Social Media Handles:
Los Angeles, CA
Short Business Description:
Co is a luxury womenswear brand based in Los Angeles.
We had the privilege of visiting the Co studio to interview one of its founders, Stephanie Danan, in the arts district of Los Angeles. In true small business form, her partner, Justin Kern, was within arms reach, and kind enough to join us for the conversation. With light-filled windows, classic midcentury furniture, and racks of gorgeous clothing, we had to pinch ourselves a few times to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
As is the story of so many successful businesses, Co was born out of Stephanie’s strong personal need. As a film producer, she noticed a gap in the fashion market. Despite her impeccable taste and an appreciation for designer pieces, she did not want to spend excessive amounts of her income on clothing – she wanted the quality of designer garments available at a more contemporary price point. She also craved classic wardrobe staples that were more feminine than androgynous- and that simply did not exist.
Out of this need, Co was born. Co is a labor of love, and a common thread that ties both her personal and professional lives together. Stephanie started the business with Justin – the two are not only business partners, but also a couple, and parents to their young son Jacob. Work and personal time bleed together, as is the case with so many entrepreneurs, and fuels their ambition to create something that leaves a positive mark on this world. Read on to learn about how they launched a brand, how they balance work with family, and what is in store for Co.
Before launching Co, what did you do?
Stephanie: I was a film producer.
What made you transition to fashion from film?
Stephanie: I did have a background in fashion. My family was in the fashion business when I was growing up. To be honest with you, I didn’t really think out every detail of Co. There was definitely some spontaneity to the whole thing.
Justin and I were working on some film projects together, and at the time Hollywood started going very franchise…not the kinds of films that I loved. I had come from the early days of Miramax, making more independent films, so there was definitely a frustration of being in development, and wanting to create something that you could touch and feel right away. Justin and I decided to put this little collection together, not really thinking very much of it, and we made a film to go along with the collection. The film went online, it went on style.com (now part of vogue.com) at the time, and Barneys called us. That is how our business started.
Did you have any formal business training before launching?
Stephanie: No, I went to school to study film. I had an entrepreneurial family. Both of my parents were entrepreneurs, so I definitely had that instinct, but no formal training.
Justin: But you had run your company.
Stephanie: I had run my film company.
Is it similar to running a fashion company?
Stephanie: I think there are a lot of similarities. Luckily I was in an industry, in film, where it’s very difficult, and it takes a lot of work ethic and discipline. So, in a way, it was great training for what was ahead.
Justin: There is an article that just came out that says everyone should start in film.
Stephanie: Yeah, it’s so hard. You really have to do just about anything. You’ve got Harvard graduates being assistants in mailrooms, so you really sort of learn to not have an ego and to roll your sleeves up.
What was your biggest fear before launching a business?
Stephanie: I had avoided fashion my whole life because my family was in it, and I wanted to do something that I considered, in a way, more “sophisticated,” intellectually, which is what I thought film was. I very quickly realized that it wasn’t, but I definitely wanted to be in an environment where storytelling was at the core. What I was surprised to realize was that fashion has similarities to that. Everything starts with a story, a narrative, a place of emotion. It was a different way to channel those things.
Your Glass Ceiling Turning Point
Was there any specific moment that led you to launch a business?
Stephanie: Definitely when we showed the collection online, and Barneys picked it up. It was a big deal. We had no expectations whatsoever. We thought we were going to make some clothes for some of our film friends. That was definitely recognition that there was something interesting about what we were trying to do. That was the moment we were like, “OK, lets do this.” And it took a couple years for our vision to come together, in terms of what exactly we were trying to do.
Were you still doing film projects at the same time?
Stephanie: At the time, yes. We were about two years into Co. I was always thinking, “We need a plan B…or C!”
Is there anyone in particular who influenced your journey?
Stephanie: My mother was a really big influence for me my whole life, in terms of being an entrepreneur. She reinvented her career like 20 times in her life. She started as a teacher, then she went into psychiatry, then she became a fashion designer, then she went into real estate. She has had so many businesses in her life. The fearlessness that it takes to do that is definitely something that I adopted from her.
The Business of Your Business
How did you finance your business?
Stephanie: We went all in. We had a little bit of savings from a film project I had done a couple years back. Justin took his savings, and I took my savings, and that was just $30K each, and we put it all into the company. We moved the office into our living room. We had no backers, no trust fund, no rich parents, no nothing. It was self-funded, with very little.
Justin: We also had to get a loan.
Stephanie: Once we had Barneys. Once Barneys came in with the orders, we then tried to go to a couple banks, who turned us down. Then we went to Justin’s hometown in Oklahoma.
Justin: We had to go all the way back to Oklahoma to a bank I worked in during high school, to get a line of credit; a tiny line.
Stephanie: A tiny line of credit that would pay for the production of our Barneys order.
Justin: At the time, that bank was privately owned. It harkened back to that era where banks weren’t just huge corporate things, that are just like, “oh, you don’t pass these three things, so, no.” It was more about relationships, helping out small businesses. That, right now, is insanely hard to find. Without that help, I don’t know that we would have been able to do this.
