Orseund Iris: Designer Lana Johnson on building an Insta-famous fashion brand, and how to win social media

Orseund Iris: Designer Lana Johnson on building an Insta-famous fashion brand, and how to win social media


Text: Ryan Sng

Interview: Jolene Khor

Image: Instagram

See-now-buy-now, seasonless fashion, and selling on social media are just three of the hurdles on which traditional brands find themselves tumbling in the digital age. Make no mistake, fashion in 2019 is a game for the nimble and adaptable. Take for example Lana Johnson, the Fashion Institute of Technology-trained designer and founder of Insta-famous label Orseund Iris. Growing her millennial business on the cost-free, global platform that is Instagram, Johnson and her young label have found a sizeable following in just over three years, with influencers including Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Nicola Peltz spotted in Orseund Iris.

Johnson, like most of her digitally-savvy peers, is also strikingly relatable to her millennial audience. As with many disruptors before her, she chafed against the confines of a formal design education and business practice, and, despite her fearless, maverick streak, Johnson has a gooey soft spot in her for that most important of enablers — dear old mum. We sat down together on a rainy day in Hong Kong and chatted with her about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur, wearing bra underwires as a badge of pride, and the lie that is "pics, or it didn't happen".

So Lana, how did the Orseund Iris name come about?
Lana Johnson (LJ):
Honestly, I invented it out of nothing while working on a thesis project. I just loved the sound of it. I wish there was more to it than that, but there you go. [Laughs].

If the name Orseund Iris is an invention, then who is the Orseund Iris girl?
She’s fearless, eclectic, spontaneous, and a rare bird as a result.

You were in your early ‘20s when you founded Orseund Iris, and have mentioned that it was your mother who egged you on to start a brand. Tell us a little more about that.
Absolutely, that’s my favorite part of the story. My mother is a fierce powerhouse, and she’s been a role model to my three sisters and myself our entire lives. After I graduated from FIT and as I was about to enter the workforce, I had expectations, like so many fresh graduates; I wanted so much to create a brand, but was becoming repetitive only talking about it. My mum sat me down — I remember this conversation at our old dining room table so clearly — and said: “I love you, but you’ve really got to do something about it, or I’m not going to allow you to talk about it anymore”. She even gave me a timeline, that’s how wonderfully strategic my mother is. I love that tough love.

And does she remain influential in the company?
A lot of people don’t know this, but my mother is like a silent partner at Orseund Iris. She manages cash flow, taxes, business strategy — including our relationship with Net-a-Porter— and even helped me prepare for this interview. My mother is a soundboard who calms me down when I need it.

She sounds like a true guardian angel!
Yeah, she lives in Florida and works remotely. But we’re building a new office — which my dad is helping with — so soon we’ll be working together even more closely. It’s really lovely and special to work surrounded by your family.

Aside from having your immediate family behind-the-scenes, Orseund Iris is also defined by its social media audience. Tell me about your professional relationship with Instagram.
It’s taken a couple of years to perfect our social media presence, learning all tricks and what does or doesn’t work. We’ve grown organically to 190K without a single ad, which I’m really proud of. It’s cool people that believe in our brand and are discovering us on social media.

Can you share with me what works and what doesn’t, without divulging too much?
Totally! I’m not a secretive person. I mean, what I’m doing is highly specific, but if you want to make Instagram work for you no matter the goals, think about the things which make you land on somebody else’s page, which is really a world unto itself. Fashion-wise, I’d say headless photos work; people identify with visuals that aren’t too stylised or forced.

Because life isn’t Photoshopped.
Exactly. I think the women that we work with or want to work with are real and have real lives. It’s not just about taking a pretty photo, but conveying personality.

Without Instagram, do you think your brand would be where it is today?
I think that without Instagram, which exposes us to huge numbers of people almost instantaneously, our growth may not have been this quick. But I’d like to think that we would have found another way to be discovered!

Through word of mouth, perhaps.
LJ: Yeah, I always tell my team that incredible photos are great. But in real life, when people dress for dinner or a night out, just because they don’t take Instagram photos or forget to doesn’t mean that the moment never existed. Although I can identify with that moment of forgetting to photograph a fire outfit!

Speaking of Instagram, Orseund Iris isn’t currently using the Instagram Checkout feature. Why is that?
Instagram was interested in including us in the first wave of brands for the feature rollout, and we definitely considered it. Right now, however, I just love the idea of jumping from Instagram to our website because of all that cool things we’ve worked on for that space. Checkout is definitely in the future for us, though, that’s for sure.

While we’re on the topic of the future, fashion and the speed at which it’s consumed sometimes feels unstoppable. What are your feelings on that?
I would never have thought, designing pieces in my apartment and just having a good time, would get me exposed to the world so quickly that I’d be sitting here talking to you right now. I’m mostly keeping up, but there are definitely negatives to pushing things that far. As a designer, I’m doing my best to slow down when it comes to what I’m creating and saying through my designs. I want keep our DNA consistent and thoughtful. There are so many things we’re brainstorming over in our Bushwick offices, but I want to take my time with them. I’m doing my best to handle everything gracefully.

It’s great that you’re taking things on in your own time. Your tube tank, however, seemed like it blew up overnight on Instagram. Was there a method behind the madness in that case?
Nope, it was all fun and spontaneous. I designed it because I had a weird desire to take a bra wire — which is typically hidden — and to flip things inside out and wear it exposed. It really resonated with people.

It was a breath of fresh air. Fashion’s always undervalued sexiness, but I feel that in the last five years that's changed somewhat. Is the sexiness factor — and the celebration of women’s bodies — an important message for you as a designer?
I’ve always loved being a woman, and like that a lot of our pieces accentuate the female form, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. The message manifested sub-consciously, through my designs: “You’re fierce, you’re amazing, you’re a woman. Own it.”

