Hitting The Mark

Lisa Vogl, Founder and Director, Verona Collection

Episode Summary

I hustled to get Lisa Vogl on the show because the idea of starting a brand specializing in hijabs that is catering to the Muslim population and launching it successfully at Macy’s to me was fascinating on many levels. In fact, Verona Collection is the first modest fashion brand to be launched, featured, and sold in an American department store. Lisa is a young passionate entrepreneur driven by authenticity. I greatly enjoyed this swift interview with her about her brand’s strategy and I believe it shows.

Episode Notes

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Full Transcript:

F Geyrhalter:

Welcome to the show, Lisa.

L Vogl:

Thank you for having me.

F Geyrhalter:

Absolutely. So it's Ramadan and that's a huge, huge deal for you and many others, so thank you especially for being here. This is a pretty big deal for you.

L Vogl:

Thank you. Yeah, even when I think we scheduled, I completely forgot it was going to be Ramadan. We fast from sunrise to sunset. It's considered the most blessed month in Islam, so it's a very special time.

F Geyrhalter:

I hope you're going to keep your energy throughout the next 20 or so minutes.

L Vogl:

Hopefully it will pass. You're getting used to it. The very first couple of days of fasting, it's caffeine withdrawal because I'm a coffee addict, then you get used to it, so just normal for me now.

F Geyrhalter:

Perfect. We also had to, we moved it around a couple of times and now we ended on a Friday afternoon when we record this out of my little home studio, as is the new norm now.

L Vogl:

Tell me about it. I mean like these major business meetings and then like kids in the background knocking on the door, so it's a new norm for everybody, unfortunately.

F Geyrhalter:

That's right. You're a mom of two, right? So that might happen throughout the podcast too that we have extra guest.

L Vogl:

They're not here at the moment so I got a moment of peace and quiet. We're very lucky, otherwise it would be very loud in the background, but yes, I'm a single mother of two boys.

F Geyrhalter:

Thank you for sharing the peace and quiet time with us. We do appreciate it. So Lisa, you were born in Michigan, with a German name though which is interesting, and you are an award winning international fashion photographer, yet today, you run your five year old fashion brand Verona Collection which is the first modest fashion brands to be launched, featured, and sold in an American department store, Macy's to be exact, but now you're also available in ASOS. What does modest mean, many people would ask, and so for one, I know that your brand is specialized in hijabs and is catering to the Muslims. Tell us, how did your transformation to Islam and this subsequent business come about? Because there's first, your personal transformation, and then you saw a need I'm pretty sure that you fulfilled.

L Vogl:

Yeah. That is like such a long answer and then kind of goes across of maybe 10 years of my life because you are correct, the idea of American German, of course, and most American Germans aren't born Muslim. Most, just like I was. I was born a Christian, so I grew up in a Christian family, but I found Islam and I discovered Islam, over the course of 10 years I should say because I lived in Morocco for a little bit when I was... I took some time off of college and traveled, but that's not when I discovered Islam. I discovered it later on, and when I converted to Islam, I found a need for modest clothing. It was just so difficult because I then changed my entire wardrobe to adhere to the hijab and when I went out to go shopping for new clothing, to cover down to my wrist, to cover down to my ankle, it was really difficult, and so I found a need for millions of Muslims in America and around the world. There were plenty smaller brands catering but nothing that was really this massive hijab brand that provided modest clothing. So myself and my partner, we discovered that this is a huge need, let's come together and let's launch Verona. We branded it towards marketing towards Muslim women, right? But it's also a need for many other people that want to dress modestly but not necessarily for a religious purpose.

F Geyrhalter:

I think it is so fascinating. I mean I don't know where I read about you because you had a pretty good press run the last couple of years, but I read about you and I was like, "I have to have her on the show because it is so smart," and for me, it's always so important to find a niche and to find something that caters to a really small audience, and that audience like in your case could be huge.

L Vogl:

It's really not a small audience, like the modest fashion industry. The great thing about this market is it's a niche and it's not this broad niche, right? But there's so much opportunity. The modest fashion market is expected to be worth $500 billion in just another year or two, so we're on the right path and there's a huge need for it.

