How to Launch a Fashion Business (When You’re Terrified to Start)
If you love fashion (you’re on this site, so we’re assuming that’s a given), the notion of designing a collection has probably crossed your mind at one point. But without technical skills, manufacturing connections, sketching prowess, or any of the countless additional skills needed to launch a brand, the daydream often remains just that. Admittedly, the step to take your vision from fantasy to reality is a giant leap, which is why we were especially captivated by the story of Understated Leather. In just two years, Jennifer Kassell and her husband Josh Jones have built a wildly successful brand from scratch, including their cult leather jackets, other apparel items (we’re particularly obsessed with their custom denim jackets), and a newly launched shoe collaboration. Their pieces have been worn by celebrities such as Kendall Jenner, January Jones, and none other than Blue Ivey. Not to mention, they’ve got fashion publication cred too—Vogue Paris anyone? Just how did Kassell and her husband do it, especially when at one point she was “too scared to start”?
Read on for an in-depth (and refreshingly honest) peek into Understated Leather’s path to success.
How did you know you wanted to start a business?
"In all honesty, I have always been too scared to start my own business. I didn't believe it was something that I would ever be able to afford. I took a call regarding a serious role with a large fashion company. The words were effortlessly spilling out of my mouth as I sold my soul. In an almost out of body experience, I watched myself going through the motions not learning from mistakes of the past. It was then that I realised that my heart wasn't in it anymore and I needed to make a change in my life. I hung up the phone, moved to Texas, married the man of my dreams, and haven't looked back."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Dusty Leather Jacket ($571)
How did you overcome being too scared to start?
"As most people are aware, when you start a business there is little to no income for the first while. Unlike many people in this industry, that was simply not an option for me. I had to be be able to support myself from the first second. There is a romantic element to the beginning of our business that plays a role in this sudden ability to fly. Josh and I got married the same week that we started the business. Although both of us were in the same financial position, having him there with me while we took the leap meant everything. We cut ties with all of our personal expenses, even moved in with his folks for a few months. He sold his house, I sold my soul (wink), and then we just went for it. The risk was lowered as the investment was nonexistent. We told ourselves that if it didn't work in six months, we would get a job. It's been two years today."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Go Sit on a Cactus Jacket ($300)
What's something about starting a clothing line that the average person doesn't know?
"Some people underestimate how many steps go into creating a clothing line. From sourcing, designing, patterning, sampling, production, shooting, collaborating, wholesaling, shipping, social media, marketing, website management, customer service to simply finding storage space. I try to stay creative at every stage and continue to question the action and reaction effects of as many decisions as possible."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Western Biker Boyfriend Vest ($370)
What is the best part about working for yourself?
"The best part about working for yourself is not having to shuffle your day around someone else's priority list. That was the first difference that stood out in my day to day (Well, that and not setting an alarm clock ever again)."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather x Matisse Moonshine Mules ($270)
Why is sourcing materials locally important to you, even when it may not be the most cost-effective way to produce?
"Part of it is being able to have a better relationships with your suppliers so you know where things are coming from. It also helps to ensure that materials are ethically produced; this is very important to us. We also believe that it is good to give back to the community by supporting local businesses. The struggle is real for everybody, we know that all too well."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Western Fringe Jacket ($470)
Who would you love to see wearing one of your pieces?
"Nothing warms my heart more then receiving an email from a customer who felt compelled to take the time to let us know how much they love their item. Considering that all of our sales are anonymous online, these emails are the reason that we do what we do. As much as I would love to see my celebrity girl crush's rocking our threads, I love seeing tags of our confident customers in their Understated Leather all over the world even more."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Two Tone Badass Jacket ($890)
How do you set yourself apart from other leather brands?
"Our brand is an interesting fusion of Texas and Australia, being that I am Australian and Josh is Texan. Both of our life experiences are seeded throughout the brand so this concept is organic and authentic. Josh's creative mind works on a highly intellectual level, which is where technological design details such as laser engraving are visualised. I like to entertain and make others feel comfortable, this is where phrases like "Go Sit On A Cactus" come into play. So basically our brand is us, on leather.
We have an unspoken bond of trust with some other leather brands, each of us has our niche and respectfully none of us cross over. We are friends with some of our closest competitors, truly supporting each other’s vision. After working fourteen years in the fashion industry, I think that is pretty unique."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Dusty Leather Jacket ($571)
How did you get your jackets worn by celebrities?
"It has been crazy considering that we do not even have a press showroom. Some of the coolest celebrities that we have worked with have contacted us directly, others have found us through social media or collaborations with bigger brands. We have been really fortunate for all of the support. My favourite celebrity moment would either be January Jones' insane selfie or Blue Ivy wearing hers on Jay Z's shoulders while watching her mum on stage in the background. It is all a bit surreal. We are so humbled to be able to share our creative outlet and completed honored that people dig it."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Pink Easy Rider Jacket ($600)
Why is Instagram presence important for young brands?
"Personality: Instagram allows us to showcase our brand as a whole, not just what we sell. We can visually explain what our brand is about and who we are. Connection: Social media adds another dimension to the typical e-comm experience. Brands and customers may engage on a personal level here, sharing images, tags, and messages. Competition: Instagram allows us to be at the forefront and stay aware of what is going on around us, our followers have been very supportive here."
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Your Custom Zhang Jacket ($908)
What advice do you wish you'd known when you just started out?
"If I could go back in time and hand myself one piece of advice it would probably be a note reading: Be patient you crazy woman. It turned our that moving, getting married, and starting a business together all in the same week might be a little overkill."
Shop a Similar Look: Understated Leather Dusty Leather Jacket ($571)
Do you have any advice for scaling a brand/growing with as few growing pains as possible?
"The slower you go, the easier it is, but any sort of growth is going to require some level of difficulty. I was given some very good advice from a friend early on, which was to use our weaknesses as our strengths by building our brand and business around them. Now that I look back on it, I think that was possibly the most helpful advice I could have been given.”
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Go Sit on a Cactus Jacket ($295)
What's next for Understated Leather?
We just launched a shoe line, which is an insane collaboration with Matisse Footwear and will be available at major stores throughout the world. We also have an extended mens line in the pipeline and various collaborations with incredible people and brands. We have been working on our first full women's fashion line encompassing dresses, tops, skirts, shorts, which will also be unveiled shortly. Oh, it's going to be a fun year.
Shop the Look: Understated Leather Silver Choker ($40)
If you could start a business, what would it be? Let us know in the comments below. Who knows, perhaps writing it down is the first step to making it happen!