That tube tank was quite an It garment. Is that the Orseund Iris business strategy, designing It garments?
Not really. It’s still a surprise to me that certain things took off, with so many different types of people gravitating towards them. My biggest focus at the time was doing what I could with the financial capital that I had, and creating a handful of amazing pieces.

You seem like a really grounded person. How do you stay down-to-earth despite blowing up on social media?
Thank you so much, I appreciate it! I think its because I’m really self-aware and grateful, and I never want to lose that perspective. Orseund Iris is a young brand, and people are excited by it and want to know more; I want to retain that interest. If that means staying grounded and true to who I am, then I’ll do everything in my power to avoid getting too hyped.

Have you said no to anything?
It’s funny you ask that, because my sister tells me that I say “no” really well, which I didn’t think was a compliment at first.

It’s a great compliment! A lot of women aren’t brought up to be comfortable saying no, it doesn’t come naturally for many of us.
I’m focused and know what I want, and I think it’s really important to say no. If not, all of a sudden you’ll be doing something that you shouldn’t. That goes for anything in life, when people try to direct you against what feels right.

It can feel like a superpower sometimes, so good for you.
I’m still working on it, but thank you!

Rumours are swirling that Instagram is phasing out likes on their platform. As a brand that’s influential on social media, do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing?
On a positive note, it’ll let users be a little bit more carefree. They’re not going to worry as much about engagement — so that’s healthy. On the other hand, it could be harder for brands using the platform to assess what’s working without feedback.

The influencer model is a popular marketing strategy on social media, although millennials have polarising views on them. What are your thoughts on the subject?
It’s so funny, because I’m sort of becoming a mini influencer and I find that there’s a healthy balance you need to strike. I work hard at what I do, and of course documenting, then sharing my process is part of the game; it gets people talking and brings in customers. Social media influencing is a real career path, and I don’t think people take it seriously enough. They just see it as wasting time and not living in the moment. I know plenty of influencers personally, and in real life, I’ve been shocked to see how little some of them use their phones. These people have real, balanced lives, and creating trendsetting content is just the work side of it.

You mentioned in an interview that your brand capitalises on direct consumer feedback. Can you tell me more?
When we started out, there was a lot of trial and error. I was never too proud to ask my team or the average shopper what they thought about my work, because there’s always room for improvement. With social media, engagement is essentially feedback that you can learn from if you’re not stubborn about it. I think Orseund Iris’s flexibility and attentiveness to feedback make us stand out, and that’s how modern companies should be run.

At what stage in the process of creating an item do you ask your team if they’d buy it?
It depends. Sometimes, there are certain designs that I get quiet about. It’s pretty funny, because we’ll be in the office and I’ll pull out something nobody’s seen yet and watch them go: “Ooh, what’s that?”. Then I’ll have to explain why I didn’t share it with them earlier, because I worried about receiving about feedback too soon. Generally, though, after two test samples for fit, everyone in the team will test-drive a sample to see how it wears, or how it lives.

How a garment lives… That's a good way of putting it!
Yeah, certain things can look so beautiful, but… How does it feel to dance in them? How does an item look five hours into a night of dancing? It’s good to get as many opinions as possible on a sample, and that’s before we even get into colours and details! I love making the design process collaborative.

You’ve said that you consider yourself a seasonless designer. I take it this means you believe the current mainstream fashion model is not sustainable?
Absolutely. Plus I don’t like following rules and structures in general. I really struggled at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), for example.

You didn’t do well in college?
It was a struggle. I was calling my mom every night, telling her how much I hated it. FIT is brilliant, but structured schooling didn’t work for me, and it was much the same with the seasonal fashion calendar. I love to zero in on one design and give it my all; I don’t create filler designs to meet a seasonal quota that I don’t care about because, a) I can’t afford it; and b) I need to make things I care about. Non-seasonality is freedom to me, and makes designing a lot more fun.

Sometimes what’s in the store doesn’t even match what the shopper needs in real-time, anyway.
Exactly. A lot of our styles stay on the sales floor for a couple of years, because I still feel like it’s their time and a place. Other styles we’ll archive or move on from. There are so many different seasons happening simultaneously across the world, that you don’t need to fixate on the calendar of just one and design around it.

That’s a smart business decision for sure. You’ve mentioned that you’re self-taught — what’s the toughest lesson you have had to learn so far?
I don’t think people talk enough about the journey it takes to be resilient and feel confident. When it comes to working freelance, for example, you’re on your own and aren’t surrounded by people day in, day out. To encourage yourself, you almost have to pep talk yourself throughout the day.

It's also tough to be ‘on’ all the time and to always feel great about what you’re doing.
It takes time and experience. The mental health challenges that come with being an entrepreneur are major, and you have to be fearless and focused to not get discouraged. It’s emotionally draining, but also thrilling. When I made my first sale, I cried; it was a huge payoff.

Who was your first sale to?
It was a girl who, three years ago, bought the Le Funk bowling shirt in two different colours. I was emotional because it was nine on a Friday evening in New York. Everyone was out drinking and I was still in my office. It was such a moment.

You’re really young. How do you think your age has worked to your advantage or disadvantage?
I’ve always felt like a kid, and that’s just my personality. In terms of career and traditional design experience, I’m really naïve. When I started Orseund Iris, I didn’t think having several jobs already under my belt was a necessary step. I was impatient and I just wanted to jump in. Even now, all I focus on is doing what I need to and not being afraid to go for it. I’ve not received too much criticism so far, but maybe that will change, as I get more comfortable stepping out from behind the scenes.

So what will you and Orseund Iris go for next?
So many things! Within the next year, expect some sport-inspired, athleisure. stuff that’s a little more casual than our usual fare, but still cool and luxury.

We can’t wait!

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