Alyssa Wasko, founder, designer and CEO of Donni, Photo Credit: Sarah Sikora
Photo Credit: Sarah Sikora
There’s no doubt that leisurewear and comfortable apparel had its moment in 2020 — but fashion brand Donni is proving to stand the test of time. It’s a testament to its commitment to high quality fabrics, a strategic drop model, signature silhouettes, and leaning into the importance of details.
Officially launched in 2009 with scarves as its initial product category, Donni’s origin story is rooted in love and comfort. Today, after more 12 years in business, the brand is being recognized as an ‘It’ fashion brand with a highly engaged consumer base.
“The biggest constant we’ve had from the beginning was comfort,” shares founder, CEO and designer Alyssa Wasko.
While studying at the University of Arizona, Wasko started making scarves after her father Donald suddenly passed away. The scarves were designed as blanket scarves, to be enjoyed as a fashion accessory and while cozying up at home. Creating and wearing the scarves became a passion for Wasko, which also brought her comfort and served as a way for her to cope with her grief.
The success of the scarves — which eventually were designed in every shape, fabric and dimension, from oversized blanket scarves to tiny neckties — made way for scrunchies, which ultimately led to the creation of a complete apparel brand of leisurewear and what Wasko refers to as “elevated classics.” (One of the brand’s signature pieces is a scarf that can be wrapped and worn in countless ways — as a thick scarf or tied into a sarong or wrap top.)
Today, Donni is sold in major retailers and e-tailers including Nordstrom, Revolve, Free People, and Shopbop, in addition to its own direct-to-consumer site. Founder and designer Wasko was also included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 “Art & Style” list in 2019.
Donni has always been self-funded, thanks to Wasko’s hard work, vision and keeping the business lean: what she refers to as her relentless scrappiness.
The common thread in Donni’s items? It all comes down to comfort and feeling good. After all, the Donni girl is simply not one type of girl. Donni is a lifestyle. A mood. A happy state of mind.
“Our products are comfortable — no-brainer. And when you feel comfortable and like what you’re wearing, you feel confident and exude confidence. You have a different tone in your voice, your emails might come out different — it’s a whole mindset.”
Donni was way ahead of the ‘work from home in loungewear’ trend that exploded in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic, and it continues to forge ahead today with the release of new collections on a regular basis.
“It’s about that comfortable vibe that everyone was craving during COVID. But I think people wanted to buy things that they could still wear after COVID,” Wasko asserts. “That’s also a big draw for us, because the elevated details of what we’re doing give people that flexibility.”
Wasko and her team at Donni honed in on a formula that was working — and had the sales and traffic figures to prove it.
The impressive stats include: Total sales increase of 279% year to date; email marketing sales increase of 312% year to date; returning customers up 43% versus last year; site visitors from Instagram up 146% to last year; and social sales up 220% versus last year.
While Instagram was doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of sending consumer traffic to Donni’s site in recent years (until late 2020), its branded emails are now also responsible for driving traffic to the direct-to-consumer site.
“A lot of people refer to us as an Instagram brand, which I find really surprising because we have a very small following compared to a lot of other brands — but I believe we have a super engaged following,” Wasko explains.
Donni boasts just over 65K followers on Instagram, proof that when it comes to brand resonance, there is power in cultivating a loyal social media community.
“We really stayed true to our roots and the foundation was there before the pandemic. We had spent the past couple of years really building these relationships, whether it was with influencers, content creators, editors — whoever they are.”
While people were coming to Donni’s site and Instagram for the fashion, they were also staying for the feel-good content when COVID hit.
“We wanted our social feed to be a place to offer relief and make you smile during a stressful time,” Wasko shares. “I posted puppies and kids dancing and Princess Diana looking chic, and the stuff that we still post in between all of our products and launches. But we just posted that type of content on our Instagram for two solid weeks — it almost became a place of temporary relief and comfort, which is what I wanted it to be. And then people started commenting, ‘when are you dropping your new stuff?’”
That’s when Wasko and her team decided to adopt a drop model, for its new collections.
“Normally we launch an entire collection all at once. So I thought to myself, Why don’t we start dropping one style at a time and surprise people? We won’t tell them when it’s coming, so it’ll be a pleasant surprise.”
Donni’s terry cloth and sweater drops during COVID — from June through October 2020 — sold out within 30 minutes of launch. Donni launched its first real online exclusive on June 15 of this year: the waffle button-down. It sold out in 90 minutes, a very exciting reaction for its first exclusive style on the site.
Donni’s new drop platform also gave the brand the opportunity to educate customers on the styles.
“When you launch 20 styles at one time, there’s no moment to educate people,” Wasko shares. “This way, we were really educating customers on each style as it launched, and really capturing their attention that way. It just worked.”
