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A WRITTEN PORTRAIT
Janel Livingstone, entrepreneur and creative director, has transfused herself into her brand, Elise x Elisia. Livingstone’s Jamaican roots and home of New York City melt together in each piece in soft sorbet knits of a Brooklyn sunset, hardware loops metallically reflective of NYC buildings, and the fresh tropicality of a Jamaican fruit platter beside a glimmering blue swirling sea. Livingstone is strong-willed, tenacious, and forward-driven like those on the lightning-fast streets of NYC beside shining lights and streaky flashes of yellow taxi cabs. As much as Janel is forward-driven and focused, she also carries a laid-back attitude telling us that “if you try to plan against God, you’re a fool!” She always has a destination in mind, but also lets life carry her with the ease of a calm Jamaican sea. Janel’s sense of focus outlines her PORTRAIT like a squaring camera lens. Like her leather gloves, her strength and durability meet her softness and beauty. Her duality is shown in vibrant shades of neon orange and purple against deep shades of brown and black.
Elise x Elisia became most widely known for its swimwear pieces seen on Addison Rae, Jordyn Woods, and FatherKels among many others, however Janel has also recently dropped her “Elemental” Ready to Wear 5-piece collection featuring dynamic knits, signature cut-outs, and criss-cross ties. Janel tells us about creating the difficulties and triumphs in creating the collection, her color stories and process, and how she defines and perceives herself. Read below for a full PORTRAY-T of Janel Livingstone!
Can you give us an overview of how you got into the fashion and creative industry?
Sure, I went to school for business, I went for Finance actually. No one ever believes me, but I had the opportunity to get an internship with Goldman Sachs and I never showed up to orientation because for some strange reason I was like “I don’t really like this.” I signed up and everything, but when I got it I knew I didn’t want to do it. I’ve had to prove this to people with emails because it’s so unbelievable that I got that and just didn’t show up! The reason why I didn’t do it was because I got an internship at a showroom, and it was around that era when Gossip Girl was on TV and there was this glamorization of New York City and the fashion life. I wanted to be in that circle, and experience something not so 9-5. I interned at this jewelry company and came to find out that the woman I worked for supports Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Macy’s- all the department stores. She was the one creating trends like statement necklaces in these stores. That was the first time that I actually saw the back-end of an e-commerce store and she was making millions of dollars! I learned everything about e-commerce benchmarks and startup costs while I was in the showroom organizing. I just got bit by the fashion bug ever since!
So, then you knew your passion was in the fashion industry, but what made you create your own brand?
I started working fashion jobs and worked for a production company in which I moved up to the Head of Marketing. I worked a lot on social media, but at the time when Instagram was just used for announcements and taking pictures without being sophisticated. I left there with all my clients and decided to do freelancing- this was in the last two years of school. People always say “you’ve done so much” but I just never stopped working except for one year. Young girls will DM me and ask how to get into fashion and I always tell them to start now! When I was younger, there was the whole “girl boss” and “Black girl magic movement” and I was going to PR [Public Relations] school to stay up to date. I just made a lot of connections, and one PR woman told me that I needed to move to Manhattan so that I could be in the mix- it’s so important! I think people need to take that big step if they want to do what they want to do. So, I moved to Manhattan- it wasn’t easy, there was hell to pay! I thought I wanted to work in fashion PR and marketing. I was freelancing and got clients. I started working with a fashion designer who was 6’2” and she wanted to make dresses for tall women. This was when I got into the fashion production side with samples, garment making, patterns, and costs. We were running around the city and I realized this was what it was like to produce clothes. This was the first time that I realized “Hmm maybe I want to do clothes.” I knew I needed to start something on my own so I could practice and show proof that I could do this. My sister told me, “why don’t you just start your own clothing business?” All the cool Black girls were creating Instagram boutiques so I thought I would do that to have something to show my clients.
What was the process like for this?
In 2019, I was doing so much research about what was trending. I looked into graphics and went to Pratt Institute. I learned trend forecasting and looked into swim hardware and popular designs like tie dye. Right when we started manufacturing, Covid-19 happened and we had to push everything back. It was a blessing and a curse because, honestly, we weren’t ready! I couldn’t sell swimsuits when no one was traveling, but at the time, China was still manufacturing and producing. I was a little fish in the pond because I was purchasing very few pieces and they normally did bulk with ASOS and other companies. I ended up launching in June, and no models were available to shoot so we ended up doing a 3D campaign that went viral! I started getting orders on day seven, and the majority of the sales coming in were all from Australia. I didn’t start getting U.S sales until week three. I saw so many people abandoning their carts because I realized that the shipping was around $63, it was crazy! My first piece sold out in a month and I realized we could really do this! I knew I needed to focus on the off-season in Australia, and sales started picking up in December. By that time, the Nova One Piece was out of stock but the Mona was not moving, and I was like “people hate this!” I decided to do another influencer campaign with a micro-influencer from L.A- this image was on everyone’s timeline! The reach and sales were insane- it got almost 2000 shares. I took the picture and ran ads with it and it went out of stock within two weeks! I then launched the other drop on February 15th and it sold out within three weeks! I was getting momentum and people were wanting a restock! I re-stocked and I think that was the most I sold- I sold half the inventory that day. Summer is the worst time for me because it’s so competitive. Me and these girls are battling! Next year, I’m ready for them, don’t play with me!! If it wasn’t for my PR girl, the Summer would have been a dry season. Even really big brands had so much overstock and were giving away free clothes. But then, it finally picked up!
