In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
When Santa Barbara-bred sisters Margaret and Katherine Kleveland decided to leave their corporate design jobs and start their own brand, they knew exactly what they didn't want to do. They'd both worked at big contemporary companies that relied heavily on wholesale and observed how catering to buyers had tainted the design process and homogenized the entire market. There were also frustrated by the fact that most big fashion companies were women-led, but male-owned. They wanted to build a brand that, from the outside, told a story and felt personal and, from the inside, was run ethically and democratically by women.
Dôen, a direct-to-consumer womenswear brand of easy, feminine pieces with a distinct aesthetic, was born in Los Angeles in early 2016. The brand has since amassed a cult following for its flowy, printed blouses and maxi dresses. They're staples in many a New Yorker's summer-in-Montauk wardrobe and in LA, it's difficult to spend a day in Silverlake without seeing at least a handful. The brand also has one of the most beautiful and cohesive Instagram aesthetics I've come across — one of the strongest assets a brand can have nowadays.
As an all-female collective — the Klevelands emphasize that the company is run collaboratively, as a group — female empowerment is an integral part of Dôen's ethos, and increasingly, that comes across in its imagery.
"I really felt like this had to be a group effort, and I think that that's one of the main things that's lead us to be successful, because it wouldn't have looked like this, if it wasn't like that," says Katherine. "We wouldn't have reached the customer base we did." Motherhood is often celebrated — the brand's more oversized dresses and tops are apparently favorite among pregnant women — and the summer 2018 lookbook (pictured above) even featured a woman breastfeeding. Both Klevelands are mothers, as well. (Katherine nonchalantly breastfed her newborn during our interview in their office.)
"I think it speaks to one of our biggest hopes for this company, is not to have the extreme rigidity of what we experienced in our corporate jobs," says Katherine, referring to strict rules around maternity leave. "I think we want to put it out there as much as possible. We're being shot for the LA Times tomorrow. I'm like, 'I will be breastfeeding.'"
We sat down with the very cool, inspiring sisters along with Phoebe Dean, the brand's content director, just ahead of the launch of Dôen's fall 2018 collection — its biggest yet — to learn more about their direct-to-consumer model, how they tell stories through imagery, their dedication to women-run factories, plans for brick-and-mortar and more. Read on for the highlights (and for a sneak peek of the fall pieces shot in Washington's Orcas Island).
Why did you want to be direct-to-consumer? Were you inspired by other brands in that space?
Katherine: Margaret and I talked, and when we started our business plan, there were these different pillars that we were like, "These are what's going to make our brand different and new and unique." I think one of them being that we had to be direct-to-consumer, based on where we saw the market going.
Another is, we wanted to be visually unique and compelling and to tell the story with the brand, with every photograph — to really compel the customers to buy something, based on it being shot in a location, telling a lifestyle story. I've been wanting to have product that was really affordable and high-quality in a way that it wasn't on the market at the time, and by being direct-to-consumer, we could achieve that.
Margaret: We were by no means the first brand in the e-commerce space, but I think we were on the cuff enough, before it exploded as an absolute necessity for every brand. We would look to brands like Reformation from a business strategy standpoint and be like, "Hey, you know, we have really different product and totally different missions, but what they're doing is really having a clear point of view in the digital space."
Katherine: They had a personality, where a lot of brands have lost that. A lot of brands felt like they were just owned and run by a corporation and there was no soul behind it. The customers want that — they want to feel connected — and I think we felt like we identified a customer that was ourselves and there was a big group of women like us.
How did you start to build a customer base without doing wholesale?
Katherine: Everyone really wanted us to do some wholesale. People couldn't wrap their heads around that, that we weren't doing wholesale.
Margaret: And also, I think it was, "Oh, when you're launching, what's your marketing budget? What's your ROI?" We had a lot of faith that we knew enough people and would be able to have a good enough product that the grassroots, word-of-mouth situation would happen and that we would definitely, organically be able to build over time. I think that was our goal.
Katherine: A lot of our wisest mentors told us we needed to find a unicorn, and that unicorn is [Phoebe Dean, Dôen's content director] and she was like, "Focus on the social media and that's going to be your ticket."
Margaret: We asked people and launched social media probably three months in advance of our launch, and when we launched, I think we had around 12,000 followers. We had also done a little bit of a press tour in New York, in advance of our launch date. Again, through friends connecting and helping and believing and supporting, having faith, we were able to get an article in T Magazine on our launch day, and that really was huge.
The imagery you share on Instagram is so beautiful and cohesive — what kinds of resources go into that aspect of the business?
Margaret: We always knew that, when we launched, we wanted to invest in the assets and the imagery, and we shot a lot on film and still do. We're totally committed to location to tell that story. We put a lot of resources in our product photography.
