Sometimes you fall in love with things that are outside your comfort zone, which is what happened with me and Le Lion sweaters and tops. There is nothing in my closet with a sequin or a sparkle, but I am drawn to the whimsy and originality of these personalized sweaters on which you can have initials, an astrological sign or your dog’s portrait (so tempting!) embroidered. (The quality of the sweaters and shirts is also impeccable.) The founders, Martha Fish and Laura Gelfand both have rather extensive fashion backgrounds and the energy, enthusiasm and know-how they bring to this less-than-a-year-old company are sure to make it a success.
How do you define yourselves and have you always loved fashion?
Laura: I would define myself, and I think Martha probably thinks similarly, as a creative person, but also sort of right brain, left brain–a combination of both which I’ve had since early on. My parents would probably tell you I was literally born obsessed with clothes and fashion. I was making clothes for my Barbies, taking sewing classes. Through a number of different experiences after and during college, I discovered that while I was really creative, and sort of a designer, I was also really interested in the business element in terms of creating something unique, not only just as a product, but as a business strategy.
Martha: Laura and I have very similar histories in that way. I had my uncle who lived in New York City bring me WWD at a time when there was no internet and it wasn’t widely known. I used to take everything out of my closet and merchandise it and put it back in according to color, then I’d take it all back out and put it in according to category. One thing that Laura and I definitely share is this balance of creative and analytical. For me, I’m a product person.
What I love is not just the creative element of it, but what works and why and the analytics behind the scenes. That’s a huge passion of mine and it’s something that I get incredibly excited about. Then just as a person, I’m a mom to a 10 year old boy and that’s an enormously important part of my life. It’s all about finding that balance. It’s like a unicorn, right? And it certainly translates to our job as well.
What are your work backgrounds? How did you come together and decide to create Le Lion?
Martha: It was literally a question from my dad, “What do you like?” I said “clothes” and he said “then just go get a job”. So I did as a salesperson at Ralph Lauren. Then I moved to New York and my career really took off at Calvin Klein. I worked on the collection and I was a buyer and merchant. Then I moved to Coach during it’s meteoric time and started off in men’s and ultimately worked on handbags. It was an intensely enumerate environment and what I brought to it was this creative spice. From there I started Reed Krakoff with Reed; I was his number two and helped him grow that business. Then I took time off and then starting to consult.
I consulted at Figue on brand strategy and merchandising. That’s where Laura and I met. It was like we had a mind meld. We worked together so well, we think about things, we challenge each other in really interesting ways.
Laura: My first job which was a summer job during high school was in Manhattan working for Michele Varian when she had just started out making pillows. I took design classes at Parsons and FIT over the summers and had an internship at Catherine Malandrino in PR. I always knew I wanted to work for Ralph Lauren so I got the name of someone there and really just stalked him. After I graduated he said, “come in for an exploratory interview”. They put me into a job that day and I was there for about three years, working in product development for collection accessories.
Then I went back to Parson’s for two years and learned everything from starting a business and branding, to draping, pattern making and sewing. I started at Figue as a design intern. I figured, “I can’t be an intern, I have to look for other jobs”, but I really connected with Stephanie Von Watzdorf the founder and very quickly saw a need for wholesale there. They have been around for a few months and didn’t have a wholesale business. I said, “I’m up for the challenge. I love shopping, I love stores, I can research.” Ultimately, that’s what I did. Four and a half years later I was the director of sales at Figue.
What was the inspiration for launching your new brand?
Laura: It came from a sweater I bought on The RealReal. It was actually an ill-fitting, poorly made sweater, but it had a burst of sequins on the left chest. I wore it all winter, really every day with everything. I was just truly obsessed with it. I had been looking for similar things and couldn’t find anything except Gucci sweaters for $3000 or things like that. I was walking home one day and thought, “Why don’t I make these?” I went to Martha the next day, told her about it and it blew up from there. We came up with the idea of personalization based on our experiences in the industry and seeing where things are going and the importance of an emotional connection.
