A lot of successful brands begin with a long planning process to determine things like point of view, a retail strategy and a business plan. Others, like Alyssa Wasko's brand Donni, are more like accidents that just happen to work out (thanks to good execution, of course). One could even describe Donni's growth as a brand thus far as a series of accidents, or proof that Wasko just has an innate ability to predict what items the market is craving, whether it's versatile scarves, scrunchies, tube tops or — launching for fall — Patagonia-inspired pullovers.
I'll admit that Donni initially caught my attention for being the phonetic spelling of my first name (now you know!!), but once I saw celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski and Lily Collins wearing the brand, and heard its scrunchies were selling out three or four times over, I knew it was something worth paying attention to beyond its name.
Wasko began her fashion career at Chanel's corporate office in New York, working her way up from a summer intern to a part-time consultant to a full-time employee. But Donni was actually born while she was still in college in Arizona: Her father, Donald (Donni for short), passed away the first week of her sophomore year and she began making scarves — which had always been her preferred accessory — as a hobby and distraction.
"I put angel wing charms on them to make me feel like my dad was with me," she explains in her Downtown Los Angeles studio. "I made one for myself and made one for a friend, then all of our friends wanted them and it was a really weird evolution and snowball effect."
Wasko knew she was onto something when fellow students kept wanting to buy them — in Arizona, where scarves are obviously very unnecessary. "It made absolutely no sense," she says. She continued making them herself while she was working at Chanel, but after a few years the demand reached a point where she decided to devote herself to Donni full time. Her first non-college milestone was when Jessica Biel was pictured wearing one of the scarves in US Weekly — and not because it was gifted.
Today, even as celebrities wear the brand's scrunchies and tube tops regularly (thanks mostly to a PR team), college students are still an integral part of the brand. Wasko started a college campus ambassador program — a tactic more commonly utilized by bigger brands like Victoria's Secret Pink, Abercrombie & Fitch and even Glossier. "When we first started, our photographer was a student and everyone that contributed was a student. It's just about empowering other people in that stage," she says. Participants are often members of sororities, fashion clubs or business programs and receive personal codes to promote. "It's almost like you are a merchandiser or buyer for your own store, essentially, so you get the word out, you get a gauge on what pieces in the collection you think your customer base would like," Wasko explains.
Wasko feels good about being able to mentor the next generation of student entrepreneurs, but the program of course also drives sales. "This is a business at the end of the day, so there's no reason to do something if it's not generating revenue," she notes.
Since her college days, Donni has expanded slowly from scarves, to other hair accessories like scrunchies, to — as of Spring 2018 — ready-to-wear pieces like tie tube tops, smocked tube tops, cropped tanks and breezy high-waisted pants. Fall, launching this week, marks the largest ready-to-wear offering yet, including lounge-y, tomboyish pieces like chunky Henleys, cozy cardigans and the aforementioned pullovers — all made for tucking into vintage Levi's. The brand also launched handbags recently. Prices range from around $30 for a scrunchie, to around $200 for the popular Flora pants.
"There was never a plan to do any of this expansion," says Wasko. She stuck with scarves for a long time, and was surprised that proved to be so successful. "Building a huge business on just one product category that no one actually needs, I think that gave us a really amazing foundation to go off of." The tie tube tops happened because people were already wearing the brands's scarves that way, while the pants were more of a personal project. "I personally was looking for a high-waisted linen breezy pant and I looked at Zara, The Row, Gap; I just couldn't find something that I really loved, so I was like, let me just try it," she says. "I made them and they looked really cute and then literally a few weeks later I had a ready-to-wear collection." The pants have sold out multiple times.
The brand is sold at Moda Operandi, Nordstrom and Shopbop in addition to its own e-commerce, and Wasko says she may focus even more on direct-to-consumer going forward. "Especially over past six months, direct-to-consumer is a humongous part of our business," she says.
That's in large part thanks to, of course, Instagram. "I think 97 percent of our web traffic comes from Instagram," she says. "Instagram is a really, I think, the most valuable resource that anyone that has a business can use." Wasko dabbles in influencer gifting, but aims to keep it pretty organic. "I think that if you have to incentivize someone to wear and promote your things, you're not going to get the return you want," she says. "The people I want in our brand are the people who really love it."
She's taking the same organic approach with expanding into new categories. "You just have to listen to your customer and see what's working and what's not," she says. It's worked so far.