Two years ago, Les Tien founder Courtney Ogilvie couldn’t afford a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Today, she operates an apparel business that generates more than $1 million in sales.
Ogilvie launched Les Tien in the fall of 2018 with a small collection of genderless apparel. The label today produces two collections, a heavyweight fleece White Label and higher-end Black Label, and sells online and at more than 100 global retailers, including Net-a-porter and Matchesfashion, Harvey Nichols in Dubai, American Rag, Maxfield’s and Hirshleifers. It also launched in Japan this month at Ron Herman, United Arrows and Beams, among others.
The founder said she’s taking her time growing the brand. The U.S.-based White Label operation is fully vertical, with a sewing facility that produces only Les Tien, all knitting is done in Los Angeles and the brand has a partnership with a dye house. The Black Label, comprised of exclusive cashmere, virgin wool and angora pieces, is made in Italy. The Mock Neck Tee, the entry price point for the White Label, retails for $95, and according to Ogilvie, “We move mock necks faster than we can sew them.” In addition, 90 percent of Les Tien sales are from repeat customers, she said.
Les Tien expands to a new region every season. The brand is available in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Japan, with plans to expand further in Asia and then Australia. The expansion to Japan for spring 2019 added a 25 percent uptick in revenue — “I took a year to make sure that was under control,” Ogilvie said — and she is projecting sales of $2 million to $3 million in Europe in 2020.
The label is also opening its first retail location in Los Angeles. “I am a true Californian,” she said. “This is my state and I’m very proud.”
Ogilvie is high-energy, with a big personality, a sharp wit and quips for days. During a phone interview, she said she had worn two face masks and was contemplating a third and began prepping a coronavirus kit after canceling her business trip to Japan for the brand launches.
She considers herself to be a “product person” who works “in the business of necessity.” She added that she has had “a crazy journey” that includes making her first $1 million at 20 and being homeless at 33. She founded California-based fashion developer Fit & Supply in 2008 and California factory L.A. Makers in 2012, and had clients such as Yeezy through L.A. Makers and Fear of God through Fit & Supply.
But she shuttered both businesses in 2015, and experienced hardships and life setbacks that she had to overcome. “I sat around doing nothing, taking a bunch of drugs and acting stupid for two years after I closed Fit & Supply and L.A. Makers and walked away from those brands that I helped bring to life,” she said.
“I was at Starbucks and I couldn’t buy a cup of coffee, but I never felt freer and less trapped in my life because all I had was me. It got to a point where I realized that I deserve to have my own happiness and maybe I lost that in other people’s visions. I was the last one in line to get anything. If I can take care of myself, I can give better. I learned when I was depressed that it’s OK to talk to yourself. I would talk into my phone and play it back. That was me making sure I never feel alone and get depressed. I was taking precaution to my own health. The hardest battle in my life is remembering always that I’m my best friend.”
Ogilvie began development for Les Tien in 2017, beginning with the fabric. She created a garment treatment technique that she has since trademarked. In 2018, she developed the product, fit patterns and dye technology.
The brand’s first style, the cropped crewneck, is an update of a vintage Champion warm-up sweatshirt from Harvard in the Fifties that Ogilvie thought was a “reject.” She used the silhouette to create the cropped hoodie and cropped zip hoodie. The subsequent mock neck sweatshirt references a style from her youth that she insisted on wearing despite her parents’ protest.
She said, “I made the mock neck really for my dad,” and her father also inspired her fashion career. He designed for Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren and shifted to furniture design during the recession after the Vietnam War. Ogilvie recalls how her father would dress up and said she equated his jolly demeanor with his style. “He loved getting dressed,” she said. “I started to identify at a young age that dressing good makes you feel good. I genuinely wanted to make people feel good and, at a young age, that’s what I thought made people feel good.”
She studied fashion merchandising and marketing, but fell in love with fabrications, fit and draping in her textile classes. “I’m so grateful that I come from a family with weight problems, because what I learned about normal people and people that have depression and people that eat and people that don’t, it made me better at who I am,” she said.
Les Tien could be considered Ogilvie’s gift to the world, since “les tien” in French translates to, literally, “yours.” The designer has received flack for using a French phrase as the name of her brand when she herself is of Greek and Mexican descent. She said all of the things that she cares about derive from French culture, including what she calls “true tailoring,” which in her opinion came from France, Italy and Guatemala.
“The word yours — that’s not marketable, it’s boring,” she explained. “I wanted [the name] to be in Italian or French because I am focused on the quality of the product, not the trend. It’s not about fashion, it’s about quality-driven necessity. It’s about a custom couch or an Ikea couch, what do you want? Do you want to save money? Do you want it to last? What if I tell you that you could do both?
“The whole point of Les Tien is making it yours,” she continued. “Les Tien came out of self-love and self-confidence. Les Tien is about giving back to myself, giving something to people without the misconceptions of social BS. I’m not going to tell someone they can’t sit at my table.”