A pair of baggy, ripped up Spiderman pajama pants inspired Tanya Lee (left) and Karen Lee (right) to start their business. Karen was notorious for wearing them out in public. “They had like holes in them and I was still strutting my stuff on the street,” says Karen. Finally, Tanya decided to say something. “I think we’re adults now,” she told Karen. But she was actually inspired by Karen’s appreciation for comfort. “The way you dress—what if we were to create something that we can roll out of bed in and go straight into a meeting without having to change?” asked Tanya.
So, that’s exactly what they did. LEZÉ the Label is an easier-on-the-planet workwear brand where every item, from the iconic Haven Pant to the Isla Midi Skirt and Ophelia Jumpsuit, feel like pajamas. “We weren't just starting a clothing brand,” says Karen. “We were using clothing as a vehicle to pursue comfort everyday, which is something that Tanya and I are really passionate about.” Not only is the concept brilliant, but the eco-friendly materials used to create the garments are truly boundary-breaking. Every item of clothing is either made from recycled fishnets, beech trees or recycled coffee beans (which are great for absorbing body odor, btw) and plastic bottles. “Our ultimate goal here is to recycle as much waste as we possibly can,” says Tanya, who worked at her family’s textile manufacturing business in Taiwan. “There's so much waste in the world already. It's like, why not use what we already have?”
The two founders actually met at a club when they were 19 years old. “I remember my first impression of Tanya was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she is literally a shorter, louder version of me. I like her!’ I think we bonded over shots at the bar,” recalls Karen. Little did they know, they met their future business partner that night.
Now, 13 years later (they’re both 32), they’ve never looked back—but it hasn’t always been easy. “Within those first two years, we fought a lot,” says Karen. “We knew that we could work together, but we didn't really know how to work together. We were able to learn, like, how do we actually communicate? And how do we get through problems without wanting to kill each other?” It’s normal for your friendship to change when you start a business with them, says Karen, but you should never put it on the back-burner. “I think a lot of people don't want to say that you're at odds with your business partner because you don't want to appear weak, or you don't want to feel like the foundation is not strong there,” adds Tanya. But ultimately, it’s made them stronger in the end.
So, how do you know if you should go into business with your friend? You do several practice runs. Long before LEZÉ, when they were 21 years old (“and clueless,” adds Tanya), the duo planned a 300-person charity event to raise money for The Salvation Army. “I remember it was so stressful,” says Karen. “But that was an opportunity for us to see what we were good at. We realized that we actually balanced each other really well in such a stressful environment. And that's when we decided, ‘Hey, why don't we start our business together?”
So, they jumped in head-first and created a wedding planner together. “That was an utter disaster,” says Tanya. They learned a lot of really important business lessons—like, don’t order too much inventory without a clear marketing plan—which helped make their second business so successful. “We were so traumatized from [our first business together],” says Karen. “It was the reason why we launched LEZÉ using a Kickstarter, because it was a low risk way of validating an idea without actually putting money into inventory.”
The self-proclaimed “professional pajama testers” had a goal of $5K-$10K and ended up raising over 250K through Kickstarter, proving exactly what they knew all along: people were sick and tired of sacrificing comfort when getting dressed for work. That was at the end of 2017, when the concept of working from home was unfathomable, but they knew the power of workleisure before it was trending. By the time the global pandemic uprooted all of our lives (and caused many businesses to go bankrupt), LEZÉ was booming. They grew 200% in 2020, 100% in 2021 and are hoping to grow another 100% in 2022.
"Comfort is here to stay, so how can we bring comfort into different areas of our lives?"
“Comfort is here to stay, so how can we bring comfort into different areas of our lives?” asks Tanya. They just launched a line of pajamas and are working on gender neutral clothing (dropping in November) which has been highly requested. They’re also hoping to bring a better online shopping experience for their customers with a virtual fitting room.
“I think people look for clothes in a different way,” says Karen. “They look for more versatility, they look for more ways to wear it. You can now wear clothes that can speak to different facets of your life. And we're happy that it stayed like that. That was our dream for the longest time.”
Who are you inspired by?
Karen: “Sara Blakely [CEO and founder of Spanx]. The way she, when she sold her company, was able to gift her employees first class tickets and a huge bonus. And that was the gift she decided to celebrate with. We want to be in such a good place that we can bless others.”
Tanya: “Mine's probably not as well known. Her name is Meredith Frankel. She's the founder of Little Sleepies, a children's sleepwear line. I'm inspired by her because her business is obviously doing really well, but she also treats everybody with the same amount of respect and the same amount of grace. And when things go bad, she communicates really gracefully and makes sure that the other person feels valued first before the problem.”
How do you unplug from work?
Tanya: “I lay down. I just love laying down. Like, if there's one position I can be in, it's going to be horizontal. I have a rescue puppy—he's three—and I just lay down with him. I lay on him. And we go for walks. That's actually my favorite way to unwind.”
Karen: “I turn my phone on Airplane Mode and burrito myself on the couch.”
Tanya: “We’re like the definition of lazy, the two of us.”
How many unread emails do you have right now?
What do you look for in an employee?
Karen: “Generous hearts, willingness to learn… what else?”
Tanya: “Humility. I think that’s it. Karen and I are both really generous, so when we don’t receive that same energy back from our employees, we feel ripped off.”
Karen: “Yeah, culture is probably more important to us than skill set. If you're a good fit, you believe in the mission of LEZÉ and we all get along, that's probably more important because skills can be molded but personality cannot.”
Best piece of advice?
Karen: “The best advice I’ve ever received was from Tanya when she said ‘nobody cares.’ I was overthinking about something, and she was like, ‘Literally, nobody cares.’ And I'm like, ‘Dang, that's good.’ And it's true. Nobody cares. Everyone's focusing on their own stuff and that really helped me.”
Tanya: “My best piece of advice is actually from Karen. ‘Do you even want that?’ Whenever an opportunity comes up, I have FOMO and I force myself to take it because it looks good, or it’s good for the brand. After Karen told me that, I actually assess if it makes us happy first and foremost.”
Worst piece of advice?
Karen: “‘Fake it till you make it.’ I really don’t like that quote. I think it helps a lot of people push through things when they're not feeling confident. But when I fake something, it never works. It doesn't come through.”