F Geyrhalter:

How would you describe modest fashion?

L Vogl:

This question comes up a lot because modesty, even within the Muslim community, is a very broad term because everybody has a different definition of modesty and the last thing I want to do as a brand or even personally is try to dictate everybody else's modesty level, right? Because I think that that's a personal choice and that's something that we like to scream loud and proud that listen, we are not forcing the hijab, we are not forcing to take it off, we want this to be an option and a choice for our customers. So for me personally, I wear baggy clothes, I don't wear tight fitting clothes, but I still wear pants sometimes and a long top. I just prefer to wear like long dresses more because I feel more comfortable, but there's a lot of other women that modesty, maybe not even adhering to Islamic standards and show the arms but wearing necessary clothing. So everybody has a different definition of it and I certainly don't want to dictate what my definition is, if that makes sense.

F Geyrhalter:

It totally makes sense, and you have a pretty big product line now, right? How many products do you have?

L Vogl:

Right now, we're going through major transition, but in the good way, and just unfortunately, the COVID-19 kind of delayed the process a little bit more. We're in a massive relaunch where we're going to be launching a lot of new products because we took a step back and said, "Hey, we really have to focus on a few other things," and we were in the midst of doing a relaunch. It's just going to be pushed back about a month or two, but we do offer, as soon as the relaunch, it's going to be occurring, we offer so many products that's going to be mainly long dresses, because those are the most difficult products to find, long tops. You might find like a long sleeve top in the store but it goes to like three quarters of a length on the arm and that doesn't adhere to Islamic standards. So yes, there's modest clothing available, but then it doesn't fit a hijabi need. So then we'll offer long sleeve tops, we'll offer pants that are baggier, even swimwear we offer, but it's covered for a hijabi's need. You have your hijab and then from top to bottom, and then of course the most staple pieces to hijab. So we offered like three to 400 different products of hijab.

F Geyrhalter:

That's unbelievable. That's amazing. Let's go back a little bit to which must've been one of your pivotal moments. How did you get your foot into Macy's?

L Vogl:

When we first launched, I had a goal, myself and Alaa, and we have a third business partner, his name is Hassan the UK, when Alaa and I launched, we decided we really want to get to be the first hijab brand in American department stores, so I was researching, researching, and the biggest thing that I took away was we have to be successful on our own before we approach anybody, right? I read you had to sell 10,000 units before they even look at you. We did that. We did that within my first year. Then I started approaching department stores and it was very difficult to get in, so then I discovered the workshop at Macy's and I was thinking this is a really unique way of getting in the door but through a different route. In the workshop at Macy's is a women in minority workshop and there were, I'm not allowed to say the numbers, but the acceptance rate into the workshop at Macy's, it's harder than Harvard, and we got accepted as the top 20. So we had our interview with them and then from there, we were like one of 11 that got chosen, and we went to New York and we worked through the program. While we were in the middle of the program, we had an opportunity to sell right in Herald Square, their flagship store in front of all of the Macy's buyers, including the CEO, and we had one day to market that we were going to be there selling and it was like hijabi overload took over Macy's. So they thought firsthand really that this was not just us providing numbers on a piece of paper and that's telling them that this is a need. They saw firsthand how much of a need this was right here in America.

F Geyrhalter:

That is so cool. So talking about which, before my interviews, I always go on a major Google search about my guest, which is actually something I greatly enjoy. Nothing to worry about.

L Vogl:

No, it's okay. I'm pretty clean so there isn't going to be too much that...

F Geyrhalter:

But amongst the many interesting things, I found this one floating around about you and I so loved it. You were named one of 17 Muslim women who made America great again by the Huffington Post, and I mean the irony of using that copy line is just so great, but congratulations on that. One would assume that the current president of the United States would have had a major negative effect on your brand as hate crimes have been on the rise. Is it actually the opposite and your brand strives given its message of inclusion?

L Vogl:

I think that when you have this negative messaging out there piece, I believe most people are genuinely good people and they don't want to attach themselves to that type of hate, and so I believe when a message of love comes in front, people are going to attach them to that. I genuinely believe that most people don't want to hate and don't want to attach themselves to that type of thinking. That's why I believe like our messaging will trump anything... That's a little ironic.