Martha: We started developing this idea of customization and personalization and Laura and I, we are different demographics, we are different age demographics, and what did it mean to each of us in our generation. What does create the emotional connection? So the sweater can be very utilitarian, but you want something that makes you feel good, that makes you happy to wear it. We were excited about creating something and thinking about it differently, not just “you have a wholesale business, you have retail business, you have an online or direct consumer,” but thinking about it in a really dimensional way. How do you connect to the consumer? Where are those touch points? How to create something that is an antidote to ubiquity, because in this day and age you can buy anything at any price point.
Laura: It’s something that is special and that the customer connects to. Then hopefully it becomes an heirloom piece because of its significance and it feeling so personal–the idea that you can pass it down to your daughter or granddaughter. But it’s also wearable.
Martha: We want people to wear it at every moment of their life–with their workout gear, their sweatpants, going to a cocktail party. There’s a lack of pretension around it, yet it is a deeply personal item.
What was the inspiration for the name?
Laura: I came up with it quickly. Martha jokes because I came in and said “Here’s what I think the name should be,” and she said, “Are you married to that?” I thought of it literally a few hours before, but I was like, “Yup!” I’m a Leo and my dog’s name is Leo and I think it’s something about the lion that embodies a lot of what aesthetically we’re communicating with this brand. It’s something that is traditional in many ways, but also whimsical. And the lion is represented as so many different things in so many different cultures–it’s in astrology, which is incredibly pertinent to our brand, it’s in traditional heraldry, which is something that we are constantly referring to, and it’s representative of pride and things that we want women to feel, when wearing our sweaters. It seemed like a natural fit.
I love that you can do monogram or your astrology sign.
Martha: A big part of what we had talked about from the very beginning is trying to continually find inspiration around ways of personalization, so it’s not just a monogram. We laughed because we have a very amateur appreciation of astrology, but I think so many people do.
Martha: Right!? We love, love all of that stuff. And we love the imagery around it, it’s incredibly beautiful.
Laura: We feel like we have those two customers. We have people who are monogram obsessed and want to monogram everything, but then there’s also that person that wants something a little bit more discrete that feels like a representation of themselves, but isn’t quite as obvious.
What inspires you?
Laura: From a brand perspective, we’re constantly looking at early Schiaparelli. For a number of different reasons, I don’t know if you know this but Schiaparelli actually launched in the early Twenties with knitwear.
I didn’t know that.
Laura: Early on she was using these utilitarian, simple bodies and doing something incredibly whimsical and creative with them. And all the collaborations that she did with artists which made everything feel special and incredibly unique, she was sort of at the forefront of doing that. We’re constantly looking at her, and also vintage and antique monograms, heraldry and symbols. We just got these incredible, French vintage embroidery journals from the 1920’s that have this unbelievable ideas for monogramming.
How do you think you balance each other as business partners? What do you think you each bring to the table?
Martha: From a business perspective, I think that we’re similar in that balance of creative and analytical. That’s something we both share and are passionate about. When it comes to an aesthetic, Laura sees everything in a glitter and sparkles. I see things in a little bit more of a stricter way. We both share incredible passions around color and fit. There is so much that we share and yet in very positive way we also bring a different point of view.
One of your attributes that help you succeed:
Laura: Decisiveness. Early on when developing a brand, a product and a strategy, you can get caught up, there’s a lot of decisions to be made. I have the ability to make a decision without getting to tied up in it.
Martha: I was initially going to say tenacity but truthfully I feel like my Taurus stubbornness can be a positive in this arena. When you’re developing a brand, sticking to your guns about who you are, what you want to represent, and continually doubling down on that vision is so incredibly important in today’s industry.
Laura: My dad has actually been someone who’s been incredibly helpful as an advisor to us. He’s just one of the smartest, most fair, and rational-thinking people I know. The other person whom I often think about is Merry Vose, the owner of Canary and Cabana, which are two incredibly special boutiques in Dallas. I know her from my experience at Figue when she hosted our first selling event. I think that she’s done an amazing job at staying true to who she is, what her perspective is, and building a successful business. It’s something I admire.
