Suzanne Lewis, Zanni

Tell us a little about yourself and the road that led you to starting ZANNI—dresses made from luxury, technical fabrics that are built for style and function. What inspired you and your dresses?

ZANNI had been something I had been thinking about for a while when I was living in Boston, which is where I am originally from. I was working for myself doing UI/UX design and because I wasn’t in an office environment, I was living in casual apparel. At the same time I was helping run a blog with two of my girlfriends which focused on sustainable living, health and career. We were producing a monthly female entrepreneurship meetup and through all of that I was meeting really incredible women and thinking more about the products I buy, what I was wearing, how I chose to spend my money and live my life in general.

I think ZANNI came to me when I had this conversion of emotions. I was tired of working on my client’s projects and I wanted to be like the women I was meeting and to have something that was my own. I was also sick of feeling uncomfortable in my wardrobe and buying cheap clothes that didn’t make sense for me.

The actual idea of a specific technical dress came to me when I was biking to dinner while wearing a cotton dress. I was hot, sweaty (it was a 5-mile ride), and I knew I was probably ruining the dress. I kept thinking someone should make basic dresses in the same fabric as workout apparel.

After that I started looking for dresses with functional fabric and was not finding much. Lululemon and Athleta had a few, but they weren’t quite right and were always just a bit too sporty or branded. I wanted something that had functional fabrics, but was more classic and could be dresses up or down and didn’t look so sporty.

How did you decide on the design of the dress, the fabric, the marketing, etc.?

I thought about the pieces I wore most in my closet and went from there. I knew I wanted to keep things simple because I don’t like a lot of fuss or trendy designs,  so I looked at classic styles and dresses that I had worn over and over. Anything that lasts multiple seasons and doesn’t look dated is a winner in my book.


As for the fabric, that was more difficult. It took me over a year to find the right fabric. It took so long because I was looking for a certain quality, look and feel and I also needed a mill that would work with emerging brands and sell at low minimums. In the end I choose an Italian mill I had been eyeing early on but never reached out to because they were so high end I thought they would never sell to me. I was lucky that they do actually work with emerging brands, have exceptional quality performance knits and  they have very strict sustainable manufacturing requirements, I just wish I reached out to them sooner than I did!

It’s such a big operation to design a product and manage inventory on top of all the other hats you wear as an entrepreneur. Can you give us details on your daily schedule and the best way to manage being so busy?

I still have a day job, and right now I contract remotely and full time for a boss who is very encouraging and let’s me run with ZANNI. Most days I work 7 a.m.-3 p.m. for that job and then the rest of the day/night for ZANNI. I love to set things up at night so I can wake up early, send out emails to people I need to get in touch with and then correspond with them by lunch. Every now and then, I have days that are more hectic like when I have to run downtown mid-day to check in on production or meet with my fabric supplier, but I try and keep things pretty evenly split.

What was the biggest obstacle to starting your own business? What challenges have you faced, and how did you conquer them?

Everything about starting a business is hard! But I don’t mean that to be discouraging, it’s just no one teaches you how to do things like set up an LLC, get a lawyer, get a CPA, do x, y, and z. Some days it feels like endless amounts of paperwork and communication as you set up the supply chain.

I was used to taking responsibility for projects, organizing vendors and working odd hours having freelanced and contracted before, but this is apparel, not tech, so became a whole new game for me. I had to—and am still—learning the language of my factory and how to connect all the dots that need to be connected to get from idea to finished product.

I think the best way to conquer challenges is to break them into steps or small tasks so it’s not so daunting. Do your own research and then ask a lot of questions along the way. It’s OK to not know something. Do your best to learn, absorb and prepare for the next wave. Oh, and take a lot of notes and send recap emails. Try and document as much as you can because things will get crazy and your head will spin with all the moving parts.

All of daunting aspects create a good test, in my opinion. If I didn’t want ZANNI to happen this badly, I probably wouldn’t spend time doing all the boring, complicated stuff.

What advice would you offer to keep other creatives from feeling overwhelmed by all the aspects of starting a business?

Join a female entrepreneur networking group or regularly get coffee or talk on the phone with friends who are in the same boat. My freelance friends and I call it “Freelancer Therapy.” Just the other day I was talking with a friend who is flipping houses about how to be profitable. Even though we’re in totally different spaces, we each had something to give to the other in terms of advice.

You have to talk to people who understand your struggles and talk it through with you. I didn’t really know anyone in the same boat during my first year in LA. When I joined Bossladies suddenly I had a support group of women I could talk to, ask for advice, contribute my own advice, etc. It’s been really interesting how beneficial having other female entrepreneurs in my life has been both in Boston and in LA.

What have you loved most about this adventure in being an entrepreneur? What are some of the major successful moments that have made you jump for joy?

I love connecting and collaborating with so many talented women who have now become my close friends. That’s probably the most rewarding aspect—seeing what was once an idea come to life and building long-lasting relationships from these projects.

The thing that has made me physically jump for joy is the fact that I have five of my actual dream dresses in my closet and I see my friends wearing them in real life.

What do you see in the future for your business, and how will you get there?

I want to create a complete technical wardrobe for the ZANNI girl. I hope to expand to separates and some more colors in my next collection. Stay tuned!

What the best piece of advice for women who are interested in starting a business? What do you wish you had known when you started?

Do it! Stop overthinking it and start telling people what you are doing. I think you’ll find out your network is way more supportive than you previously thought and you never know who might be able to help you out along the way.

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