F Geyrhalter:

I like it.

L Vogl:

Doing these at work, but I believe that the messaging of love and inclusion and inclusivity will always win.

F Geyrhalter:

I love that.

L Vogl:

I believe I have a lot of supporters.

F Geyrhalter:

Let's hope that is how life works.

L Vogl:

Unfortunately, the reality is there is people that think like that, and I've experienced myself personally and many people I know have experienced it as well, but it's not going to stop me from pushing out the message of inclusion.

F Geyrhalter:

Totally. How was the reaction in this store when your line was first, in a regular Macy's store and regular shoppers were suddenly exposed to something they're not used to?

L Vogl:

We launched online first and then we launched in store, the first install was in Dearborn. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Dearborn, Michigan, but it is the highest concentration of Muslims in America, so the community in Dearborn is already very used to the Muslim community, so we really didn't get much hate as far as that, but we did get a lot of backlash when it went public online because it went very public. Like we were on Fox News twice, and CNN covered us and we definitely did receive quite the bit of hate messages, unfortunately.

F Geyrhalter:

Once you get in Fox News, that's-

L Vogl:

Yeah.

F Geyrhalter:

Enough about politics.

L Vogl:

I'm not even speaking politics, I'm just telling you the network.

F Geyrhalter:

I am. So tell us a little bit about that the name Verona. Because authenticity and empowerment are both so important to you, Verona means origin and truth, right? Is that where it came from or is there a different story?

L Vogl:

It actually doesn't even go that deep. When I thought about it, one was that just from a business aspect, that I needed a name that was easy to read, easy to spell, easy to remember and very crisp and clean when you put out the logo. So that's on the business end of things, but on the other side, one, my favorite fashion originates from Italy, so it's an Italian name, and then another point of it was that we always attached Islamic things and Muslim attire to the Middle East, but being a Muslim is not an ethnicity, it's not a race, it's not a region, it's a religion that was most diverse religion in the entire world, and so a Muslim can be Italian, a Muslim can have western origins and we just don't think of it like that. So this brand is obviously for everybody, we want to be inclusive, but it is targeting the Muslim community within western countries, so the name just fit for us.

F Geyrhalter:

I like it because it's also your personal story in a way which it encompasses, which is great. Branding for many means the perfect logo and the stunning website, and while this is extremely helpful and very important for a lot of brands, for me, the foundation and the pinnacle of branding is that perfect positioning, and we talked about it a little bit because you carved out a wonderful niche for yourself that you can own and personally and empathetically and authentically nurture with your audience. What does branding mean to you now that you have half a decade of brand building experience?

L Vogl:

Branding is messaging. It is messaging. It's what are you standing for as a brand and what are you telling your customer, and these are conversations that we've had within our company more seriously, and we've had very strong conversations. We need to not be afraid to be loud and proud of being Muslim, and so it's the messaging that we're putting out there. That to me is the biggest strength in branding.

F Geyrhalter:

I love that because so many people forget that. I see a lot of brands where it's really not about the branding part of it, it's really about that boldness and the authenticity, and that alone is enough for a brand, for any company to turn into a brand, right? Meaning there are tons of followers, people love it, people start talking about it, word of mouth, et cetera, et cetera. That's really, really good.

L Vogl:

If a brand tries to play middle ground in everything, they're going to hit nobody. A brand needs to not be afraid to like be loud and outspoken about who they are and what they believe in, and that's what's going to speak to your customer base. That's my biggest point is that when you're trying to create your company, people just try to serve everybody and that doesn't work, and they try to market to everybody. That doesn't work. You have to really be specific with who you are, what you believe in, what your core values are and how you speak to your customers.

F Geyrhalter:

Absolutely agree. If you speak to everyone, no one will listen, right? Listening is so important for a brand. Talking about listening, how did you in the beginning do your product research? Did you have focus groups? Obviously, you're in a community, so you have them at your fingertips. How did you use any data in the beginning or how did you start the entire production of it?