Do you have a mentor?
Stephanie: Two years ago Andrew Rosen came in to invest in the company. He is involved in Theory, Helmut Lang, Rag & Bone– a lot of really good businesses.
He is the perfect balance of hands on and hands off, and everything he has advised us has been invaluable. He is more than an investor, which is why I even call him a mentor.
How did you find and vet manufactures?
Stephanie: Luckily, when we started, and made the collection, I went to my family, who had been in fashion, and they had some old relationships. My mother gave me a phone number and said, “Try this out and see what happens.” That’s how it started.
What obstacles have you faced that you were most surprised by?
Stephanie: You quickly realize when you have your own business, even though its creative, that 80% of it is actually business, and 20% is creative. The amount of time that is spent on the business versus the clothes is pretty crazy. That was a big surprise.
"Again, when you become a mother, and you have a child, you realize what is important in life. It connects you to something much deeper. All of a sudden when you make things, you want to make things that matter."
Do you guys design everything yourself?
So you handle design, through execution, through marketing?
Justin: We do the PR. A lot of brands make the mistake of feeling like they have to get PR. It’s such a big expense. It really helps if you can just bear down and do it yourself. I mean, I’m doing castings right now. We don’t hire casting directors. You just have to do all of that stuff. You just have to lay it out. I am good at doing week-by-week hat changes. Stephanie can change hats like four times a day.
Stephanie: It’s a woman thing! We can multi-task like crazy.
Justin: Men cannot shift in the middle of something. It’s really challenging to realign my thought process to an entirely new thing.
What inspires your line?
Stephanie: We started Co with this idea in mind that we wanted to create a designer brand, that was on the designer floor, hanging with some of the best designers, but that had a more thoughtful and accessible price point. We were trying to target a woman who lives a thoughtful life; who is careful about where she spends her money. She is not obsessed with fashion; she is not obsessed with trends. She likes to dress in a sophisticated way. She likes to be elegant, but is also very active. She is a career woman. She is a multi-tasker. We want clothes to sort of fit into her lifestyle that are thoughtful, and that are practical, that are easy to travel with. We make crepes that very rarely wrinkle, we offer a price point that is so much more reasonable than some other designers that are out there. It is a little more simple, in terms of its color palette, something that is easier to mix and match with every season. And it has a little bit of a silhouette that is quite feminine. So, we don’t want to fall into an aesthetic that is minimal masculine, we are more minimal feminine.
What is next for Co?
Stephanie: I would say that the idea obviously is to get that out there, translate some of that idea into accessories, go back to making content, which is something that we did earlier on in our company. And with the birth of Jacob (their son), and Andrew Rosen coming in, we had to focus on the clothes and growing the company, so we put the content aside. But we definitely want to start going back to creating content, and relating the clothes to a narrative experience, an emotional experience. Creating female characters that are characters we love, women that we admire and want to be. When you see a great woman in a film, you want to dress like her.
When you're not wearing Co, what lines can we most often find you in?
Stephanie: I love Celine, I love Comme des Garcon, I love Dries Van Noten.
Which apps do you use the most and why?
Stephanie: I don’t think I use any apps… except Waze – to get to my son as quickly as possible after work!
Are you part of any professional networks?
Stephanie: No. We’ve been in a little bubble over here. We started the brand four years ago, and its been such a crazy roller-coaster that we haven’t had a lot of time to focus on anything else but growing the company. But as it expands we will- we’ve just hired a head of sales in New York, and a CEO, and all of this will be happening in the next six months.
Is that going to be hard for you guys to give up a little bit of the control?
Justin: I can’t wait!
Stephanie: We can’t wait. It’s going to be really exciting to have more of a macro view and perspective, and to be able to again shift our attention to content. The fact that we can, we know, I have 20 years of experience in the movie business, telling stories, working with writers and directors, finding a an interesting way of combining it with clothing and product, and eventually when we have our own site, hopefully the two sort of merge. I think hiring a CEO is going to be amazing. It is going to be someone who is incredibly collaborative. It’s a company of six people, so it’s not like the CEO is in another building. We will always be incredibly involved, there are just certain things that take up so much of our time now, that take us away from the big picture.
What do you do to stay sane?
Stephanie: Nothing, unfortunately! It’s time to start doing things. We basically work and spend time our son. My son is my sanity, and pretty much everything. We go on hikes, cook at home, and we are pretty much homebodies. We never leave the house.
You are a couple, you have a child, are there any guidelines you have set?
Stephanie: It is a challenge, for sure. It is hard to set rules because things come up. But definitely when we are home, we are home. When we are with Jacob, we are with Jacob. Unless something out of the ordinary happens. That is our priority – our family.
"You quickly realize when you have your own business, even though its creative, that 80% of it is actually business, and 20% is creative. The amount of time that is spent on the business versus the clothes is pretty crazy. That was a big surprise."
Has motherhood changed how you do business?
