In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Lele Sadoughi has been designing her namesake jewelry line for over five years, but it wasn't until her now-signature headband style — a thick band with a knot at the top, often embellished with pearls or beads — became ubiquitous on Instagram in the last year that her brand really blew up.
"People like to share stuff on Instagram and when they take a lot of pictures of themselves, it's really framing their face," Sadoughi offers as explanation. "So I think it unconsciously is a great product that's easy for sharing."
Here's how it happened: After having two kids in a short amount of time, Sadoughi found herself short on hours to do any kind of primping, so she began to throw on her daughter's headbands to appear more polished. They didn't quite fit, and featured cutesy details, but Sadoughi liked how they looked. She did some searching, combing through everywhere from Amazon to Anthropologie, but didn't see the kind of fun, statement-making headbands she wanted at the right price point. Inspiration struck when she found the pearl-embellished fabrics she was using to make bags, and an Instagram hit was born.
But one sell-out headband is just the culmination of a long career in fashion for Sadoughi, who started out choosing trims at Rebecca Taylor as a design assistant. From there, she transitioned into the world of costume jewelry, working alongside Jenna Lyons to launch J.Crew's jewelry line, before ultimately launching her own brand in 2012. Throughout her journey, Sadoughi has been at the forefront of many of the biggest trends in accessorizing from the past decade, from chunky, neon-colored necklaces to the aforementioned headbands — something she attributes to listening to her gut.
"You have to live your aesthetic," she says simply.
Here, Sadoughi shares the highlights of her career path, what creating a brand category from scratch taught her and why staying in your own lane can be valuable.
What first interested you in fashion?
I've always been drawn to creating things. When I went to university, I decided to do advertising, because I thought that could be a good blend of something creative and something more traditionally business, but then when I graduated, I did some internships. It turned out to be a more quantitative than I had hoped, and so I just decided I wanted to go into fashion, and I moved to L.A.
I went to a boutique, I literally looked at the labels and found local designers, faxed my resumes in and started working for a really small clothing designer — which was the best thing I ever did, because you are a jack of all trades when you work for a really small company. I did all the sales, I did the PR, I did production, I was running samples back and forth, I was doing the line sheets and organizing the look books; doing so many different things and got to get my hands wet and figure out what I wanted to do.
I wanted to do something more formal with fashion, so I went to Central Saint Martins in London and I took courses there in drawing, sketching, pattern making and other kind of fashion design-related courses.
What were some of your first jobs in fashion?
I started at Rebecca Taylor as a design assistant, and at the time, I was one of five people in design; it was a much smaller company than it is now. I was managing the pattern makers, so I had to make sure that all the duplicates were made and all the first pieces were made, schedule the fittings and make sure that we had enough yardage to make each piece. It was a really good learning curve, because it's all about time, getting it right, getting the right fabric and getting it all done for the market shows.
Then I started to do trims there. That was when my focus changed from apparel to the mindset that I have today, which is more about all the adornments that go on your body versus the draping of the apparel.
I was there for a few years, and from there I moved to a private label for Ippolita. It was a big move for me, because I went from an apparel company to a jewelry company. I just learned it as I went. I was making stuff for Banana Republic, Old Navy, Club Monaco, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, Ann Taylor — almost all the people that do custom jewelry in these big corporate companies.
Five months in, a friend of mine from high school was at J. Crew, and she's like, 'You should just do an exploratory interview.' There was no jewelry at the time, so I thought I'd do accessories or something like that. I met with someone in HR; they called me back in, and I met with Jenna Lyons, and I remember going in her office, and she's like, 'We want to do jewelry.' In my head, I'm like, 'Okay, I've really not been doing jewelry that long, but sure, I can totally do this.' The whole aesthetic and the vibe of J. Crew is very much aligned with what I love; I love color, I love scale and I love something that's really fun and statement-worthy. It was very easy for me to think of the DNA of what jewelry would be at J. Crew.
