As business problems go, hat designer Janessa Leone's was a good one to have. She quickly outgrew both original manufacturers for her line during its first season. That was in 2012.
She is now in her sixth season, with her hats selling through retailers in 14 countries around the world as well as on janessaleone.com. Leone, 28, won't divulge sales figures but says growth has been rapid: "We're only 3 years old. Our second year we had a 4,000% increase over year one. Year two has stabilized and growing at a more realistic but still profitable 50% increase. Overall sales are marking a 5,900% three-year growth rate. The company has grown profitably with no debt."
She recently expanded into handbags, debuting a series of four elegant, pared-down leather purses. But her design goals extend even beyond the beautiful handcrafted bags and chapeaus in the collection, which sells for $140 to $330. "I see myself as a designer, and hats are just an expression of that now," she explains. "Shoes, clothes, lifestyle; I'd love to do it all."
Do you have a first hat memory? Did you wear hats as a child?
Yes, I always wore hats. My family's Italian, and I think it's just something we grew up with; my mom loved to put me in all the crazy hats in the '80s — the big flowers. I think it helped with the confidence I feel wearing them today because they're so natural for me. I remember my grandpa would always wear hats; he was Italian so he had his classic Italian-man fedora he'd wear all the time.
What made you want to design hats?
A jumping-off point was this one hat I found in Paris. A brown wool fedora [circa 1930 and which serendipitously had the name Leone stamped as the hat's maker inside its sweatband], and it was this beautiful hat. It's had a unique place in my life. I was on a college graduation trip and I found it and thought, "I want to make something beautiful like this so that 50 years down the road someone will find it in a vintage shop and wonder about this little treasure."
Your line was an immediate hit and you had to grow and scale your business very quickly. My guess is this took you by surprise?
It did. And I'm still surprised every day and trying to figure it all out. To be honest, it's been a double-edged sword. In the fashion world you have to be so incredibly strategic and make sure you create something that has longevity and is not just everywhere all at once so everyone has overseen it and goes on to the next new fresh thing.
So it's obviously great; I got to quit my job and do this full time and do what I want every day, but it's a constant struggle to make sure we're developing new products and keeping our brand strategy and marketing and everything to adhere to what I want to do so I can build this brick by brick. It built up 20 bricks high when it first started, which is a great foundation.
Were you trained in fashion at all?
I had no training in any of this; I was an English major in college and I was studying to go to law school, actually. But I'm a creative person. Still, a creative business is very challenging, and running a business and still trying to create is a very hard task that I'm figuring out how to do every day.
How many people are involved with the actual hat-as-product from start to finish?
From start to finish the hat goes through 36 pairs of hands. It's all self-sustainable. So from getting the sheep wool to the mills to clean and comb and turn it into felt, the whole process takes time. There's no handbook really of how to do this; it's something of a craft and skill these folks have been doing their whole lives. And it's a true skill. They know and can feel the weight of the hat body in their fingers. It's incredible what they do. I could spend all day in the factory.
How did you find your manufacturer?
It was a tricky process. It took me a long time — from 2009 to 2012 — to find my first manufacturer. I had this hat and I was shipping it all over the world asking, "Can you make something like this?" I was jumping into the millinery world, which at that point was almost dead; there weren't too many manufacturers able to produce that caliber of a hat. So I got plugged into this small-hat world trying to revive the art, and people were unusually helpful and got me in touch with people they knew — Texas cowboys and milliners from Maine. It was very passionate for everyone, which I loved.
I eventually found my first manufacturer in Canada, but unfortunately they just weren't able to do the mass as we caught on so fast; I then found another manufacturer in Texas, and same thing, I just outgrew them. My current manufacturer [located on the East Coast] can do higher volume and still maintain the high quality, and they have a crazy big deep archive of hats; it's just a perfect blend of how I design and now what's available to me.
Who are you designing for — young women?
It's not really a specific person but someone interested in art, travel, has self-confidence, a sense of style but doesn't necessarily have two hours of time a day to spend on their wardrobe. Someone who's innately so self-confident they express their individuality through their clothing. Because in order to wear hats you have to be confident with yourself. If you don't, you can feel awkward and then look awkward. You need to harness this confidence.
Regarding the "I'm a hat person versus not a hat person" divide, isn't the question not "Do I look good in hats" but, rather, "Do I feel good in hats?"
Yes, I couldn't have put it better myself. You can find a hat to fit your face, that's not a problem. It's if you have confidence and feel good and don't feel uncomfortable that's the key. If you tell yourself every day, "I'm not a hat person" and then when you put a hat on you're not going to wear it confidently and people obviously pick up on that. I don't think this whole hat-fence divide has anything to do with face shapes or if a hat looks good. It's whether the wearer thinks and feels it does.
What's the best basic hat style most women look good in and should own?
I think of the wool fedora. We make a '70s-inspired fedora, so it has a wider brim but not exaggeratedly wide. It's a very manageable hat. I think part of why we've been successful is because a lot of people pick up our hats and think, "Oh, my gosh, this does look good; I do actually look/feel good in this; I never thought I could look or feel good in a hat." It's a very universal shape that I try to create.
Why are Americans and Brits so different in their hat styles? We Americans are so somber in millinery whereas the British are crazy and wild. What's with that?
It's a celebratory role for hats in Britain. They wear them to weddings and celebratory events; it's something very cultural to them. Here, we're much more reserved in the millinery arena and we don't have a culture of significance for hats. They're more naturally fashion-driven than functional, especially here in Southern California, where unless you're wearing a big sun hat, there's not a real reason to put on a hat.
Who do you think on today's scene rocks hats really well?
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Jessica Alba and Chrissy Teigen all rock a hat better than any girl I've seen, and I'm lucky enough to have them as fans, which is wonderful. These girls have been incredible organic supporters — they've found [our hats] in stores and worn them, and it's amazing because they'd be our dream choices.