The biggest gifts our [customers] have given back to us is they really create a lot of that content. It's been so amazing, and I never underestimate the power of that.
Katherine: You can tell they feel beautiful. That's the biggest gift. You're wearing our clothes and you feel so beautiful, you feel compelled to do a little photo shoot.
Phoebe: Something that I feel like is important to me is making our brand really accessible to all of our women we're speaking to. I think the fact that we do use their content and do repost it and do acknowledge them shows and speaks to that, where it's like, "Yes, we are accessible. Yes, we're posting images and our models on location. We're also posting your picture because you are just as inspiring to us."
It's inclusivity versus exclusivity.
Margaret: Yeah. I feel like when we launched it, it really was an era of fashion is exclusive. This is designer.
Katherine: We really felt after having our children that we felt connected to this community.
This summer you've had a pop-up in Brentwood. What have you learned from having a physical retail experience?
Katherine: Our manager gave us the feedback that a lot of the people coming into our pop up were first-time customers. For us, that was amazing.
Margaret: When we had drafted our initial strategy, we left the brick and mortar piece open-ended. It really has been feedback from our customers that's let us know that that's a really important piece to the puzzle.
So, are there plans for something more permanent?
Margaret: Brentwood was such an amazing test. It was like, the ideal situation in which to test. The space is really large, but being able to have access to that and that kind of foot traffic in that community was great.
Do you think you would stay in that area?
Margaret: We would absolutely love to. The space is a lot to take on long-term, but there's other spaces.
I know so many people, especially who work in fashion, who obsessively love your clothes. Why do you think Dôen has developed such a cult-like following?
Margaret: For me, it's that we are creating product that we weren't able to find otherwise, that at the same time, is easy but also makes you feel beautiful. It's for women, it's for peers, it's for community.
Katherine: You can have a beautiful story and tell a story about a brand, but at the end of the day, if a product doesn't come out feeling really expensive and like you're getting good value — our clothes feel high-value because they are. The price is what it is because we're direct-to-consumer, otherwise it wouldn't be.
I read that you work with women-owned factories, mostly in Peru and India. How do you stay conscious about the facilities you're using?
Margaret: From our past, one of our biggest takeaways is that when you start playing the game of developing the same thing with two vendors and taking the cheaper price, it damages them in the end. You might save a little bit, but you lose on quality and it's just not a sustainable game.
We launched with three primary vendors. They're women-run and family-owned companies and since then, we've really kept our factory base pretty exclusive to them, and as we add categories, adding necessary people who do that kind of production, but all along the same lines.
Speaking of categories, how have you decided what to expand into and what's next?
Katherine: A lot of people ask us, "What's next?" It's very much from a tech angle. They will be like, "How are you guys going to grow the business? How are you going to take it to the next level?" I'm like, "We're still not dressing our customer head-to-toe." We want to expand in outerwear. We want to grow our bottom's business.
Phoebe: Our kids clothes slay.
Katherine: [Kids] could be huge. We're getting such positive feedback from customers via their buying power and their constant contact with our customer service, and they want bridal. I definitely love designing all products; it's not like we just want to do tops and dresses, but we've just expanded into T-shirts and we've got a huge response. Our bottoms always do really well and that's more of a science. We want to make sure we get the science perfect. I think our brand really organically lends itself to home.
As a growing business, do you think about a size you want to be in the future?
Katherine: We want to meet our customer demand. I think we're led by that, more than anything. I don't think we're trying to scale the steepest of fashion because we've seen a lot of brands to that and there's a quick decline on the other side. I think we want to invest in the long haul. This is our baby; this is it for us. We're not going to start five new companies next week. We want to really grow this and make it something that's really substantial.
Margaret: We also get a lot of outreach from other women who are starting businesses, and I try to be responsive to as many of those conversations as I can and tell them about the early days. I hear more and more people coming and saying, "How did you fundraise early on?" They really think you have to raise $5 million just to get off the ground.
Did you guys raise money?
Margaret: We did have friends and family around, but it was really with the goal of getting us through two seasons of inventory. We had no overhead. We did every role ourselves: Katherine, Phoebe and I, and two other women.
Katherine: The second you accept [outside funding], I feel like you have to make compromises in order to grow this certain amount every year.
How does being LA-based influence the brand in regards to aesthetic or business, or both?
Margaret: Katherine and I go back and reference how we grew up in Santa Barbara, and it's really informed our overall aesthetic. I love mountains, I love oak trees. There's a certain color palette that I feel like people totally understand and associate with us, and it's very much based in that.
Katherine: We were driving this summer with my kids; I have a six-year-old and a four-year-old. We were like, "Look out the window — do you see? Look at the rolling hills." He went, "What? You mean the Dôen colors?"
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.