In my private life I’ve been on the move since I was 19, but not in my professional world. We all know how women have to cover up our personal lives in business because we might be accused of it professionally. I’m not sure how much of that was sexism and how much of it was homophobia, but the fear of both kept me from distancing myself. I found my guard exhausting and got angry after a while. I found it quite unfair that some people had to show up and be themselves and some of us had to leave a part of ourselves at the door. That inspired me as an entrepreneur. What if there was a workplace where you could really be yourself and not worry that your intersectionality was an issue? I decided to create this environment myself and made inclusivity a cornerstone of our workplace culture at Leota. As a young brand, I didn’t make a big deal out of it with my customers. It’s safer to just focus on the clothes I’m designing.
The fashion industry has traumatized me – open any magazine or social media and it tells me that I have to be straight, fair skinned, thin, curved in just the right places, styled and pinned, young, chiseled, etc. to be this beautiful. I started exploring the industry further and discovered that fashion is focused on women and their money, but only 14 percent of fashion brands are owned by women.
I wanted to change fashion for the better. I could create a brand that inspires self-love and joy rather than dieting and conformity. I could create a radically inclusive brand that celebrates femininity as a source of strength, no matter what body it shows itself in. Our business practices from hiring to vendor selection to how we spend money are firmly rooted in the principles of feminism, anti-racism, inclusivity, meritocracy. If you read one of my blog posts on our website you might get a taste of what we were up to. But that news flew under the radar, and aside from my superfans, most customers missed it. I admit that relieved me.
I figured I could do all of this while being relatively closed professionally and keeping those viewpoints out of the brand just in case customers don’t like it. Of course people would eventually find out that I was a lesbian, but I was used to hiding my identity. I figured if I was going to risk offending someone, it’s better if they don’t know.
As a woman I already have to fight against unconscious biases – why add another to the possible reasons to write me off? But now I have millions of customers, and our internal company conversations get painful when it comes to what to share with our customers and what to shamelessly omit. We are complicit in major issues in our industry when we remain silent, and we risk losing customers by speaking up. This is a trade-off I face every day as a small business owner.
When I started Leota I got directly involved in this conversation, so am I not accountable or at least responsible for my contribution to our industry and the communities we do business with?
I think I have a pretty good idea of my client’s demographics, and I’m concerned that speaking out loud about my beliefs might upset her. Do I risk losing customers if I come out? What if she doesn’t believe in fashion as much as I do? What if she doesn’t share my views and decides to stop buying from me? We’re still an independent small business with no investors to give us money when we’re short. I’ve spent the last decade building Leota from the ground up and I really have something to lose.
There is a back and forth between what we expect from the brand and what customers think of us. My CEO and I have engaged in this real talk for years because we are afraid of our customers. My clients are smart, strong women and I depend on them for my livelihood. And they cannot share my views. We struggle to be an inclusive company that makes fashion for everyone and really doesn’t want to offend anyone. We’ve been in the middle of it like water, pushing for change in our business practices, but not making a big fuss about it with our customers because I’m not sure how economically viable that is.
I didn’t think of this risk. It’s not fear that comes from insecurity. It comes from experience. After all, I have experienced the backlash in my career – homophobia and sexism as well as discrimination and harassment for being a lesbian. I also have to deal with internalized homophobia. Everything indicates that the best way to succeed is to adapt.
I understand how to adapt; I’ve been doing it my whole life. Although I entered the fashion industry to make a difference, I have continued to adapt, even as I took on a visible role in the press and in the industry. It may sound naïve, but it never occurred to me that my private life would be part of the brand. Early on in my business, I was interviewed for an article detailing my lifestyle as a fashion designer and entrepreneur. They asked a seemingly innocuous question that you often see on these lifestyle profiles. “What does your typical weekend look like?” A simple question that isn’t that easy for an LGBTQ+ person and I was stunned. This is the first time I remember venting my truth as an entrepreneur. I was married at the time and left my wife out of my story. Better to clear my story, I reasoned, than risk being rejected by my potential client base.
Conformity is the price of entry into fashion. I recently attended a mandatory workshop at one of my key retail partners and the topic was how to integrate heritage and storytelling into your brand story. The workshop leaders encouraged us to talk about our families, our origin stories and the things that made us special and unique. Not except me. not my story In the workshop, the dealer specifically told me: “Don’t say anything about being gay or LGBTQ-friendly. Our audience won’t relate to that.” The message was loud and clear: we’re afraid our customers will be turned off by anything off-the-mainstream.
In the meantime, we’ve been in excitement at work with the dystopian world we’re living in right now, including but not limited to the fall of the Supreme Court roe, the “don’t say gay” law in Florida, trans youth being denied gender-affirming treatment, mass shootings, police killings of black people, attacks on Asians, the war in Ukraine. These are things that affect my customers, my employees, my communities. We finally realized we couldn’t hide in our closet anymore.
There are serious compromises, but we have a choice not to sit in the middle, but to come out and say what we believe in. That was really uncomfortable for me personally because it’s a lot safer to stay out of the conversation of the fight and in the closet. But I can’t live with myself if I do.
I make fashion for everyone. I want everyone to be able to dress up Leota and feel like a million bucks. Leota is for everyone – I mean men, women, non-binary, transgender, Everyone. Fashion is about self-expression and I want to be a part of the freedom that comes from dressing up as yourself. And I want people to know that this contribution to fashion and culture comes from a diverse team of creators.
I bet my customers stay loyal to me. I’ve had her back all these years – will they have mine?
Sarah Karson is the founder of Leota.
This story is part of that of the lawyer History 2022 edition, available on newsstands August 30th. To get your own copy direct, Support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.