How Six Female Entrepreneurs Found Success During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Layla Ilchi
·16 min read
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Over the last year, as the coronavirus disrupted the fashion industry and severely impacted most major brands and retailers, several female entrepreneurs were able power through the challenges presented by the pandemic and find tremendous success with their businesses.

Designers and founders Lele Sadoughi, Nell Diamond, Sindiso Khumalo, Jenni Lee, Kendall Glazer and Nicole Trunfio not only sustained their fashion and accessories brands amid the pandemic, but were able to grow their businesses by attracting new customers with trendy items, meeting changing consumer preferences and expanding their retail distributions.

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Here, WWD speaks with these six female entrepreneurs on how they were able to find success at such a tumultuous time in the fashion industry and the world at large. Read on for more.

Lele Sadoughi, founder of Lele Sadoughi

Designer Lele Sadoughi has been a formidable player in the accessories category since launching her namesake label in 2012. When the pandemic hit, Sadoughi leveraged her experience designing accessories like headbands and jewelry to create the new accessory that the pandemic made mandatory: the face mask.

“I thought about making masks, but I didn’t seriously think about doing it until the CDC recommended that we just grab our own bandanas and tie them around our faces,” Sadoughi said. “And I thought, ‘well, I can do better than that.’”

Sadoughi had never designed a face mask, but she saw her formula for designing her embellished headbands would work for the new accessory where she takes the classic shape and adorns it with trendy fabrics and embellishments to “give personality to something we unfortunately have to wear.”

While Sadoughi was in the design process for the face masks, she enlisted an illustrator to draw a mockup of what the face masks — which matched some of her most popular headband styles — would look like to be posted on Sadoughi’s website and made available for pre-order. Sadoughi said with just those illustrations, the brand sold thousands of face masks that first day.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was really interesting to see that people not only want a mask, but want something that makes them look good and feel good,” Sadoughi said. “[The face masks] feel more special than just a plain black or white one.”

Sadoughi sold the face masks in packs of three at $25 to $49, making them some of the least expensive offerings from the brand. She said the face masks served as an accessible entry point into Lele Sadoughi for many new customers, who later ended up purchasing the matching headbands or her jewelry offerings.

“If you think about the behavior of our consumers, they’re buying the masks because they need them,” she said, “but maybe they want something pretty so they’re buying the headband to match and the little earrings. They’re buying the whole look is what we’re seeing.”

Sadoughi said the face masks were a huge driver of the brand’s record revenue year in 2020. She also said that all the brand’s categories saw growth last year, especially its headbands.

For Sadoughi, it was also important to stay engaged with her customers, especially during the early days of the pandemic and its subsequent stay-at-home orders. She started doing frequent Instagram Live happy hours where she would talk to her customers and followers directly, as well as take a product and price it at half-off for the duration of the Instagram Live.

“We’d pick one product and have it be half-off and go on Instagram Live and have a drink and chat,” she said, “And if I can help you escape from whatever day you’ve had for a few hours then that’s it. It became such a fun thing that everybody was waiting for and expecting.”

Jenni Lee, founder of Comme Si

Jenni Lee launched Comme Si nearly a year before the pandemic with the intent of offering fashionable, luxury socks that could be worn with different types of shoes, including sandals and heels. Her mission, however, was tested when the pandemic hit and she had to figure out how her products fit customers’ changing lifestyles now that they weren’t leaving the house, and theoretically, weren’t wearing shoes as often.

“Obviously in 2020, we saw less dressing up and more hunkering down,” she said. “We had to introduce products that fit this lifestyle.”

Lee pooled her resources at the beginning of the pandemic to launch the brand’s Everyday Sock, an organic cotton, ankle-length style that can be worn all day both indoors and out, with shoes and without. The style has since become one of the brand’s bestsellers. She also took part in the growing tie-dye trend by taking some of her older styles and creating a tie-dye collection, which quickly sold out. Lee said that other than the Everyday Sock, her cozier styles, like those made with cashmere or merino wool, became customer favorites, too.

“I found that in 2020 socks were a new focus for people,” she said. “I think because people weren’t going outside and they were getting dressed up to work inside, socks had a new focus than in a pre-pandemic world.”

As a response to growing loungewear trends amid the pandemic, Lee made her first category expansion into apparel with boxer shorts. She was inspired to create the style based on her own preferences of wearing her husband’s boxers as a comfortable at-home option. She gave the style a luxury upgrade with the use of silk and delicate buttons to make them appear more refined and presentable.

With the new sock styles and the loungewear, Lee saw her brand’s sales increase by 300 percent year-over-year. She said the loungewear also introduced many of her new customers to the brand and its sock offerings.

“I think there’s a lot of power in simplicity and I think our point of view comes across really clearly in such a simple product and people are really drawn to that,” Lee said. “There is so much noise out there and I also think, in general as consumers, we are having to think about form and function in a new way.”