Jenna was like, 'Here's $500. Come back with a mood board of what J. Crew jewelry would be.' I worked on it for a week or so, and pulled a bunch of inspiration images, some vintage jewelry — the world that I thought it could be and how it could relate to the clothing. I started from a blank slate. I was all about doing these layers of enameled bangles, so that became a big thing for a while. It was all about matching, and J. Crew was all about mixing really fun color ways — I don't know if you remember the bubble necklace. That thing that had its own life. Some pieces are actually still on the website. There's a pearl hammock necklace that I did; it's a four-row twisted glass pearl necklace, and that's still online. There's been some pieces that have become iconic at this point.
I learned to merchandise: I've got to do a little necklace for that person who doesn't want the statement necklace, and you also have the little earrings and the big earrings so people have a choice. Those things gave me a roadmap for thinking about how you start a collection and how you make sure that everybody can be included and find something for them in it.
What was the experience like of creating something out of nothing for J.Crew?
It was something that Jenna pushed along, because she wanted to do jewelry and I met directly with her; even when she became president and there was someone else that was head of women's, I still reported directly to her. I was the only one in design that did, because it was such a passion project, and I think I was able to take more risks because it really gave personality to an outfit.
When I first started, Jenna was like, 'If it looks real, it's got to be real; I don't want to use crystals and I don't want to use fake pearls.' I finally was able to throw in some pearls and crystals and mixing it up in a fresh way.
I was spitting out a new collection every month. So it was like, "I have to do it — I don't have time to think of other things, let's just put it out there."
Then you went out on your own, right?
I started my company in September of 2012. It was also a good time in my life where I was just engaged, I was getting married, thinking about starting a family and knowing that I wanted to have a bit more autonomy and do my own thing so that I could be a bit more flexible with my schedule.
I started my collection, and then I was approached by Tory Burch because they wanted me to be design director of jewelry for them. Tory was awesome; she said, "That's fine, you can have your line." I worked there an average of three days a week. It was very flexible, and I had a team under me. When I first started, I was pregnant, and I worked there until a week before I had my son. My company was growing and then I had Tory and then my son, so I kept my son and my company, basically. [laughs]
The timing was actually really crazy, because when you just start you're not crazy-busy all the time and I was actually distracted because I had a newborn. It was before Instagram, so you weren't so obsessed with growing anything so quickly. I was always profitable from the beginning and growing then at a healthy pace, hiring when I needed to and not taking in any investments. My very, very first order was Neiman Marcus; I'm from Dallas, so that's extra special.
I definitely had a leg up because people knew my designs from J. Crew, and they knew the J. Crew jewelry, so a lot of people were really interested in seeing the collection.
What items did you start the line with?
I started with what I called slider bracelets. Having done jewelry for so long and going to China all the time, I understood which materials look and feel nice, and are good value for what they cost — like glass and reconstituted stones and things like that. You can get gorgeous colors and they're not that pricey. Being at J. Crew, I learned a lot about price points and what people like. I realized that there was room in the market, because J. Crew stuff was up to $150, really not much more than that. The other fashion designer jewelry sells at like $300, $500, necklaces at $800, hovering almost to the thousand dollars.
People, they're smart, and they understand quality, and they know that when you go to Zara or H&M, you're going to buy a ten dollar bracelet, it's cute, and it's great for the season, but is it really going to last more than a few wears? There needs to be something in the middle, where people want something that has quality and weight and good design, and they want to be able to buy new stuff every season. It was really important to me to never go above the $500 mark; right now, I have some studs that are $38, but I range up to $350.
Tell me about the headband style which has just exploded for you.
Oh, my God, it is the wildest thing. I've been doing fashion jewelry, which is so quick — I think it's quicker than apparel, the cycle of things. When I think about how long I've been doing jewelry — over a decade, at least — and thinking about when it was all about the mixing of the necklaces, or the stacked bracelets, or a crazy earring moment. This headband moment is wilder than any of the other moments I've seen that I just talked about — like, tenfold.
My jewelry sales have doubled since last year, but my headband sales are even greater. We've had a tremendous growth this year; my company's probably grown minimum four-fold this year.
They debuted a year ago last May. Then, after the summer, when the Spring 2019 shows came out, brands like Prada have headbands in every look, and it's getting out there. People were like, 'Okay, where can I find it in the market today?' For me, it was really important to have an entry-level price point, so they start at $45. You can try it for $45, and if you like it, then buy more, or upgrade to the beaded ones that are $150.
