Earlier this month, we sat down with Alana Vasilenko-Tsymbal, co-founder of the US fashion and beauty brand, Kozha Numbers. A label that started with handbags and has now evolved into the beauty industry, Kozha Numbers began life with two best friends, each craving an escape from the corporate world and a new outlet for their creativity.
From a two-piece, the brand has evolved into a five-person team and a label recognised in the US, parts of Europe and massively in Asia. Here, we take a look at how the company started its journey and gain insight into the challenges and achievements of this emerging and uniquely innovative brand.
Founded in 2015 by Alana and co-founder Ilona Gerasimov, Kozha Numbers designs and traditionally handcrafts stunning leather handbags focusing on unique details and exquisite quality. In June 2019, the brand joined up with beauty expert Carina Gonzalez and launched its first creation into the beauty industry, a beautifully crafted daily supplement serum. Organic, vegan and free of parabens, fillers, dyes and mineral oils, the active serum has seen huge success since its launch.
How did the brand begin?
Lena and Ilona were best friends from teens and were both working in corporate jobs in accounting and office work. Tired of the corporate world and worried about their jobs stifling their creativity, they headed out on a spontaneous road trip one Friday evening where they decided now was the time to embark on something completely new.
Both with Eastern European parents but raised in the US, culture was important to both women and a love for architecture, interiors, art and fashion collided within their creativity, forcing them towards a need to design something unique.
When Lena and Ilona knew they wanted to start a brand, they began to think about the products they, themselves, would want to buy. There are so many designs out there that are all the same; begin with something you love and you’ll find other people who love it too.
Did these different backgrounds and influences make a difference?
Absolutely. Lena talked about growing up with both cultures side by side. Being already slightly different from the people around them made them feel like there was always the opportunity to do something different. Being stuck in repetitive accounting jobs wasn’t their only path and they felt compelled to take a leap of faith and create something entirely new.
While still working in their 9-5 jobs, the friends began work at 5.30 pm every day and until midnight on their ideas. Starting with the passion of wanting to create a brand but without in-depth knowledge into the industry or manufacturing, they started with materials and fell in love with a leather that they knew they wanted to use. From there, they asked, “What would I want?”, “How would I want to wear this?
Did they have a background in fashion or design?
Surprisingly, neither of the now designers had a background in design. But Lena wanted to design furniture from childhood. She believes if you have a passion for design, you can design anything you want and use influences from all your passions to create something that you love.
Believing that design is all about quality, Lena talked about her love of finding amazing materials and ingredients and then building a product from there. Whether that’s handbags or clothing or beauty products, if the ingredients are amazing then you can create a product that people will love.
Was she worried that a career in accounting would damage her creativity?
Yes. Working a repetitive job that she didn’t have a passion for was the main catalyst to stop and make a change out of fear that her passion for design might die. She talks about being younger and believing that anything is possible and then as we grow and mature, we start to believe that there are fewer opportunities but in fact, the possibilities are endless and you simply have to begin the journey towards your passion.
When was the right time to quit her full-time job?
Lena says it’s all about confidence in what you’re doing. For her, it wasn’t about securing the right numbers and more about not feeling the need for a fall-back. Maybe she should have based it on numbers? But without passion in her old job, she couldn’t continue.
Let’s talk money…
When came to financing the business, Lena and Ilona decided not to opt for loans and investment but rather retain complete control of their brand and invest their own money gradually into the debut handbag line. This forced them to be careful with spending which actually helped them with creativity because every penny spent on the business had to really be worth something.
Instead of hiring experts, the founders learned the trade themselves. Learning how to code websites and make patterns and even hand sew the bags, they gained insight into every single stage of the business, which they believe is what made the brand so strong from the beginning.
To this day, and even with a five-strong team, the founders are both incredibly hands-on and create everything from their studio in Portland, Oregon. As they bring new people into the business, they focus on finding like-minded people who are willing to learn and become involved in every aspect of the company.