L Vogl:

The great thing about when I launched Verona with Alaa is that I had already been working within the modest fashion industry for years and it was like an industry that barely existed in US, and so I was already learning from companies that I worked with. I had been flown to like Dubai to do photo shoots for companies over there. I worked with companies in Saudi Arabia, they would send us products, and then I also am very involved in the community here in the US, like very involved, and in organizations left, right, and center, and I had already known all of the modest fashion bloggers so I was up to date with a lot of the trends and still up to date with them. The biggest thing as far as when we launch, we were the customer, and still are, but we also are getting firsthand knowledge from fashion bloggers, from companies and what they're releasing and we just try to stay ahead of the game. So when we launched, we already had a very good handle as to what was needed and what would sell out, and we sold out. When we first launched, we sold out of our products in a week and a half.

F Geyrhalter:

That's amazing. It's not like you're the only one doing it, right? You do have actual competitors.

L Vogl:

We do, yeah, and I know many of them personally, and there's great brands out there.

F Geyrhalter:

Which is good. It's healthy to have competitors. It's a good thing.

L Vogl:

Yeah. From like a religious standpoint, being a Muslim, I believe that God has enough blessings to give to everybody, so I don't see competition as this negative thing with people too. I'm very competitive by nature, right? But I also get excited when other people win. I don't ever want to be a brand that's not supportive of other, especially women owned brands. I'm like crossing for them, so I'm somebody that wants to see them succeed as well.

F Geyrhalter:

I had more women on this podcast than guys so far, than male.

L Vogl:

Bravo to you.

F Geyrhalter:

It's pretty amazing because in the beginning, there were a lot of guy founders and I started to be very aware of that and I'm like, "I really need to seek out female founders," and now, it's totally not like that. I don't seek out anyone, I just seek out great brands and sometimes I don't even know who the founder is and if they're male or female or whatever, right? But it is so, so nice to talk to so many amazing female founders. Many of them are single mothers and have kids, and life is difficult as it is, right? But to have that strength to create these brands and to be able to still connect with your audience and to keep pushing forward with new product and new ideas, bravo. It's really amazing and I'm so thrilled to be able to have people like you on the show.

L Vogl:

Thank you. My pleasure.

F Geyrhalter:

It provides me with a lot of joy too, but let's flip this around from the positive to the negative. Was there any brand fail that you went through where in the beginning, you did something too fast or you did something and just suddenly you realized, and I asked not to put you on the spot but for others to learn. Was there anything that you felt like you just massively messed up from a brand perspective and you learned from it and you would want others to learn from it too?

L Vogl:

When we got our foot in the door with Macy's and then ASOS, there is an element of you can grow too fast, and so I think it's okay to say "I am not ready to take on this opportunity. We need to make sure that we have our rock solid base in place before we take on another major contract." That's the biggest learning and hiccup that we had as a company is that we grew too fast. Then we started, our online platform suffered because when we entered into Macy's and ASOS and we didn't have the financial capital to back everything so much because these orders are not cheap and you have to process the orders and then they pay 90 days later or whatever their terms are, so in dealing with these major department stores, you have to make sure that you have the financial resources to take on such a big contract. When we did that, our online platform suffered, and that's why we are in the midst of doing this massive relaunch. That's one, it's just an advice for anybody else. It's okay to say no to opportunities if you are not ready.

F Geyrhalter:

Absolutely. I hear that over and over too because saying yes is so exciting as a new brand, right?. I mean it's like that's all you want. Any opportunity is a great opportunity because you had no opportunity in the very beginning and then suddenly it's... I mean with you, it seems like things have been progressing very, very quickly from the get go, but for a lot of others, that's not the case. Talking about, you know net 90 orders and all of that, how does COVID-19 affect you as a brand right now?

L Vogl:

It affected us massively and I'm not going to beat around the bush because I'm not somebody that likes to just paint these rosy pictures when people are seven, I like to keep it real 100%. We have factories in Turkey that had to shut down for a moment and I had products ready to be shipped and then all of a sudden, this happened. I think the biggest thing as a business owner is you have to learn to roll with the punches and just get creative when problems occur, because if you think running a business is going to be rosy 24/7, then you are setting yourself up for failure. This is just something things that we had to learn how to navigate and that's what we're doing. Things are opening back up and we're going to be having some shipments coming soon and we're excited for what's to come.

