There are so many things that spring to mind when you think of luxury clothing. But t-shirts? Not until we came across Monogram, the new super luxe line of vintage tees created by husband and wife duo Jeff Halmos and Lisa Mayock. Their collection of cut-just so styles are the kind you’ll be able to wear for years – some inspired by vintage magazines from the 60s through the 90s, others by visual influences they love like artist Bob Gill and typographer Herb Lubalin. The best part is that everything is affordable. The pair has taken a direct-to-consumer approach so you can get those oh-so-soft styles without shelling major dollars. Tees are $65 and the line tops out at $90 for a hoody.
Those who know the pair won’t be surprised at the success of their joint venture. You see, Jeff was one half of fashion brand Shipley & Halmos, and Lisa co-founded cult-favourite, Vena Cava. Both have a shiny CFDA statute each and unsurprisingly, they’re often heralded as one of the fashion’s power couples.
The idea for the brand was born out of their shared love of vintage tees and old magazines (Lisa’s personal collection will blow your mind!). They wanted to move away from the kind of band tees you often see styled with denim cut offs to offer something more editorial. The fabrics are top notch too – every wash and fabrication is made in-house and their debut styles took months to conceive.
We caught up with Lisa at the couple’s Brooklyn home to talk about what made them decide to go into business together and the realities of working and living with a spouse. Lisa spoke with me about how the industry has changed since she set up Vena Cava, how she’s constantly learning and adapting her approach to business and why your best work comes out when you stop overthinking.
HOW MONOGRAM WAS BORN OUT OF HER LOVE OF VINTAGE TEES & OLD MAGAZINES: My husband Jeff and I founded Monogram a little over 7 months ago. It was born out of our shared love of graphic design, vintage, and a gap we noticed in the market. I’m a big vintage t-shirt fan. My Dad was (still is!) a great graphic t-shirt wearer. I have some of his gems from the ‘80s, and my brother has some of the great old ones too. That’s definitely where it started. My favorite t-shirt of his was one that he had made for a Halloween costume as a “lawyer” that has a trompe l’oeil suit with legal documents in the pockets and “legal red tape” on it. On a side note: I love the idea of being a “lawyer” for Halloween when you are also one in real life. My own collection of t-shirts runs the gamut. I own 70s record label t-shirts, a counterfeit Burger King t-shirt from the Philippines, a neon inked Wayne’s World t-shirt, and many others. I have surprisingly few concert t-shirts. Lately great vintage t-shirts have become more and more difficult to source, and the really good ones have gotten so expensive. When we started researching – looking for t-shirts that were new but still hit that same vintage sensibility – we couldn’t find anything that felt artful and original. Old magazines have been a long-time love. What’s so great about them is that they offer a kind of complete portrait of another time – not just the imagery, but also the language that’s used and the typefaces, the style of photography. And these days, doing research using something tangible, as opposed to online or on my phone, is deeply satisfying. So we decided to create our own, developing our own fabric and washes, creating the Monogram silhouettes, and brainstorming graphic ideas.
WHY THEY MAKE THEIR OWN FABRICS AND WASHES: The fabrication is, in my mind, the most important ingredient in a perfect graphic t-shirt – maybe even more so than the art. Everyone has a different idea of their perfect t-shirt, but we envision that vintage t-shirt you’ve had in your closet for years. It’s insanely soft and delicate after years of being very well-loved. We spent a lot of time perfecting the fabric and washes so our t-shirts capture that feeling without looking overly thrashed.
WHY YOU WON’T SEE LOOK BOOK IMAGES OF THEIR TEES STYLED WITH JEANS: There are so many cool women I see in NY wearing graphics in a fashion context, and in a more personal way – with a pencil skirt or a great pair of high waisted trousers. It was really interesting to me that almost all the retail imagery I saw of graphic t-shirts were worn with vintage 501s and a minimal shoe. While we think that a customer is going to look great wearing these t-shirts with jeans, there are a lot of other really fun, non-traditional ways to style them. Yes, you can wear a sweatshirt for evening with a satin trouser! That was really important for us to capture the way of dressing that we see out on the street that we really didn’t see anywhere at retail.
