Even before the pandemic tightened its grip, Lisa “Lele” Sadoughi knew fashion face masks were going to be a thing. At the end of April, the New York designer was one of the first to market with stylish cloth face coverings, even as some were still wondering if it was appropriate for them to be treated as fashion.
“The second the CDC said to pull out a bandana from your closet and put that around your face, I thought, ‘I can do better than that,'” said Sadoughi, an industry veteran who launched J. Crew jewelry under Jenna Lyons (remember the pearl hammock necklace?), and worked at Tory Burch before striking out full-time with her own Lele Sadoughi accessories label in 2012.
In the past six months she’s set the bar for COVID-19-era accessorizing, continuing to innovate and lifting her business to record 2020 revenues with matching mommy-and-me masks, pearl and lucky charm-studded masks, leopard-print silk scarf masks and, coming soon, winter gaiter masks with filter pockets — all of which match back to her signature knotted pearl headbands, cat-eye sunglasses and crystal lily statement earrings.
This week the brand is even unveiling a special holiday collection of masks and matching headbands in seasonal tartans.
Indeed, if there is one item that will define 2020, it’s the face mask, the symbol of these politically polarized times now available at every price point from Dollar Store to designer, and elevated to First Lady fashion realm last week by Jill Biden when she matched her floral mask to her floral sheath dress at the final presidential debate.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Sadoughi has sold nearly 500,000 face masks — more than making up for the lull in wholesale and achieving brand growth up 50 percent over last year.
“If you look at the DNA of what I do, it’s about improving things that are ordinary in your life…and elevating them with my maximalist aesthetic,” said Sadoughi, whose online sales are up 147 percent. The privately owned company has revenues in the double-digit millions, expects to hit $25 million in 2021 and is aiming for $100 million in the next five years.
On her web site and social channels, she has styled face masks with tortoise sunglass chains retrofitted to be mask chains, skinny scarves as mask chains, and other colorful accessories creating face-framing looks that play well on Instagram Live and Zoom screens. Busy Phillips, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kacey Musgraves are just a few of the celebrities who have posted images of themselves in the designs, helping to boost exposure and normalize mask wearing.
“No one wants to wear a mask — they are not fun to wear — but if I can make one that puts a smile on your face, I’ve done my job,” the designer said.
Sadoughi launched her namesake brand with costume jewelry, but didn’t hit it big until headbands rolled out in May 2018. She was inspired to design them after reaching for her daughter’s headbands as an easy way to look polished on busy mornings, and realizing there weren’t any chic, elevated options for women in the market.
In a stroke of good timing, they came out just a couple of months before a major headband moment on the Prada runway, and retailers and influencers alike jumped on the trend. Since then she’s sold more than one million of her signature knotted headbands at $75 to $150 each, with pearls or crystals, in sweater-knit, seersucker, faux leather, neoprene, velvet and other materials.
“What do people like so much about the headbands? The options and the choosing. You may want a plain one for day, or mix it up with charms or pearls and denim for night. It’s that mix and color fun people resonate with. So that’s what I did with masks,” she said, noting her approach is creating collectibles over seasonal collections.
The designer turned her attention to the mask category this spring while trying to find a way to give back to front-line workers. Since they couldn’t wear fabric masks, she made them stretchy headbands with buttons on the sides for their medical masks, to alleviate the pressure of elastic on the ears over a long day. She posted an illustration of a nurse to unveil her design on Instagram, asking front-line workers to DM her if they wanted one. She received 3,000 requests, which she filled along with thousands more.
The demand got her thinking she might have something that would translate to consumers. “We didn’t even have samples yet, and nobody was shooting on models, so we thought of the idea to hire an illustrator to make drawings for pre-sale,” said Sadoughi. “I thought we’d sell a few hundred, and we sold 5,000 in the first few hours from an illustration.”
As she designed more into the category, adding adjustable ear straps, eyelets, stripes and other decorative features, she contracted a dedicated factory for mask making. “I made them in a pack of three, they weren’t three of the same. My first sets were pastel in lavender with pearls, then I made another pack of more neutral eyelets and seersuckers…,” she said. “Everyone was so excited to see personality in masks.”
To enlist customer feedback, she hosted Instagram Live Friday happy hours and offered discounted shopping. “It worked out when wholesale partners were shut down because it brought revenue in and was a fun thing.” Her next happy hour will be Oct. 30 to introduce the holiday collection.
Continuing to expand offerings, this month the brand launched cold weather gear with 16 styles of jeweled hats, ear warmers and leather gloves that were picked up by major retailers including Bloomingdale’s and ShopBop.
In 2021, Sadoughi will be unveiling a bigger handbag assortment, a collaboration with Solid and Striped and more headwear, including spring visors and bucket hats embellished with crystals or bows. As for masks, she said, “I did some initial mask designs for resort, but I’m really hoping I don’t have to make them.”
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