1. What’s the elevator pitch for Janessa Leone?
My ambition is to create a really great business where people and the planet come first.
2. The story of how you came to found a millinery brand is like something from a fairy tale. Did you see this as a sign that this was what you had to do?
It was very serendipitous, and yet I still tried to talk myself out of it in every possible way. I had just graduated from university where I had studied English Literature, and found myself in Paris, with my boyfriend, going through a questioning phase of my life- trying to figure out where I was going, and what I wanted to do next. In a vintage store in the Marais, I found a beautiful old Fedora hat that had been made in 1924 by an Italian milliner. I only found out six months later when I was looking inside the label that the milliner and I shared the same surname, Leone. Making hats wasn’t a part of any plan- even though I loved wearing them, I wanted to create a clothing line. But I only had $10,000, which I’d saved from doing nannying jobs. You can’t start a fashion business with that. Then one day, I read the story of Coco Chanel, who had started as a hat designer, and I thought, maybe hats could be a good entry point. Back in San Diego, I started taking felting classes, and researching the hat market. At the time, you couldn’t buy a hat of this quality for less than $1500. There was no middle ground between cheap hats and custom made. And even though I proved to lack the skills to actually make the hats- and by the way, I still don’t have those skills, I stick to the design part of the process- I could see that this could be an alternative. Incidentally, that hat I found is still in incredible shape. It’s beautiful, it has history, and was a great way to keep my family name out there. What could be more romantic?
3. What is your connection to Paris, and how does it continue to inspire?
I have such deep connections to Paris! I first went there with my boyfriend all those years ago, and we are still together. It was my coming-of-age city, it was my way to discover that I could be culturally inclined, even though I grew up in a small town outside San Diego where there wasn’t a lot of culture. Paris represents all the things I love in the world; the lifestyle really speaks to me. It’s less about the daily grind, and more about the daily pleasures. And I love seeing such chic women walking around everywhere!
4. Paris; Los Angeles... or both?
I love the hikes in LA, the slower pace that’s focused on health and vitality, but I miss the sense of community in Paris. In Venice, where I live now, if I want to visit friends in Silverlake, it’s two hours in bad traffic. Whereas Paris feels like a village. But although I really love Paris, I do belong in both places.
5. One of your reasons for loving hats is that they offer such great protection from the sun. Which of your hats is your go-to for hot, sunny days?
I suffered for years from severe melasma and had to stay out of the sun or my whole face would break out in pigmentation patches. That’s what started my interest in creating sun-hats. On hot sunny days, I recommend the raffia styles, in particular the Janine, which is wide, with a brim that rolls down. You can lay out in the sun, you can hike in it, and we even had it tested in a lab and found that it offers the most sun protection of all our hats. It shields from both light and heat, which are triggers for melasma, and you can roll it up and pack it. The raffia palm is grown in Madagascar by a cooperative of women.
6. Who helped you along the way, and what are you most proud of achieving?
I am most proud of being able to have shown my dad, Pat, who passed away very suddenly a couple of years ago, that my business was growing. He was an accomplished CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and had coached me from the start. To have his financial mind, steering me, helping me set up cashflow, was such an incredible gift. And then of course, there is my partner Kevin, who just believed in me, who helps me ship boxes at midnight, and is always cheering me on.
7. What does a typical day look like?
I am definitely a morning person. I get up around 630 or 7, and have some tea or coffee. Mornings need to be still for me to feel centred, but I’m working by 8. I block out weeks for varying tasks- the first week in the month is for concept creation, for example- and block out hours in the day for separate items, otherwise I would go crazy. I’m obsessed with efficiency and productivity, and constantly listening to podcasts by entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss for ways to be practical. When I’m task focused, I turn off my Slack, my phone, my email, and come up for air for 15 minutes, but otherwise I'm only focused on that one task. I am CEO, head of marketing, creative director and designer, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of tasks! My day ends at six when I will take the dog for a walk, and- I know this is very LA!- I then have an ice bath and a sauna. Then it’s a cup of tea, and straight to bed!
8. How important to you is self-care?
Self care is honestly the top priority for me every single day. Since losing my dad, it’s become even more self-evident that if I don’t prioritise taking care of myself, then I can’t show up for my partner, my team, for anyone. I work more efficiently when I take 30-45 minutes out for myself each day, so I put “DND” in my calendar, meaning “Do Not Disturb” and use that time to listen to my body- do I need to do some journaling, take a walk, or just sit still and stay calm? It’s different every day.
9. When you see celebrities wearing your hats, how does it make you feel?
It’s very flattering but it’s not really what drives me in any way. What matters far more is when someone writes to me having lost their hair from chemotherapy, and tells me that they were at such a low point in their lives, and wearing my hat gave them some confidence back- this moved me to tears. Again, I know this will sound very LA, but there is a kind of energy that permeates through every step of making our hats, from the design to the incredible relationship we have with the people in our factory, and it seems to touch everyone’s lives. The love and positive energy that went into this whole process, does something to people and it’s really lovely. It makes people feel better.
10. How do you stay fit?
It’s definitely not by spending seven months in Paris and eating three croissants a day! I try to move every day. I’m not big on body composition, exercise for me is more about how I feel. I have a history of chronic illness and have had to be very in tune with my body. I walk the dog every day, I try to run three times a week, although that’s more about my mental health than anything else, and I eat a really clean diet, with lots of whole foods.
11. Best hike in LA is...?
There are so many, but I like Los Liones. When you get to the top you have a beautiful coastline view of Malibu and Catalina. It’s not an easy hike, but you can make it last 45 minutes or three hours.
12. Tell us what you love the most about Varley.
I love the seamless design and the silhouette, as well as the lack of fuss -the way it’s designed with performance in mind. You would never feel embarrassed to walk over to have a coffee after a yoga class.
13. Creatively speaking, what would you like to do next with your brand?
So many things! We are expanding our product categories, with a view to developing a lifestyle brand with clothing from top to bottom, as well as accessories, that also focuses on retail experiences. But most importantly, we are working with regenerative farming projects, repairing the soil, so that we can heal from a supply chain perspective by looking at how we are sourcing our materials, and how we can repair the ecosystem for things we have purchased. Sustainability is wonderful and beautiful but it just sustains the status quo- we need to take it much further to break down the systems within the fashion industry that aren’t right or helpful.
14. And for your own, personal journey, what would you like to do next for you?
For me! I think I would like to have a lot more compassion for myself. Obviously being the way I am has served a purpose to this point, but now I need to find compassion, grace and kindness to appreciate the journey I am on and give myself a lot more mothering than I have done in the past. That’s possibly not quite the answer you were expecting, but it’s the truth.