This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with startup founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
After more than a decade of working in her family business and later as a supermarket manager, Vanni Leung wanted her next chapter in life to embrace her passions as a lifelong vegan: a brand of her own that would be “eco-friendly, plant based, and full of compassion and respect for all things.”
The result is Valani, a newly launched biodegradable and vegan fashion house based in Northern California, which launched in August. In addition to giving 10% of proceeds of the brand’s eco-friendly separates and dresses to charities that support women’s empowerment and the environment, Leung, a certified breathwork practitioner, hosts monthly free virtual breathwork sessions as a way to promote self-love and help women lighten their mental load.
Fortune recently spoke with the founder about how the first year has been and what the company plans to do next.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Could you tell me a bit about your background? What were you doing professionally prior to launching Valani?
Leung: While I do not have a formal background in fashion, I do have a strong entrepreneurial background. I handled the books for my dad’s service business since I was a kid and continued to do so into my thirties. Alongside that, I managed a supermarket for 12 years and have a BS in marketing from San Francisco State University. I developed very strong entrepreneurial skills but craved a creative outlet. I wanted to pursue something that I was passionate about.
What inspired the launch of Valani?
Valani is really an extension of my vegan lifestyle: eco-friendly, plant-based, and full of compassion and respect for all things. I’ve been a vegan for 24 years, so it was really important to me that my brand reflects this lifestyle as well. I started Valani to create awareness of plant-based options and to show that sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be boxy and boring. It can actually be fun and beautiful.
Who is your target audience?
My target audience is a woman [between] her twenties and forties who is looking for sustainable clothing but is tired of boxy and boring options. She’s looking for clothing that embraces her femininity and doesn’t sacrifice style. She understands the impact that fast fashion has on the earth and its inhabitants. She’s looking to make a change and vote with her dollars and prefers quality over quantity.
Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic, so it must be daunting to launch a company of any kind, let alone a clothing brand, right now. What has it been like opening a direct-to-consumer clothing business during a pandemic? What has it been like to work with supply chain partners and develop the initial capsule collection?
The first production will always be the most difficult, but adding in a pandemic takes it to a whole new level. Our original launch was set for spring 2020, but when the pandemic hit, our partner in India had to close for about three months. When they reopened, they could only operate at 25% capacity and faced road closures and transportation issues. In addition, our banana fabric was lost and had to be remade.
This has definitely been a very challenging year to launch and not what anyone has envisioned for 2020. Instead of canceling the order, we decided to pivot our plans. We immediately began production of our hemp and Tencel collection in Chicago to ensure a launch date of September 2020. Ideally, we would have launched in spring. However, with a bit of restyling and layering, our collection is meant to be worn throughout many seasons.
That said, what has it been like to secure funding for Valani? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
It’s tough to get funding as a startup, let alone a clothing line. As of now, Valani is self-funded, and any outside funding would be considered in the future.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Valani in the market?
With the pandemic creating so many unexpected delays, especially with working overseas, we’ll be focusing more on U.S. production. We are working on some knit garments that are elevated basics with a feminine flair. These should be released for spring 2021.
In five years, we plan to have a wider range of knits and woven garments that are timeless, beautiful, and easy to mix and match. We are always on the lookout for new sustainable, plant-based fabrics that are biodegradable.
It takes time for self-funded businesses to grow and build brand awareness. We plan to make our mark in the sustainable fashion world as a brand driven by compassion and purpose. We donate one tree for every garment sold, and 10% of our profits to animal, environmental, and women’s empowerment programs.
As part of our “Lighter Living” concept, we host free monthly breathwork sessions to our community to help women lighten the emotional load of everyday life. It’s important that we operate at our best so we can be ready to make a positive impact on the world.
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