What was it like at the very beginning stages when you’re really trying to decide what you want to provide to customers and how you want to brand yourself?
When Facebook bought Instagram, it was the era of the social media manager and it was getting serious. I realized I needed to have something I could use as a test for myself and clients, so I started a clothing store online- it was merchandising- but I wasn’t getting any traffic or any sales. People don’t normally give credit, but this was when gamers on Youtube were like “We’ve got to do Facebook ads” and they were pumping the algorithm. I started watching them and decided to start running ads- I knew nothing about ads, girl! An evil monster in my brain was telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just kept pushing. At the time, my store was getting 30-40 hits a day and when I stopped running ads it had kept that momentum because I had warmed up my audience. At this point I started doing influencer marketing which I thought was the easiest part, and things started working out. In 2018, I started selling swimsuits for one season called “Wild Fever.” We mustered up our savings and paid Stassiebaby. When she posted everyone kept coming to the website. That was a huge thing. I started Googling my name and someone wrote an article mentioning my name saying I was a swimwear brand even though I didn’t intend to be. I thought maybe I should just start focusing on swimwear. I sat down to look over numbers, and manufacturing the two piece bikini was the same price as if I bought the swimsuit from the factory, so I realized I should just design my own. I stopped merchandising and just completely started over and deleted everything!
ADDISON RAE and JORDYN WOODS in Elise x Elisia
So that’s the swimsuits, but now I really want to hear about how you moved into Ready To Wear! Your newest Elemental collection is so gorgeous, tell me a little bit about the color story and Sahara desert inspiration. What was the process for choosing this story?
Just to be fully transparent, I wouldn’t do another RTW off-season collection in this way again. I don’t feel like I was well-prepared. For swimsuits, I had been doing R&D for so long, and I know exactly how to make a swimsuit fit like a glove. I’ve cut samples myself and sent them back to the manufacturer to make sure everything was right. For this collection, it was much harder to find a manufacturer and much more difficult to make. I knew I wanted color and a neutral. I wanted purples, eggplant, orange- like a burst of color. I was thinking “what kind of landscape gives this vibe?” I base most of my collections off of nature- blues are the Mediterranean Sea and red is based on the sunset at the Brooklyn Bridge, actually. My Summer collection was based on the ocean and mythical creatures, so you see a lot of pastel colors. The Elemental RTW collection is based on the Sahara Desert at twilight. When you’re in that environment and the sun is coming down on you, the sand is a neutral brown and the sunset is purple and orange so I took that scheme and made it into two colors.
When you were creating the collection, did you have a favorite piece? Do you have a different favorite piece now that the collection is finished?
When I was designing, I thought the orange sorbet color was going to be really popular, but came to find out it was the other two piece set with the string details. The other design was more difficult because it was so technical. My manufacturer and I were down to the wire making this perfect. I found out that the band was getting stretched out when model’s wore it during promo photos, and so I sent pictures to my manufacturer after everything was ready to cut and sew. It was an easy fix, but that was difficult because it was the most technical thing I’ve ever designed with the cut-out and strings. The print of the knit was also hard to find. I didn’t want typical knitwear. The sorbet knit has pink and orange and yellow all together because I wanted dimension rather than a flat knit. The orange sorbet set was ready in one-go but the other set took multiple rounds to perfect. I am definitely going to educate myself before I make clothes again- like knitwear- because I need to do as much R&D as I did for swimwear. I wanted to challenge myself, though, because next year I want to have multiple pieces on the site at once. I have next year off-season to figure it out and get it right.
Images of the Elise x Elisia "Elemental" Ready to Wear Collection Provided by Janel Livingstone
You have very consistent design elements from swimwear to RTW with your strings and cut-outs, for example. When designing this collection, were you trying to retain this identity or was it more about researching designs that were on trend?
I knew I really wanted cut-out and strings, but I was never sure what my particular aesthetic was. Regardless of an overall aesthetic, I know I want everything to look cohesive. That’s the mindset I go in with when I’m designing collections- surprisingly everything flows. But, it’s because it’s all coming from me- one person- so I’m not sourcing out anything. I try to be consistent with my imagery and Instagram theme. I have the same photo editor from 2018 to make sure of that. I think the only thing I changed last season was that I incorporated a vintage summer vibe, but that was still in the same vein of the brand. I’m the one who is taking all of my campaign photos- I have interns who help me but I’m in charge of it because I know my voice and my vision so that really helps. Instagram is something that is very hard for me to let go of in terms of control because I feel like no one gets the brand as much as I do at this point. I think in the future I will have a more fleshed out idea with a brand guide so I could let go of some control, but right now it’s me really understanding how I want the brand to develop.
