Classics, Reimagined

A Tip of the Hat to Janessa Leoné

The hat that inspired it all sounds downright delicious: “It’s rounded, made of  fur felt, and is supple, worn-in and buttery. A cross between olive-green and gray, it was once a men’s dress hat. You can pinch it and reshape it; dress it up or dress it down.”

Spotted in a vintage Parisian shop on a trip that her parents gave her as a college graduation gift, the chapeau in question grabbed Janessa Leoné ’09 (BA) at first glimpse. “It really took my breath away,” she recalls. “It made me feel so confident when I wore it, and that led me to want to find out where it came from.”

Almost implausibly, she discovered that an Italian milliner who shared her surname made the hat in the 1940s. “I’m sure the story of the journey that brought it from Italy to Paris is amazing,” Leoné says. She began her own saga soon after. “I wanted to recreate the versatility of that hat,” she recalls. “I wanted to learn how to make classics that would hold up 50 or 60 years later. I’m after a sense of timelessness.”

Of course, discovering the hat was just the first step for Leoné. “I needed to learn everything: How do you make a hat? What’s the manufacturing process? I cold-called and Googled and met so many knowledgeable people.” As it turned out, Texan cowboys were an unexpected resource. “Hats play a huge significance in their identities.”

Since founding her eponymous company in 2012, Leoné has pursued a single-minded goal: “To create products that have the capability to tell a narrative of many generations, because they’re made well enough to withstand the stories themselves.” Her first collection was inspired by music. “The idea was to put a name to the faceless women who served as muses behind classic rock
and roll songs. People like Bianca Jagger and Anita Pallenberg. I love the ‘70s style.”

To say that her vision struck a chord is an understatement. The company, which was started in 2012 with $10,000 she’d saved from her postgraduation job as a nanny, projected upwards of $5 million in sales for 2015 and ships about 5,000 hats per month. Leone takes pride in the fact that she still hasn’t brought in outside investors.

“I want to keep the company growing at a pace that I feel comfortable at,” she explains. “Every piece of this business is true and genuine to myself, and not bringing in outside funders lets me have the freedom to create the way I want to.”

Celebrities like Mary-Kate Olsen, Jessica Alba and Blake Lively have been photographed wearing her hats, which has certainly helped to create buzz, as has Leoné’s adept use of social media like Twitter and Instagram. “I see it as a direct gateway to my customers,” she explains. “I can share what my vision is and get their feedback directly.”

As far as next steps? Handbags and shoes are on the horizon, but the sky’s the limit: “Coco Chanel started as a milliner,” Leoné laughs. “That’s where I want to go.” — Julene Snyder