Photograph by Raymond Hall for GC Images via Getty Images.

In Fashion, Sister-Led Brands Set Style and Business Trends

Rodarte, the Row, and Lizzie Fortunato find working as sisters is a key to their success.

by Erin Schwartz
Oct 22 2018, 7:43pm

Photograph by Raymond Hall for GC Images via Getty Images.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind American fashion label Rodarte, used to share one email address and eschewed a signature, a decision that, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile, made it “impossible to know which one you’re corresponding with.”

As a business practice, working with a sibling has an unconventional brilliance: mixing up roles, then suddenly distinguishing them depending on the situation, extends a certain degree of cover to both parties, like the twins in The Parent Trap swapping places to matchmake their divorced parents. The strategy is lent a sense of intuitive magic—a common language of creativity—because the accomplices are sisters.

Fashion and beauty are full of sister partnerships: in addition to the Mulleavy sisters, there are Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen at the Row, Danielle and Jodie Snyder of jewelry brand DANNIJO, as well as influencers like Simi and Haze. There are older examples like the Fontana sisters, who dressed Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s; and Callot Soeurs, who were doing pants under a dress as early as 1910.

Kathryn Fortunato, who, with her twin sister, Lizzie, runs the accessories brand Lizzie Fortunato, told me in a phone interview that their contemporary business practices have roots in childhood. “Because we’re twins, we were always scheming together,” she said. Lizzie, who helms design, “was, from a very early age, incredibly crafty.” Kathryn, who manages operations, recounted that she has long been interested in economics: “I…used to make my siblings play a game of marketplace with each other, where we would go get our prized possessions and barter them with each other.”

Ten years on from the brand’s founding (Lizzie launched the business in 2008; Kathryn joined full-time two years later), their contributions aren’t so sharply delineated. “I’m more creative than I realize, and I think she’s more business minded than she realizes,” she said. And it’s easier to be direct with a sister than a business partner: “We get to be very honest with each other. It was actually hard in the beginning to realize, once we have other employees that weren’t our siblings, that we actually have to be aware not to treat each other like siblings in the office.”

Eda and Anna Levenson, who run the nail brand Lady Fancy Nails, also see echoes of their division of labor in childhood. Eda, the elder sister and founder, does nail art; Anna manages the business side and recently began designing jewelry. The Levensons grew up on a solar- and hydro-electricity-powered homestead in California, where their parents produced and sold shakuhachi, a style of Japanese bamboo flute first developed in the seventh century AD. The sisters would help in the workshop, but it also was an opportunity for dress-up: “Anna had this thing—she may not tell this story, so I’ll tell it,” Eda said. “Anna used to be really fascinated with what she would call ‘office ladies.’ She used to wear these eyeglass frames and set up her little store.… She also knew how to use the computer really young, so she was like the neighborhood IT support.”

“I was a nine-year-old at a computer, and then a twelve-year-old was in the other section of the workshop, making the thing,” Anna added. Developing tenacity of craft—working through tedium and setbacks for the thrill of presenting the final product—has carried over into their nail creations; creating dozens of acrylic sets for a runway show requires a painstaking eye and some late, late nights. “We got to see the actual results of what hard work can offer you,” said Anna. “We watched our father and our mother build something for decades. I think that also makes us really dedicate our time to the craft, and to the process.”

Fur, a pubic haircare line (yes, you read that correctly) was co-founded in 2015 by sisters Laura and Emily Schubert along with Lillian Tung, a childhood friend and de facto sibling: she and Laura are sisters “not by blood, but by everything else.” (Emily left the brand shortly after its launch to focus on other projects; Laura is the company’s CEO; and Tung is its CMO.) “Our relationship allows us to do everything,” said Tung in a phone interview. “We can openly disagree and share ideas.” That candor is helpful for business partners—especially introducing a product line like Fur’s. “Beauty, but specifically, here, pubic hair care beauty, is really, really reliant on that trust level. Maybe the fact that we are close friends who can talk about things makes people feel that they should be talking about it with us.”

“Because we’re twins, we were always scheming together,” Fortunato said.

Kathryn attributes the density of sibling-run businesses in fashion, jewelry, and beauty in part to the way these projects often begin: the twins started producing jewelry in college, at Duke University, and sold the pieces to fellow students. Two years after they graduated, Lizzie launched the business from the sofa of their shared Lower East Side apartment. “I hate to say that there’s a low barrier to entry to making jewelry, because there’s not,” she said, but “you can cover your bases without having to have a huge team.”

There are also things a sister just gets, whether an off-kilter visual reference dredged up from an ’80s VHS tape, or how to shore you up—with words, food, or dumb videos—when you’re overwhelmed. “When you have a sister that’s close to you in age, you share clothes, you share makeup, you shape each other’s personal styles and identity—either being in complete opposition to each other, or being really similar,” said Eda. “I think sisters turn to each other. Those are the first people that you look to, in your own personal expression of who you are.”

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