Nell Diamond, chief executive officer and founder of Hill House Home

At a time when apparel purchases were on the decline, Nell Diamond’s Hill House Home was seeing the opposite thanks to the brand’s best-selling Nap Dress.

Diamond launched the Nap Dress — a modern-day house dress that’s designed in structured, yet loose-fitting cuts made with trendy fabrics — in 2019, and it became an instant favorite among her customers. However, she saw the garment became even more popular at the beginning of the pandemic as changing quarantine fashion trends influenced women to look for styles that were professional enough to wear while working remotely, but comfortable enough to wear while lounging around the house.

“It became our hero product far before the pandemic and then it continued to really grow over the last year and a half,” Diamond said. “The point of the Nap Dress always has been to have a garment that is comfortable and makes you feel really put together and really great. That really resonated even more during the pandemic.”

The Nap Dress contributed to record 2020 growth for Hill House Home. The brand saw sales increase by 275 percent and the Nap Dress category increase by 1,120 percent. Diamond said that apparel sales were the key driver behind the brand’s 2020 sales.

While the brand has been experiencing tremendous success through its Nap Dress, Diamond said the biggest challenge of this success has been meeting the demand while staying true to the brand’s mission of being environmentally friendly.

“We really don’t want to create this glut of products that go out of style in a couple of months and are really trend-driven or season-dependent,” she said. “We really love our hero products and we want them to last you years and years. That’s always been our thesis, so it’s been important to us to have that, but at the same time we really want to meet demand.”

The brand has continued to introduce new Nap Dress collections over the course of the pandemic in small batches, such as its holiday collection that debuted some of the popular Nap Dress styles in tartan and gold brocade prints. Diamond said the holiday collection “sold out further than our most aggressive projections in minutes.”

Hill House Home also recently launched its English Garden Nap Dress collection in February, introducing its first black Nap Dress and its new Nima wrap dress style. According to the brand, the English Garden collection generated $1 million in sales in 12 minutes.

The success of the Nap Dress has extended to the brand’s home category, which includes bath and bedding products. Hill House Home recently introduced a collection of bed sheets that match the patterns of some of the brand’s most popular Nap Dress styles. Diamond said all the brand’s categories experienced double-digit growth last year.

“The real focus of the brand since 2016 has been on the home and I started the company really because I wanted to enable people to express their personality in the spaces they live in and to really find joy and happiness in the quotidian, mundane things we do,” she said. “When the pandemic came and people were spending more time at home, I think that message really resonated even more so with people.”

Kendall Glazer, cofounder of Stoney Clover Lane

At the beginning of the pandemic, accessories brand Stoney Clover Lane was entering one of its busiest sales seasons: spring break. The brand had a marketing campaign scheduled for the travel season, but quickly had to scrap all plans due to the pandemic.

Like many last March, founders and sisters Kendall and Libby Glazer left New York City and relocated to their parents’ home in Palm Beach, Fla. and started thinking of new ways to continue their business, especially as their fulfillment center had just temporarily shut down.

“The uncertainty definitely was scary, but I think it really put us in this position where we were like, ‘what can we be doing, what can we be putting out and how can we adapt,’” Kendall Glazer said. “Obviously, we were worried. Everyone was worried, but at the same time we turned that into this motivation to just keep going and keep our community feeling positive.”

The Glazer sisters looked to the brand’s origin for inspiration on what to do next, specifically how they started their business by making and selling beaded bracelets from their Tulane University dorm room. At the onset of the pandemic, they again started making beaded bracelets from their parents’ home to release in small collections on their website, which quickly sold out. The sisters resolved their initial fulfillment center issue by shipping out the orders themselves, something they hadn’t done since their college days.

They also looked to the growing tie-dye fashion trend and their customers’ new need for face masks and started hand-dyeing face masks that they sold in small quantities. The masks also quickly sold out.

“It felt like we were really getting back to our roots,” Glazer said. “We stemmed a lot of creativity from it and started developing new products and ideas from it. Things that launched the last few months and into this year were all developed during that time.”

Stoney Clover Lane’s beaded bracelets and tie-dye face masks proved to be lucrative ideas. The products contributed to overall sales growth of 200 percent in 2020. Glazer said the face masks were a huge category for the brand and launch days served as the biggest revenue days of the year. She said that with each launch, “we were breaking records that we hadn’t seen before.”

The brand also continued its expansion into brick-and-mortar during the pandemic, marking a stark contrast to how many brands were closing doors as they were struggling to survive amid the pandemic.

The Glazers had pre-pandemic plans to open their storefront in Newport Beach, Calif. and went ahead with the opening last November with new offerings inspired by the pandemic. The store, as well as their three others across the country, offered a “takeout initiative” for customers using curbside pickup where their purchases would be packaged in a Stoney Clover Lane-branded carryout container.

“When you come to our stores, it’s definitely all about the experience,” she said. “We didn’t want someone to do curbside and feel like they didn’t have the Stoney Clover Lane experience.”