ON WORKING WITH HER HUSBAND ON THE LINE: To be honest, with managing a family and a home together, we really tried to avoid going into business together, since we already had so much that we shared. But we both loved the idea behind Monogram and felt there was a real opportunity to make great product and build a very different kind of brand than the ones we’d had previously. On paper, I focus on overseeing design and product development for the brand while Jeff handles marketing and business operations. The line tends to blur when it comes to the creative process where we both take part in planning and coming up with ideas for the brand and for new graphics. If you’re thinking about working with a spouse on a business, make sure that you both have the same work ethic first. Understanding what you both bring to the table, and respecting each other’s skill set is extremely important, too. We also make an effort to stop talking about work when we get home or during our personal time. Sometimes it sneaks in, but I actually feel like having kids jolts you out of “work brain” and into family life.
HOW STARTING THIS BUSINESS HAS BEEN DIFFERENT TO WHEN SHE LAUNCHED VENA CAVA: The fashion industry is in such a different place than it was then! When I started Vena Cava, in 2003, there were only a handful of contemporary brands, and we watched that price point explode into an entire market. Now with a direct to consumer brand, we’re approaching everything from the opposite angle. We’re only selling on our website, MonogramStudio.com. The opportunity to have total control over the brand experience – from the packaging to the way the product is shot and all the related imagery is so exciting. We both have backgrounds in wholesale through our previous brands and felt like we were constantly playing a game of telephone with the stores to find out what the customer liked or didn’t like. The challenge for us in this direct to consumer model lies in building a new audience and finding a way to be responsive to customer feedback, while maintaining our own voice.
HER SON WAS BORN DAYS BEFORE THE BUSINESS WENT LIVE: There really was no prep for that. We just knew it was going to be really crazy and went with it. My parents came here after the birth and it was hugely helpful to have that help. Luckily for us, our younger son Pascal is a pretty go-with-the-flow baby, so he got used to coming into the office and nursing while I was being interviewed or emailing… We had been working on the business for about nine months before it went live. A big part of the early process was due diligence of researching what else was out there, and at what price point, going to stores and looking at product. Then the other major components were creating the product and building the website. Because we make our own fabrics, getting that and the fits right took many, many incarnations.
WHY SHE’S FOLLOWING HER INSTINCT NOW MORE THAN EVER: Since both Jeff and I had wholesale businesses previously, we were used to stores selecting the items they wanted to sell. Now we place our own buys, which is based on a gut sense of what might do well. We had a feeling that our black bullshit t-shirt was going to do well – so when we launched we made double the number of that t-shirt than any other. And we were right – it’s been the biggest seller on the site. Currently, it’s out of stock and we’re in our fourth round of production on it in a little over 7 months. Of course, there are other examples where your instinct is way off, but it’s all a learning process. There are so many other factors at play in selling online other than the product; the model’s pose, the photography, the styling… Understanding how all the other components work together will be a long-term study, and we find it fascinating. Having two founders definitely helps to balance risk-taking behavior with planning strategies that are based on data. A direct to consumer business like this feels like the Wild West to me – there are simply so many possibilities (we can create our own calendar, our own price point, we don’t have to create seasons) that we try to balance that by testing things in a considered way. We’ll test out one new idea at a time and keep everything else the same. Otherwise if everything is constantly in flux, you’ll never be able to truly analyze which component is working best.
WORD OF ADVICE – DON’T OVERTHINK IT: When you have fun making a product – I don’t know what it is, but it’s an undercurrent that can be sensed in the final outcome. I truly believe that and it’s been proven to me over and over again. In my mind, that’s key. If it feels forced, or just isn’t coming together, move on, or put it on hold. I’m not saying that making something great isn’t hard work – it certainly can be and is often well worth your energy. But overthinking a design can give it a heaviness that’s just not as enticing.
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