Donni product assortment and button details, Photo Credit: Courtesy of Donni
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Donni
The brand has also become known for its ‘101’ educational videos, which ensure that ‘real’ women are showcasing the look and fit of the new styles, in a wide range of sizes.
The Donni team usually selects seven women per drop, one to represent each size. (Each style ranges from XXS to XXL).
“They’re real girls,” Wasko asserts. “These are not influencers, these are real people who are part of our community. And when they talk about the fit — I can’t even tell you the DMs I get about this — some of them make me cry! They send messages like, ‘thank you for showing your pieces on girls that are not so small. And showing us real people.’”
Donni also stepped out of its comfort zone, experimenting with new fabrics. It has always worked with knits, and this past March the brand launched its first nylon collection, which is a woven material. The reception exceeded Wasko’s expectations.
Wasko received first-hand fashion training while working as an intern and then Image & Visual Merchandising Coordinator at Chanel, in New York City, for almost six years. A key takeaway that has carried over into how she creates collections at Donni?
The beauty is in the details.
This means every Donni piece has that extra je ne sais quoi touch that makes it an “elevated classic” and signature Donni — whether it’s a pearl charm on the zip-closure or freshwater pearl buttons on pants.
“Our thing is ‘elevated classics’. We make tweaks to silhouettes to make them more flattering. A lot of our stuff is based off of men’s pieces that we reconfigure to flatter a woman’s body. But generally speaking, our items have that oversized boyfriend fit and feel to them. For us, it’s all in the details. It’s all of those little touches that go such a long way.”
The elevated details have become iconic to the brand.
While Wasko was at Chanel, she was building Donni as her side hustle. But once Barneys had placed an order for her items — the first department store to do so — she knew it was time to go full-force on focusing on her brand.
This was in 2013 — and Wasko hasn’t looked back since.
Donni had a D2C site from the start, but wholesale was really what drove its business, from the beginning.
“Wholesale was how we started and got our footing, earned our credibility. Barneys was the moment of okay, this is legit.”
Alyssa Wasko, founder, CEO and designer of fashion brand Donni, Photo Credit: Sarah Sikora
Photo Credit: Sarah Sikora
Part of making people feel good extends to Donni’s give-back initiatives, which have always been important to Wasko.
“It’s how I was raised. I don’t think you’re successful if you’re not sharing it with other people. And I believe that things come back around. I think it’s also a big part of why I produce locally, in Los Angeles, because we’re friends with the people that are in our factories and we want to support them. And we want to give them the ability to support their families.”
78% of Donni’s vendors — factories, cutting houses, dye houses, knitting mills, marker/graders, pattern makers, sample makers — are either women-run or women-owned.
As part of Donni’s “feel good” ethos, the brand launched a collaboration with “feel good ceramics & things” brand, The Coy Collection, which came about organically in June 2020 and launched that November. The terracotta henley that Donni released featured The Coy Collection’s signature happy face — Donni donated 10% of the proceeds to Black Girl Ventures, which is what led to the brand’s current collaboration with the organization.
“Our ‘bright idea’ necklace in collaboration with Black Girl Ventures is also something special. 100% of the proceeds go straight to BGV and it’s an ongoing partnership. So far we have raised over $8,000 for Black Girl Ventures.”
Additionally, leading up to Juneteenth, for anyone that posted themselves wearing the necklace, Donni donated the amount of an additional necklace to Black Girl Ventures.
Waffle shirt and pearl necklace, Photo Credit: Courtesy of Donni
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Donni
For Pride Month, the brand donated 20% of all waffle sales (five styles) to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Donni raised over $20,000 for this initiative.
Exciting things in the pipeline include building out a café window at Donni’s new HQ, in downtown Los Angeles.
“We’re all about openness and sharing, and I think being able to walk up to our window and order your favorite coffee and be able to see our team in action, is a pretty cool thing!” Wasko shares. (Sustainability is also a core value for Donni, so they will have pasta straws at the café. “They don’t melt in your mouth and they’re very chic.”)
Another aspect of Donni’s L.A. headquarters is the importance of community: Wasko plans on having classes and pop-ups featuring women-owned businesses at the space.
“It’s a way for us to share our platform and physical space with other women in business to highlight them and spread the word, while also sharing things that we as a brand and lifestyle care about with our community. It’s all about women supporting each other.”
It’s this type of open, friendly and warm vibe that Wasko is infusing into every element of the brand.
“We are a brand that feels like your friend. I want you to come to our website and visit our Instagram feed, and I want you to feel welcome. I want you to feel like our DM responses are me personally responding to you. Our brand is personal — period. The end.”