Your swimwear pieces have been worn by Addison Rae, Jordyn Woods, and FatherKels among many others. How would you define your customer?
I really am so focused on my customers- and I’m telling you they are bad bitches through and through! They are self-loving and they love vacation and fashion! I found that out in early Summer when I was getting a lot of tags. I realized “oh my god, this is who my audience is!” I eventually want to re-do my customer persona moving forward. My main thing when scrolling in my tags is to look at the girls who are wearing my stuff. When they are having swim parties or whatever is next for them, they should come to me! Going into next year, I want to take that customer persona and build a brand that they will like, so it’s all about developing. I’m an ever-evolving brand but it will always feel consistent because I’m the one with the vision.
"I really am so focused on my customers- and I'm telling you they are bad bitches through and through! They are self-loving and they love vacation and fashion! When they are having swim parties or whatever is next for them, they should come to me!"
So, to close the interview I just have three signature questions that I always ask. If you could bottle a few scents, what would they be and what do they remind you of?
It’s funny because I have all of these ideas and inspirations for the brand next year. I would love for Elise x Elisia to have a signature scent or a body glow or something! I would love a fresh ocean, airy smell. A light scent that’s not overpowering- like a lavender or a jasmine. I love vanilla yogurt and vanilla bean, so vanilla with a lavender, oh my god! The second would be an orange mango- something very sophisticated. I’m from Jamaica and there’s a scent in the air that’s so tropical and gives you such a happy feeling- I want to bottle that! It’s like the ocean, a fruit platter, and beautiful men and women walking by!
Do you have a favorite piece of advice someone has told you or saying you live by?
You can’t tell right now, but I used to not be a very positive person. If I tell people this they are so surprised. In college I made a decision of how I want my life to be. You know when you're growing up and you’re like “I want to be a, b and c,” but it doesn’t work out? I was going through that and didn’t know what I wanted to be. I did everything and then some until I realized that life isn’t always this set in stone thing. Once you let that go, oh my god! So, I don’t necessarily have a saying but I’ve adopted so many positive mantras. I have so many vision boards and I’ve done all of them that I’ve said I was going to do! I tell people to outline their short term goals- you don’t need to have an overarching life goal. If you try to plan against God, you’re a fool! Life zigzags, so I tell people to plan short term goals and make them somewhat achievable. When you make goals, make sure you are actually working towards them and don’t overwhelm yourself. I try not to let things interfere in my process for achieving goals- if something isn’t working then let it go! The classic saying is “if you don’t plan, you plan to fail” so I’m trying to be positive and not let things frazzle me as much. It’s better to be more proactive than reactive.
Stay up to date with Janel and Elise x Elisia:
How do you view yourself?
I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Instagram, and how you want to be viewed is such a funny and weird thing. My sister and I always talk about how we want the world to perceive us through our Instagram because she also has a swimwear brand, after me obviously haha! I feel what I want to portray to the world is different from what I portray right now. I want to portray an entrepreneur girl living in NYC living her best life designing and achieving her goals. I also want to share more about the journey and experience with mini vlogs and things like that. Running a swimwear brand from New York City is so hard because it’s not a beach town! It’s very hard to look like a beach brand when you’re not somewhere tropical. I’ve gotten a lot better at doing that. I’m always trying to evolve as a person and I want to help people and share my journey online.
So how you want to appear online is different from what you feel you are now? Does online criticism impact you?
I am just now becoming the person I want to be. My overarching goal is to be THAT girl in my mind and I’m just now scratching the surface. Things don’t happen overnight- it might seem that way for some people but it’s only because you’re seeing the end of that journey. I’m not really a braggy person, I like to show rather than tell. My #1 thing I tell people is “move in silence.” In this era of social media, you want to share, share, share! You never know who is watching you. I remember one time I saw a comment on my post and someone said “why are you selling $85 swimsuits and they’re polyester?” I called everyone under the sun and told them what this person said! I felt like this person really didn’t understand my brand and they don’t know that swimsuits are going for $200 a piece. When I started, no one was selling one piece swimsuits for $85- it was either cheaper or really expensive products. I felt so slighted- it ruined my day, but then 30 minutes later a girl from L.A. bought $300 worth of swimsuits! I took that as a confirmation from the universe to just follow your guts and do you! That’s what I really learned from my one year journey as a swimwear designer. Always trust in your brand- the energy you put in is the energy you take out! I’ve sold over 1000 swimsuits and I have to remind myself that people buy this and love it so much that they tag me online! That’s so important and is great until you hear the one comment that hurts you. I remember some TMZ Shaderoom page re-posted the brand and people were in the comments saying that my brand reminded them of other brands, but I’m just laughing because there are no similarities at all, they just don’t know the industry. There was also a lot of criticism of my model, but at the time it was just water off a duck's back because I believed in my brand. I never once faltered, even now.
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