When Alyssa Wasko was in college, she never thought she’d start a fashion brand. Fast-forward 13-years later, and Donni has become well-known for its elevated basics.
In 2009, Wasko began making scarves to cope with the death of her father, Donald, for whom her company is named. Her college friends started placing orders and, eventually, she was selling scarves as a side gig while working at Chanel as a visual merchandiser.
On the latest episode of the Glossy Podcast, Wasko said her years at Chanel prepared her well for her current role and that her Chanel co-workers were supportive of her side hustle. She also recalled that, while getting her company off the ground, she sold scarves on Etsy and hosted trunk shows throughout the year. Now, Donni is sold in over 115 stores worldwide including Saks, Revolve, Holt Renfrew and Free People. Donni also sells direct-to-consumer through its brand website.
Drawing on its core characteristics of comfort and ease, Donni has since expanded from selling neck warmers and sarongs to offering a full fashion line. Along with women’s clothing, it includes hair accessories and jewelry. To date, Donni has been entirely self-funded, and organic growth is what has sustained the brand throughout its 13 years, Wasko said. Recently, the brand began to focus more on the personal stories surrounding its products.
“Our team is speaking more on Instagram Lives and in videos for our retailers and e-commerce customers. [We’re aiming to] speak to more of the product and [provide] insight into our brand and our processes,” said Wasko.
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
On navigating supply chain challenges
“We produce locally, so we feel supply chain issues much differently than [brands] that produce overseas. We produce everything in downtown Los Angeles, within a 10-mile radius of our office. Even though we’re not experiencing supply chain issues, if we’re importing zippers, for example, they take a little bit longer, so we order them a month ahead. Even [with] regular production, there are 20 steps [involved in] making one piece, and the chance that all those things go seamlessly is virtually impossible. It is just part of the process if you work in production, especially on a local level. Working farther in advance definitely helps and gives you more breathing room when [problems] arise, but there’s no way to avoid them. Embracing that concept, instead of trying to get around it, is something that’s been groundbreaking for us. Working in production, you have to be great at problem-solving. You need a production team that’s very confident and capable of troubleshooting and making big decisions in a very short period of time.”
Using surprise drops as a treat for customers
“About a month before the pandemic, we were readjusting our team. We [went from] five people to just [two of us]. We were going to rebuild, and we were interviewing to rehire. Then, the pandemic happened. All of our wholesale orders were canceled within two days. About a week later, we shifted our strategy. Normally, we drop an entire collection at once, and we were [planning to] drop our collection the day after the lockdown. We announced that we weren’t going to do that because it didn’t feel right. Instead, we were going to make our Instagram a place for [customers] to go for a reprieve, to see something like a funny meme or video. At that time on our social media, we were posting inspirational [fashion and style] photos. We didn’t post anything product-based for two or three weeks. People started saying, ‘You were teasing all this product. Can you launch it?’ So then we went into the drop platform and we said, ‘We will drop a style at a time, and we will give you no notice. It’s going to be a surprise and something to make your day.’ [The customers’ reaction] was insane. We would sell out in minutes. We had extra inventory from our retailers that canceled their orders, and in conjunction with this, all of our retailers came back to us and asked for not only their orders but for four times [the amount of product] they originally ordered.”
On expanding the business and customer wardrobe post-Covid-19
“There have been many iterations of [products] without expanding into different product categories. What’s been so exciting about our pop-up shop [in Los Angeles] is that our current spring collection is more elevated. While the core of our brand is comfort, right now, people are craving to be comfortable physically but are also feeling [motivated] to go out after wearing sweats for two years. There are [garment features] that we incorporate that still keep comfort top-of-mind but in a more subtle way.
As far as evolving into different product categories, there is a lot of conversation and development in a few areas. While I feel compelled to do some of them, we’re waiting to see when certain things feel right. Growth for us right now, as far as expanding, [is focused on] the international wholesale business.
We also have a really loyal customer, and our return customer rate is very high. Our focus now is on continuing to do what we’re doing, so that we keep [these loyal customers], but also on customer acquisition. Most of our reach has been word-of-mouth, which is important to continue, but [we’re also] focusing on how we can get more diehard [customers].”