Sindiso Khumalo, fashion designer

Sindiso Khumalo had a breakout year in 2020. The fashion designer, who has run her eponymous apparel brand out of Cape Town since 2014, powered through the challenges presented by the pandemic and stuck to her core values of sustainability and empowering Black women for her line, which resulted in several accolades and a major retail partnership.

“The thing about being in an environment that is confined is I think it pushes you to be more creative about how you approach your practice,” she said, “and then that becomes a new way of your practice. If anything, [the pandemic] actually brought more inspiration of how we can do different things.”

Khumalo has been a part of Milan Fashion Week’s emerging brands hub for the last two years, but made her official debut with her spring 2021 collection during the virtual fashion week this last September. She presented her collection through a short fashion film that was produced in a field outside of Cape Town.

“It was definitely an opportunity to show our work in a different way,” Khumalo said. “I’m not really a fashion show kind of brand. I think our work exists better within the context that we photograph our campaigns. The storytelling for us is so much more encompassing.”

Khumalo’s spring collection, and her recently debuted fall collection, were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s “escape to freedom and the symbols and tools she used” as well as African American folktales and slavery. One aspect of the inspiration that really resonated with Khumalo was the idea of the “North Star quilt,” which Khumalo explained was used by safe houses throughout the Underground Railroad to offer shelter. She designed her own “North Star quilt” for her fall collection and used the hand-quilted fabric in skirts and jackets.

Sustainability has also been a core tenet of Khumalo’s brand. Khumalo partners with an NGO that works to get women out of sex trafficking by offering them work and fair wages. Khumalo works with these women to produce needlework and embroidery that she uses in her collections. She also works with a workshop in Burkina Faso to create hand-woven textiles and she uses recycled fabrics and materials, like turning picnic blankets into coats. This value of sustainability was even more crucial during the pandemic, as it became difficult to import materials during South Africa’s lockdown.

Khumalo’s practices and empowering collections have not gone unnoticed. Last October, she was awarded the Independent Designer Award at the virtual Green Carpet Fashion Awards. She was also named a finalist for the LVMH Prize during Paris Fashion Week in February 2020 and was later awarded 40,000 euros through the prize after LVMH canceled the final edition of the prize due to the pandemic.

While in Paris for the LVMH Prize, Khumalo met a buyer from Net-a-porter and has since partnered with the retailer for its Net-a-porter Vanguard program that promotes emerging designers. She will be launching her collections through the program next month.

“These are the pieces that are important to us because these are the pieces that are going to empower these women,” she said about launching through the program. “It’s great to have a partner who can actually listen and listen to what the meaning is for the work that you’re doing.”

Nicole Trunfio, chief executive officer and founder of Bumpsuit

Nicole Trunfio made the risky decision to move forward with the launch of her shapewear brand, Bumpsuit, at the beginning of March 2020 as the world was grappling with the escalating COVID-19 pandemic. It was important for her to get out her brand’s offerings regardless of the pandemic because she felt her brand’s compressionwear and catsuits filled a white space that she herself had been looking for when she was pregnant.

“The Bumpsuit was literally born out of pure need for something that’s easy,” she said. “I feel like it’s really hard to look and feel good during pregnancy without wearing a huge kind of bag of an outfit. [The Bumpsuit] evolved from just wearing a comfortable catsuit in the wintertime and we were like, this is a great concept for pregnancy.”

Trunfio’s Bumpsuit offers various shapewear and compressionwear styles like jumpsuits, maxi dresses and leggings, among others, for pregnant and non-pregnant women. She came up with the concept during her first two pregnancies when she realized her maternitywear was causing intense acid reflux. She decided to create Bumpsuit to offer shapewear that could work for pregnant women without putting any pressure on their stomach, and still fit them after giving birth.

In the early days of Bumpsuit, Trunfio was running her business from a ranch in Austin where she and her family were temporarily staying. At the ranch, Trunfio saw an opportunity to safely enlist her neighbors, who were also ranch mothers, to help with the brand, which she thinks contributed to the brand’s success.

“I feel like ranch mothers are very rational and practical women,” she said. “They know how to get things done. I had these women that had their heads screwed on probably more than anyone else and that had also been raising kids, so they wanted a little bit of a vacation from thinking about kids’ stuff.”

Although the beginning of the pandemic was a stressful time, Trunfio really valued her time working with the ranch mothers and learned a lot about running a business from that time.

“I’m the glass-half-full type of person,” she said. “I feel like you just redefine how you live your day-to-day and find everything you need within the confines of your own boundaries. That was a really special experience for me and I have such good memories of making it work. The care and thoughtfulness in the beginning stages from my ranch mom team was awesome.”

Bumpsuit has quickly developed a loyal following since launch. Trunfio said that her styles constantly sell out and that her priority for the second year in business is to meet demand. Her styles have also developed a celebrity following among the likes of Kelly Rowland, Emily Ratajkowski and Elsa Hosk, among others.

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