Stephanie: It centers you for sure, and it make you use your time in a much more efficient way. It grounds you in terms of just what is important, and in terms of the things you want to make. Again, when you become a mother, and you have a child, you realize what is important in life. It connects you to something much deeper. All of a sudden when you make things, you want to make things that matter. You want to make things that are thoughtful, you want to surround yourself with people who are thoughtful, in a company that’s not necessarily just financially driven, but also has some kind of depth to it, and meaning.
What is the best thing about running your own business? The most difficult?
Stephanie: Your own schedule, but that’s kind of fake because you are always working, so…
Justin: Like today I came in at 11:00, because I had this thing in the morning, which is great, I know that I can do that, but its not like it gives me a bunch of free time.
Stephanie: Yeah, because you will be working until two in the morning. The biggest satisfaction about owning a business, and seeing it grow, at least for us personally, has been that we’ve had people at the company who have been with us since we were in our living room. To be able to share that growth with people and have people believe in what you are doing – that is so fulfilling. I would say that’s the best part of having your own business. To share growth with people who have been there along the way.
Stephanie: The hardest part is fear of failure.
Justin: And the risks.
Stephanie: For us, we are definitely the true definition of risk-taking in business, because we just put it all on the table. It is a different thing if you have backers, or you are self-financed with a lot of money, but for us we really feared every day, if it doesn’t work out next season, what do we do?
Justin: When you do sign those docs with the bank, and it is your house that’s on the line, the place where you actually live is at stake, is hard.
Stephanie: The stakes are high.
What are you most proud of?
Stephanie: Again, I think what we are most proud of is having a great team, sharing in the growth of that team, seeing our evolution as designers, refining more and more with each season who we are, and who is the woman we want to dress, and becoming sort of more interested in dressing someone with thoughtful values, and somebody who thinks about her life. We are trying to project ourselves in the clothes. For us that is exciting.
And we have seen reactions from women. The kinds of women that we want to dress are the kinds of women who are buying our clothes. That’s really exciting.
Were there people out there who told you not to do it?
Justin: There were definitely people who were very confused by the angle that we started with, as far as the price. They were confused about where it should be, and is it contemporary? Or is it luxury? Is it a designer brand or not? There was a lot of talk about that. A lot of concern that the customer was not going to get it, and they were going to think that it was somehow not as well made.
Stephanie: I think it created some confusion, but also we came at a time when there was a lot of money. We started in 2011-2012, and people were spending a ton. Now it is starting to die down a little bit. But people just didn’t care. It was the height of the luxury market. So when we were talking about thoughtfulness in price point, people were a little bit confused. In the last year and a half it’s really sunk in, and people are starting to catch on, that it’s really not a bad thing.
Did you have to push for the designer floor at Barneys because of the price point?
Stephanie: No, they right away looked at the aesthetic. To them the aesthetic had a quite minimalist, feminine, twist to it that they felt was appropriate for the designer floor, and that set the tone for us.
Justin: Even the show room was like – we don’t know which way to push this.
Stephanie: So Barneys really set the tone for us, and after that we ended up selling, and creating a distribution strategy around that.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in business?
Stephanie: I just think that fear is such a detriment to business, in a weird way, because you have to take risks, and you have to confront your fears. I think that that’s the hardest thing to tackle, so my advice is to not be afraid, take the risk, go for it. We didn’t have any backing, we had no specific training in fashion, and we just knew that there was a void in the marketplace.
Justin: To start something from scratch that is new, you really have to believe that you have found some kind of void, or niche, or something that’s kind of not being done. You are going to re-invent the wheel. I see a lot of brands start from scratch that are as expensive as the most established brands, and it just seems like a harder route to go. You are competing with stuff that is already there.
Stephanie: For us it came from such an emotional place. We were very specific about the fact that when I was a film producer, I made a nice salary, but my values were that if I were to make some money, I was going to invest in buying a home, and starting a family. There were certain things that I knew I was going to put my money in to, and it wasn’t in fashion. Its funny, because I am someone in fashion, but I believe you shouldn’t be putting all your money in fashion. However, I am someone who liked to shop on the designer floor, because I had always found that the contemporary arena was filled with a lot of badly made product that was actually overpriced.
So, I like to shop in an environment that felt more curated, that felt more designed, that felt better made, better fabric. But everything was so over-priced. So whenever I would go on the designer floor, yes, I maybe would buy one thing maybe once in awhile, but it was not a place that I could … we realized there was a void in the marketplace. Where does that woman, who has a curated lifestyle go shopping if she doesn’t have unlimited funds? There are women who have that, and that’s great, and they can come to Co, and they can buy 20 pieces, but our core customer is someone who is thoughtful about how she spends her money. But at the same time she wants things that are well-made, things that are practical for her life. It was really like we found the void.
So my advice is definitely, before you start a business, be fearless, but also use your personal experience and your personal instinct about what you think is missing and what you are going to bring to the table.
If I had to give advice to a designer, it is that there are a million clothing brands out there; so many, so much product. In fact, there is too much product. So how can you offer something that has, maybe something a little bit more thoughtful, something a little bit more interesting, not necessarily something that is just more stuff?
Photography by: Katrina Dickson