Every Thursday during the pandemic, we’re checking in on members of the jewelry trade in an attempt to glean shareable tips and tricks for doing business—and reentering our “normal” lives, both professionally and personally—during the COVID-19 crisis.
Today we hear from Lele Sadoughi, the New York–based designer of a hugely successful line of costume jewelry, embellished headbands, and other colorful accessories.
JCK: Hi, Lele! It feels a bit odd to ask how your business survived the past 16 months when you recently introduced collaborations with Lilly Pulitzer and Barbie.
Lele Sadoughi: You’re right—we’re not just surviving, we’re thriving. I get asked all the time what pivots we made, but it was more like an expansion. The first thing we did was scrap our marketing plan and look for ways to offer a bit of lightness. People were scared. We started daily “happy hours” on Instagram Live where [viewers could] have a drink with me, and we’d pick a product that we had good stock in and offer it half off for a few hours. It became something people looked forward to. With regard to expansion, a huge area of growth for us was masks.
You were one of the first designers to offer fashionable masks.
As soon as the CDC said to grab a bandanna and put it over your face, I thought, “I can do better than that.” Time was of the essence, and I had to find a new factory to make them. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which was use novelty fabrics, put embellishments on it, make it stylish. I didn’t want the folded kind because it doesn’t look as clean on the face—I did a contoured fit with adjustable straps, a soft lining, and a space to insert a filter. We didn’t even have a sample, but I had an illustrator draw it to match our seersucker headbands, put it on preorder, and sold thousands, just off the drawing. There was such a demand, and people were pleased not only with the quality and style but also with the comfort. Unfortunately, we’re still selling them.
When JCK featured you in a Designer Showcase profile three years ago, you were just introducing fabric headbands. Today, everyone from Kate Middleton to Helen Mirren has been photographed wearing a Lele headband. Are you surprised they became so popular?
Completely, completely surprised. I did them not because of any market research, but because my kids are 17 months apart and I had no time to do my hair. I wanted to look more polished and couldn’t find what I wanted, so I jeweled them up like everything else I do, and it became a “thing.” People collect them! During the pandemic, we had an explosion [in sales] because they were an appropriate, easy accessory for Zoom calls.
Does it bother you that you’re becoming as well-known for designing headbands as for jewelry?
I see headbands as an extension of jewelry—that beaded thing on your head, your neck, your wrist, your ankle, or your ears. We’re known as an accessory company now and not just a jewelry company, which is great. As far as a new category, we’re launching decorative socks really soon in fun little packs of three. We have “country-club socks,” which are ankle length and have a little ruffle on them. We have “demi-crew” with a pill trim. People wear socks under loafers, sneakers—they’re for all occasions.
What trends are you seeing in jewelry as we emerge from COVID-19?
I believe there’s going to be an explosion for costume and fashion jewelry, which I haven’t seen since I was at J. Crew, 2008 to 2011, when people wore 10 necklaces and 17 bracelets at a time, just piled it on. People are feeling less restricted by trends or rules now—there’s much more opportunity to express individuality with accessories, because no one is going to wear that headband, earrings, and sunglasses the way you do.
Were your partnerships with Lilly Pulitzer and Barbie in the works before the pandemic?
Yes, and we have some other really big things coming up that we’ve been working on over the past year. Barbie is a great example of how we were able to do an activation in our store in Dallas that was a big success. We had a life-size Barbie box for photos, and we served popsicles and treats. The collection [including charm-covered headbands, hats, and sunglasses for both adults and kids] is essentially sold-out already. Mattel was excited when we decided on the Mommy and Me marketing plan, which we were able to do with Lilly Pulitzer as well. That’s a segment that is not oversaturated.
You mentioned a new store in your hometown of Dallas. What made you decide to expand into brick-and-mortar at a time when many retailers see it as a challenge?
You have to do things when there’s an opportunity. I spent last summer in Dallas with my family, and the owners of Highland Park Village, which is the best shopping area, had a space open. The world was very different then, and I did think, “I’m not sure if it’s the right time to open a store.” But I went with it, and [when] we opened in mid-May, people flew in from all over the country. We made the opening into a big party, with music and drinks, and the reaction was tremendous. We’re already looking at a few other leases for New York City and possibly Florida.
What has the past year been like for you personally, as the mom of two young children?
In conjunction with the growth that keeps happening [with the business], I have tried to make my life as easy as possible. The kids went to school every day this past year, which was amazing, and their school is across the street from where we live. The office is a block away, so I was able to spend no time on commuting and be as efficient as possible.
I assume you’re not designing everything yourself anymore.
I have a team of more than 20 people now, and we’re still hiring because we’re in so many different categories. I truly believe that a lot of successful fashion companies are design-led, and as founder, that’s my strength. Unfortunately, I have to use my other skills more often, but design is my passion, and every piece is under my creative direction.
Finally, how do you relax? Sounds like you don’t really have time to Netflix and chill.
I’m at my in-laws’ home in Laguna [Calif.] right now, and I start my day early, but when I finish, I go swimming and hang out with my kids. As I said, I love design, so when I’m in front of Netflix, I’m also online searching Pinterest pages and blogs, looking at everything from art to vintage jewelry to interior design—all different kinds of inspiration. It’s fun to get lost in that.
Top: Lele Sadoughi celebrating the opening of her Dallas store (all photos courtesy of Lele Sadoughi)Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Twitter: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Facebook: @jckmagazine