By Lauren Means | photos courtesy TennesseePhotographs.com
No one could have expected 2020 to turn out the way it has. If we had a crystal ball to see the future, no business would have planned to launch this year. No one knows this better than Christopher Lester. A vision that started to come to fruition in October 2018 had a launch date of May 2020. A brand focused on dressing up to go out now had to deal with a quarantine culture. Christopher lets us in on how Clifton+Leopold came to be and gives advice for anyone looking to take a leap of faith on their own ideas.
Tell us a little about yourself so our readers can get to know you.
My name is Christopher Lester and while not a Nashville native, I’ve called the city home for over two decades. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade working in the digital marketing and brand storytelling space and currently work with companies to help them leverage email and social media to tell a better story.
I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur and enjoy the excitement of taking an idea and nurturing it into reality. Before Clifton+Leopold, I had the privilege of working at Emma Email Marketing where I served as the VP of Sales. It was here that I learned to dream big, work hard and lose the fear — all tools that have aided me in the launch of Clifton+Leopold and gave me the courage to say out loud “I’m going to launch an apparel manufacturing company in the United States during a global pandemic” and not feel crazy.
Outside of my daily life, I serve on the Nashville LGBT Chamber’s board where I have the opportunity to work alongside some of the smartest and most driven people I know. I’ve led the marketing committee for the last five years where I had the privilege to serve with two amazing CEOs, lead a complete rebranding and help create the 20th-anniversary video — a project that I’m deeply proud of.
I am a lover of the arts and love living in a city that values them. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and some of my earliest memories were of going to the theatre, symphony and ballet. As we continue to deal with the fall out of COVID and the toll it is taking on these things I hold so dear, my goal is to find opportunities to plugin even more and help these irreplaceable institutions continue in our great city.
I am the father of the most amazing 16-year-old Weimaraner named Olive and share a home with her in East Nashville. She reminds me every day to be thankful for waking up, to make the most of the sunshine on a cool day and to not ever feel bad for taking a nap when the mood hits.
Why Clifton+Leopold? Is there a story behind the brand?
For the “short” version we share with everyone, you can find the Clifton+Leopold origin story here, but just for the Focus audience, I am happy to share a little of a “behind the scenes” story.
When I was early in the development process, everyone kept asking what I wanted to call the company — a step that I sort of jumped over because working through how to manufacture apparel in the U.S. was a much bigger challenge than what to name a company. But, the name thing was the first question on everyone’s mind.
I knew from the start that I wanted a “something and something” name and I really wanted to use classic quintessential British names if I could make it work. I began researching names and filling them in on the chalkboard wall in my dining room.
Clifton was the first name that made sense. As I mentioned before, I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. More importantly, the hospital where I was born is in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati. Clifton was literally where I got my start.
Leopold means a “brave man or brave one,” and if I were going to do this, it would take a fair amount of bravery and a good dose of vodka now and then. But at the core I do feel like a brave man, so Leopold really resonated with me.
Finally, when you take their initials, they are the same as mine. This was something that wasn’t obvious until the first time I wrote the names together but none-the-less an impactful moment when I did. It felt kismet in nature! Here was a way for me to infuse myself in the brand without being the brand.
How was the experience starting your business during a pandemic?
This is probably the question I get the most and every time I start my response the same way. “It makes for one hell of an origin story.” It also feels totally on-brand for us. One of our mission statements and a mantra we openly share with our community is — Live Your Best Life. And to live your best life, you have to take risks.
I’m super lucky to have so many amazing family members, friends and colleagues around me. Anytime I lack clarity, they are quick to loan me their strength and help me refocus and get back on track. The launch was no different.
I actually started working on Clifton+Leopold in October of 2018. That’s when we created the LLC. It wasn’t long after that I started talking about it with a small group of friends and family. It is also when I finally sat down and created a long list of things that had to happen to make it real.
I was determined that we would make 100% of our products here in the U.S. That conviction alone would take over a year to answer. There was so much to do and looking back I know there were times I could have moved faster (hello to the five weeks I took to decide on the perfect shipping box). That said, like all things, the timing was playing out exactly how it was supposed to.
So there we were in February 2020 working through our final six-week launch plan. Then COVID hit.
My first thought was there was no way we could launch during COVID. I mean, our entire premise is about people going out and getting dressed up.
This is why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to challenge you. And believe me, that is what my friends did — in all the best ways.
By the time our official launch day came on May 1, I knew they were right. I’d spent a lifetime building a network of amazing humans who were there to support me. And support they did. They made purchases, shared our posts, told their friends and showed up. A statement that is as true today as it was on that Friday morning.
Now here we sit finishing up month six and I couldn’t be more thankful! It has been a crazy ride but also the best thing I’ve ever done.
If you could go back through the startup process, is there anything you would do differently?
This is easy! I would enjoy it more.
Starting a company and giving all your energy to a new idea is hard. It’s daunting. It’s scary. And in more ways than anyone who has never done it can understand — it’s lonely! I can’t say that enough… it’s lonely! And that makes sense, right? So much of the process is in your head and underbaked or unrealized yet so it’s hard to share.
It’s consuming and can steal away so much of your energy. I remember when I first started working on Clifton+Leopold I did 100% of the work in my dining room. Big mistake! There was no longer the ability to have friends over for dinner. There was no way to get up in the middle of the night to snag a drink of water without passing all the work hanging on the wall that had yet to be finished. There was no distinction between my personal space and this project that was quickly consuming me.
The key to fixing all of this turned out to be SHARE MORE! It didn’t matter if I didn’t have it all figured out or know all the answers, smart people didn’t need that. They were more than happy to plug in and help me figure it out. It didn’t matter if I didn’t know how I was going to use that incredible fabric I just found or that I had spent two weeks trying to figure out the exact Pantone color for the tissue paper in the shipping box. My friends and supporters were thrilled to play a part.
So I would say to anyone who is working on a similar project right now, open it up to the right people. Define that core group of people you trust and give them all the information they need to be helpful and then ask for help. For me, it was helpful when they would just ask “How do I help? What do you need? Give me the latest update?”
You don’t have to have it all figured out. You just have to know what’s important for your brand and where you want to end up. From there the right people can help speed you up or even land you in a better place.
What is the future of Clifton+Leopold? Will we see different types of accessories or whole new branches of fashion?
I don’t really know the full answer here because it isn’t really up to me. I’ve done my part and will continue to do my part but it is the Clifton+Leopold community that will help determine where we go ultimately.
Now, we know we’ll continue to grow and add to our product lines. In my mind, Clifton+Leopold has always been a lifestyle brand and that will always shape who we are and take us in new product line directions. That’s why we launched our very own candle line last month. You’ll continue to see little twists like that. We want people to say “oh that is so Clifton+Leopold.” But ultimately we want the people who love Clifton+Leopold to play a role in helping us shape the future. And that’s exactly what’s been happening.
Anything else you would like to add?
Nashville is a wonderfully odd city. The support and willingness to help each other in our business community is rare. I couldn’t imagine launching Clifton+Leopold in any other city. EVERYONE in Nashville is trying to figure out how to help each other out, especially in the LGBTQ community.
So I would challenge anyone thinking of turning their passion into a business to reach out to as many people as possible, buy them coffee and then pick their brain.
Join the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, it’s an incredible resource and sponsors some great networking opportunities. The resources are helpful but the people you’ll meet are invaluable.
Get plugged in and then spend 30% of your time helping out someone else on their journey. Rising water raises all boats.