Then a bunch of influencers started to wear them. We are not gifting anybody, and I've certainly never even had a budget to pay any influencer, ever. We would see it when they would post it. I think it just goes to show you that when you have a product that people want, it gets out there. I think Instagram's just been a really big part of our exposure, which has been great.
People don't go out and buy 10 earrings, but when they find a headband that they like, they buy it in every color. I just got my largest web order the other day, and I think it was 45 headbands.
So what has this power of social media meant for your business?
It's hard to exactly quantify what it's been and what this really huge growth is, but I've done a lot of subscription boxes. I started to do some paid ads on Instagram in the past couple months to reach, to expose people and have them learn about the brand, which has been tremendous. And once I started selling on Shopbop and Nordstrom, they have a huge relationship with so many influencers, so when they shopped those sites, they'd pick stuff out from Lele Sadoughi and started tagging it; that was a game-changer. I think that one of the greatest marketing tools is really having the support of Shopbop and Nordstrom and Saks and Neiman's. It's giving exposure to a company like myself, where I don't have a brick and mortar.
How are you guys handling that amount of growth in that amount of time, and how are you planning on sustaining that momentum?
We've had two really big changes: We've moved, because I've hired more people, and I have someone helping me in design and production and sales and operations. I have one person that's devoted only to customer service, because we have really increased our customer database so much, so quickly. We moved everything over to a fulfillment center, so now we can scale accordingly. We can put more money into ads for exposure, because we don't have a threshold. We can get out as much as we need to.
This is a really big step for us that we needed to do to grow, and I'm thrilled. Just to put it in perspective, December is usually people's best month; my January was better than December. My February was 50% more of January, and my March was double that of January. And April was even like 30% more than that. It was to the point where I'd be up to midnight literally just making sure that the orders got fulfilled and printed and packed, folding boxes, whatever we needed to do. But now I don't have that pressure. If we sell five times as much as we did a month ago, we can handle it.
I'm writing a business plan right now to think about retail. I'd love to start somewhere in downtown, in lower New York City, and grow from there to give people the outlet to see things.
How do you decide on new categories?
After I saw the success of expanding categories into doing hair, we just debuted some more hair stuff, like hard clips, barrettes, pearl barrettes, elastics.
I'm debuting a fresh water pearl group, which is something that I love. For me, this is a core collection, and I want to keep it very classic. Sunglasses are coming Memorial Day weekend-ish — and not only sunglasses, but I'm doing really fun, colorful sunglass chains. What I've done different is my sunglasses have a little loop at the end, so you can connect your chains to them. I decided to do classic shapes, like a cat-eye, a round and a wire aviator, but in fun, crazy colors. For the girl who loves matching like I do, you can match your earrings to your glasses and have a headband and have the whole look. Another category that I'm working on, for holiday, I'm going to do jeweled belts and jeweled socks.
I don't care so much about leather. I don't care about competing with that market — which goes for handbags, for belts, for a lot of things — because there's so many people that do that so well.
What advice would you give someone looking to start a company?
One of the best things I did was work for big corporations before I started on my own. You can learn on someone else's dime. You learn a lot by just soaking in all the information from the people around you. Even if you are dead-set on being a designer, you should have experience working in merchandising, marketing, operations, PR, fulfillment and get your hands dirty.
I didn't realize that the only time I would have time to design is midnight, and I'd be doing everything else during the day, because that's what happens when you have your own business. But I finally feel like I'm getting to a point where I can go back to designing in the daytime and not in my pajamas at midnight.
What is your ultimate goal for the brand?
Once I understand who the Lele Sadoughi girl is and who I want to dress, then it's so easy for me to think of that girl and be like, 'Okay. Well, I know that girl. I know exactly what she's going to wear."'
I think that jewelry doesn't just have to be for your ears: It can be around your waist, it can be on your shoes, it can be on your table. I did napkin rings recently, and I feel like it's like a little treasure that you can keep. It's about thinking about jewelry in a different way that can be about a maximal look that can be anywhere in your life. I'm all about maximal and colorful and large scale. That's what I love. I think it's important to stay true to what you like and evolve it in different ways, so you're known as having that aesthetic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.