing, and then the next year comes with a whole new set of problems to figure out. And there are new goals. You’re constantly setting new goals as you progress. It’s been the most fulfilling and rewarding experience of my life but it’s by no means easy. Then again, I don’t think I would want it to be easy!
I used to always compare myself to other brands. It took me a long time to be comfortable with our own journey, which now, I wouldn’t trade for anything. We learned all of our own lessons. All of our failures led to our successes. You make a big enough mistake, you won’t make it again. I promise! “No” never really meant “no”. It just meant “not that way” or “not then”. To find another way, to approach it from another angle. Just take that word out of your vocabulary.
In terms of inspiration, I’m working on three seasons at a time. In this industry, there are five seasons a year. When you’re done with a collection, it’s on to the next. There’s never any down time so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to fall into my lap. A lot of it is really instinctual—seeing what my friends are wearing, what’s happening on the streets. That’s all very important. Another part of it is what’s selling. We want to create commercially successful collections while maintaining the integrity of the brand. That can be very tricky, because the two don’t always align. I think it’s finding that sweet spot between what I want versus what’s expected of me. How do I marry those two things? That’s my formula and my challenge for every collection. It’s me bending a little bit as a designer to please people. It took me a long time to learn how to do that.
I think you can use fear to your advantage. If I’m fearful of something, I always try to capitalize on it and use it to drive myself forward. There are a million failed lines, but you’re never going to know unless you try. I can’t imagine never having done this because I was too scared—how different my life would have been. It’s all about taking risks and within that there can be great reward. There’s sacrifice, but it’s such an exciting journey that I would never want anyone to pass up because they were scared. You have to jump off the ledge. Don’t stop until you get what you want, because there are so many people out there that are hungry and want it just as badly as you do. You can’t give up. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. And listen to your accountant!
Every time I get down, I look back on our journey and think about how resilient we’ve been as a company. I think about what we’ve already survived. At the end of the day, LNA is not going to go under if we ship a store wrong. It might seem like the whole world’s ending, but we have to put things into perspective. When I look back at the journey as a whole, I’m able to calm down and say, “OK, we’ve got this.” We’ve survived so many mistakes that I don’t think there’s anything we couldn’t overcome at this point. If this all fell apart, I would build it all over again. This is just who I am.