F Geyrhalter:

That's great. I'm glad you're hanging in there. You mentioned that you have some of your product manufactured in Turkey. How important is it for you as a brand where you actually have your product manufactured? Because it seems like a very logical place for you to do that.

L Vogl:

We really like to make sure that we're working with ethical factories no matter where we're working, because obviously we're not going to be a brand that's out promoting, X, Y, and Z and then do the opposite behind closed doors. Ethics is very ingrained point to us, whether it's behind closed doors or whether it's the messaging that we're putting out there.

F Geyrhalter:

Does your messaging change? Do you change your messaging with ASOS for instance, which ASOS and Macy's are so different, right? Like the type of person that goes to those kinds of places and that supports those kinds of brands. Do you change it ever so slightly or do you really have your rule book and you just go with it?

L Vogl:

We feel like when we launched, we did tone it down a little bit and that's why we've been having some meetings just saying we can not run away from who we are, we need to be loud and proud being that we're in your face Muslim, and that's okay. That does not mean we're excluding everybody, it's just saying that we are proud to be who we are. In the next coming months, we're going to be more outspoken about that yes, we are a Muslim run brand by Muslim women, and so going back to our roots with our relaunch. I would say it got toned down a little bit, but we're reviving that.

F Geyrhalter:

More power to you. That's great. I love to hear that. That's definitely the direction to go. If you could describe your brand, and this is funny because I usually send my guests a couple of notes prior so that they can look at a couple of questions and familiarize themselves a little bit with it. I think that's something that everyone should know and everyone knows because that's just professional courtesy, but you immediately said "I'm not going to read those," and I think it says so much about your authenticity and just like, "No, I'm just going to either answer them well or not answer them or whatever." One of the questions is about your brand DNA, and I give my founder guests a little bit of a heads up because I really try to figure out, if you can describe your brand in one word, right? One word, what would it be?

L Vogl:

Now I'm regretting that I didn't think of this.

F Geyrhalter:

No, I'll give you a little bit of time to think. It's like you would think of Coca Cola and it might be happiness, you would think of Everlane and it might be transparency, and I mean there are so many words that have already been floating around.

L Vogl:

Then we'll talk about it in a sense of exactly how I said I don't want to know questions before an interview because I want to keep it real. That's the one thing I always say, so I would say genuine. That's going to be my answer. Because to me, whether it's being a person, whether I'm doing an interview, whether it's my business, whether it's the advocacy work that I do, I always want to be authentic and real. So genuine is the word I would go with.

F Geyrhalter:

There you go, you have it. That is Verona Collection's brand DNA from now on. This is what you would have to tell your employees in the next meeting.

L Vogl:

Exactly.

F Geyrhalter:

If you could do it all over again, what are some lessons that you learned or one lesson that you learned of brand advice that you could give other founders as a takeaway?

L Vogl:

A brand advise or just company advice? I think if we're going back to branding, I feel like you have to really know who you are and know your customer base. That's the most important and the most obvious answer. I feel like people jump into this because I have great business idea but then they don't truly know the customer, and so that's the most important thing because you have to learn how to speak to your customer, where they're shopping, what kind of advertising to go towards, so it's really about knowing your customer and who they are and what their needs are.

F Geyrhalter:

Absolutely. Listeners who fell in love with your brand, now that we're coming slowly to a close here, where can they find you on or offline?

L Vogl:

As far as Instagram and Facebook, it's just VeronaCollection, one word. Our website is the verona-collection.com, and then me personally, my Instagram is lisamvogl, V-O-G-L. No E. That's my personal Instagram.

F Geyrhalter:

Perfect. Listen Lisa, this was really, really delightful. I love the story, I love what you're doing, but most importantly, I love how you're doing it.

L Vogl:

Thank you.

F Geyrhalter:

Thank you for the time. Maybe we give you back a little bit more quiet time today, which I'm sure you-

L Vogl:

Back to emails and calls. Work never ends.

F Geyrhalter:

There you go. Hang in there. With COVID-19, stay safe and stay successful and stay in touch.

L Vogl:

Thank you so much.