Martha: For me, a role model today is anyone who follows their passion, who takes risks, and lives by their own rules. I think it’s because I’m doing that right now, so it bolsters my weak knees when I have them.
What would be your advice to someone starting out in your field?
Laura: We’re so new. We’ve only been selling for seven months, so I think we’re still looking for that advice! But I think what Martha once said which was to “expect the unexpected”. Because you can’t anticipate any of this. While we have this idea of what this might be, everything that we’ve encountered is not always something we’ve anticipated. Part of the beauty of it is navigating that and it’s what makes it exciting.
Martha: I think it’s also about staying nimble. And listening, because you’re constantly contending with the unexpected, so just be fluid, but also stick to your guns and continue to double down on your vision.
What motivates you?
Martha: Bringing something to life that’s so deeply personal. Laura and I have helped other people bring their brands to life, and so I think it’s enormously motivating to me to be doing it for ourselves.
Laura: Also what motivates us with this product is this idea of creating an emotional connection and selling something that’s not just creating more excess in the world, but that brings joy to someone. At our selling events, it can get really personal with someone even when they’re picking their monogram. If they’ve just been divorced, those kind of things come up. It brings up a slew of conversations.
Martha: For instance for Mother’s Day, we–my son, nieces and nephews–gave my mom one of the sweaters with the heart with each of their initials in there. She was profoundly touched by it.
Three words that describe Le Lion: Whimsical, personal, modern.
Three words that describe you:
Martha: Passionate, thoughtful, loyal.
Laura: Passionate, warm and a good sense of humor.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret:
Martha: Travel. Harbour Island is one of my favorite places on earth.
Laura: Since starting this company I’ve been nowhere, but I splurged on a trip to Kenya a couple of years ago which was, and still is an incredibly impactful experience. I did buy an amazing pair of Dries Van Noten shoes when I was in Paris last October, that I still like to stare at all the time. They’re green velvet with a sparkly black situation on the front.
Favorite small indulgence:
Laura: We have similar ones.
Martha: Fresh flowers. Always. Right now, Lilacs.
Laura: For me its flowers, candles, hand wash. I love Hyacinths….
Martha: Hyacinths are one of our absolute faves….
Laura: And then hand wash, we both love this brand called MOR. They make a marshmallow scented hand wash. I don’t even know what a marshmallow smells like, and it certainly doesn’t smell like a marshmallow, but it’s beautiful packaging and it smells amazing.
Martha: We’re also beauty fanatics.
What’s your latest beauty obsession?
Martha: This isn’t so new but we’re into Vintner’s Daughter face oil.
Laura: We both are a sucker for good packaging too–we’re obsessed.
Martha: Richard Ginori packaging–we see it and literally scream at the top of our lungs.
Album currently on repeat:
Martha: I have a 10 year old son, so I’m like top 40 all the way.
Laura: I listen to Hotel Costes Radio on Pandora which is so weird, but I listen to it all day long.
Martha: Yeah we’re in very different places. I’m doing the carpool listening to Drake’s “God’s Plan”.
Scent that brings back memories:
Martha: Lilac. Growing up, there was an enormous lilac bush on the corner of our house right where my bedroom was. I have one at our house now, it’s my dream scent.
Laura: For me, it’s the first bottle of perfume that I can’t remember if my mom or grandma gave me, but I still have it. It’s L’Air du Temps. It still has its scent and it’s from over 20 years ago. It reminds me of my room growing up.
Martha: My son Charlie. He’s my north star. He makes it so easy to make good decisions in our lives.
Laura: Mine’s so much more superficial, because I just got a dog and Leo’s obviously like a lucky charm for me and everything, but my mom gave me a Foundrae lion pendant when I was starting this business that I’ve been wearing every day.
Favorite hour of the day:
Martha: Sadly it’s 6-7 a.m. Those early morning hours when it’s just me, coffee, quiet, nature and emailing Italy and texting to Laura.
Laura: I’m a morning person. I jump out of bed, walk Leo, run to get coffee and I just feel the excitement of the day ahead, which is so strange because it could be terrible. I feel optimistic, always.
Follow Le Lion: Instagram.