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One part fashion, one part positivity
A new wave of designers is spreading an optimistic message about a global issue: mental health.
Remember high school cliques? The jocks wore letterman jackets; the goths wore fishnets; the nerds wore chinos; the skaters wore beanies.
We assumed we could tell a lot about a person based simply on their clothes (the jocks were charismatic, goths were unbothered, nerds were clever, and skaters were rebellious). Similarly, we carefully considered what our own fashion choices said about us. And though most cliques fade once we leave the walls of high school, fashion remains a big part of our identity and how we identify others.
Undoubtedly, fashion speaks. And, today, it yells, as fashion has almost become a passive form of activism to support brands tackling climate change and other issues. Similar to trends in broader retail, people are no longer simply buying shoes. Rather, they are buying shoes—hoodies and jeans—that say something more. If clothes could speak, Madhappy is holding a bull-horn to the mouth of fashion, spreading an optimistic message about a global issue: mental health.
Madhappy was founded in 2017 by Peiman and Noah Raf, Mason Spector, and Josh Sitt. Initially an apparel company introducing something new to the fashion industry, positivity and optimism, it has since evolved into a community of local optimists driving forward a collective conversation about the ups and downs of mental health. They’ve launched numerous pop-ups, partnered with the JED Foundation, Happy Not Perfect and others, launched their own mental health resource called the Local Optimist, and, at the end of 2019, raised $1.8M led by LVMH, to expand their community and their message of positivity.
Supermaker interviewed co-founder, Peiman Raf, about Madhappy and how they’re using fashion as a platform to drive conversation around mental health.
Before making the jump to Madhappy, you were working as an investment banking analyst for a few months. How did you make the decision to leave the investment banking path to work on Madhappy full time?
At the time, I had taken a bit of time off work because I was feeling a little out of it. I came home to LA with the idea of going back. But, after I was home for a month or two, I realized ultimately that investment banking wasn’t my path. At around the same time, I had started talking about the idea of Madhappy with my brother Noah, Mason Spector, and our fourth partner, Josh Sitt. Those conversations led me to make the decision to stay in LA and work on Madhappy.
Where did the idea for Madhappy come from? What does the name signify?
The name Madhappy was originally thought of by Mason. One day he had texted it to one of our mutual friends in a casual message and when he said the name out loud it really resonated with him. He shared it with us and we all felt that the name was pretty powerful and that it really brought together so many different areas of what a brand would mean around it.
When you hear the name Madhappy everyone has a different interpretation of it, which I think is one of the beauties of the name—it’s a universal name that everyone can read and can spell and can understand and feel. For us, it really meant trying to be optimistic despite the ups and downs of life. We also felt that it was different than what we had seen before out of the “streetwear brands” that we had grown up with, which were very dark and closed off. We felt that Madhappy could be a more inclusive brand and everyone could be a part of it in one way or another. I think the name signifies all of that.
Madhappy is on the opposite end of what a lot of people think about when they think about fashion industry values, holding close core values of positivity, inclusivity, and transparency. How do you view the current state of the fashion industry and where does Madhappy fit in?
In general, fashion, clothing, and apparel are some of the main ways that people have always been able to express themselves and I think that that form of self-expression is still very much true today. More recently, it's become clear that having some sort of bigger mission or cause to build a brand around, one is more impactful to the world, and, two, resonates better with both your own employees —your company as you're building your team—but also externally with customers as you’re community building.
When we thought about it, we weren't looking at Madhappy as this “fashion brand,” I just think that our first medium ended up being apparel. It was a great way to express the brand through the product but ultimately, this is one part of what we're doing. Really what we're doing is creating a community around driving mental health conversation forward. The product could manifest in a variety of different ways in the future, but we’re trying to always be on top of what we're doing as a brand, making sure that the product, our messaging, and content all revolves around positivity and optimism, while still driving new types of learnings for people that are getting more involved in the community.
More commonly, there are a number of mental health apps, grassroots organizations, and larger movements, some of which you’ve partnered with already. How do you see Madhappy fitting into the broader landscape of mental health conversation?
Mental health is a broad and complex topic.
The Calms and the Headspaces were the first waves of bringing mindfulness to the masses and helping people realize that there is something that you can do to work on your mental state and ultimately your mental health. Then, more recently, there's a number of great organizations emerging. If you look at our brand and if you look at the mental health space, we're just trying to play one role within this space. This is a global issue. Everyone has mental health just as we all have physical health, so there are different ways that brands and companies and people can be involved in making a positive impact on the space.
Everything we're doing around the mental health space is targeted around the consumer we have, on educational pieces that you'll learn from and you can take away with you. We're trying to take a more preventative approach than an after-the-fact when you have to get treatment and you're at a point where you don't feel like you can manage your mental health yourself—really focusing on painting that picture of the full spectrum of mental health.
Right now, when we talk about mental health, we only talk about the dark side. But being able to talk about the full spectrum of the ups and downs that we have, and how to identify those, makes the conversation more normalized and eventually helps get to a point where you feel like you can build the tools yourself to continually improve your mental health, your physical health, and overall emotional well-being.
In addition to mental health, Madhappy has collaborated with organizations focused on improving access to education, reducing plastic waste and serving up delicious apple pies. How do you approach collaborations?
At the end of the day, if we want our message to be heard by the most number of people and impact the most number of lives, we have to be positioning our brand in a way where we're both seen as aspirational but also a brand that's cool in the fashion environment that we're in. We're very aware of that, trying to do things working with people, groups, organizations, and companies we admire but, also, trying to think outside the box. We're trying to make sure that there's some give-back component to every partnership we do. And, as we go into this year and many years to come, I think you'll just see more of that, with even more storytelling around each partnership we're doing—why we did it and why it was part of the Madhappy story.
Talk to me about the Local Optimist and Madhappy’s online strategy.
There are positives and negatives to social media and online media in general. We're trying to make a positive impact on it. Everything we're trying to do, both in our product and with the content we're producing across all our media channels, is to have an optimistic message to share and trying to see how we can spark joy in the lives of the people that are coming across our feed at any given time.
We first launched the Local Optimist in the middle of last year, and we've just relaunched it at the end of January. It's where we're going to be housing all of our written and audio and video content that's going to be coming out this year and going forward. For us, we thought it was a great extension of the brand, as we got into creating more media and content. I'm proud of the variety of different platforms we have and hope to continue growing those.
“Local optimist” is one of our catchphrases that we feel great about and people have been loving. For us, what “local optimist” means is if you can control your view on the world and how you're approaching your life, if each person tries to be a local optimist within their community, we can make a huge impact through the ripple effect that that would cause.
Alongside digital media, pop-ups seem to be a big part of Madhappy’s strategy. You’ve done 11 so far. More broadly, a lot of brands, both DTC and traditional brick and mortar, are launching pop-ups. Talk to me about your approach to designing pop-up experiences and the role of community.
Pop-ups were something that we started doing very early on, which is a little untraditional in that most brands aren't doing them until at least a couple of years of being around. And, once they do them, it's not something they become really good at doing. But, because we started doing pop-ups so early on, we really fell in love with growing the brand in an omnichannel way from day one. We really believed in having both an online and offline strategy because it’s just a much different connection. It’s a different game on both sides with pros and cons of each.
For us, the way we looked at pop-ups is that we're trying to create an experience where it's not really about shopping, like, of course, people come and buy products, but there are many more things that you could get out of it. For example, in all of our popups, we have a wall that says, “*blank* makes me Madhappy,” and people can write whatever they want on it as a way to express themselves and interact with the store. We have a mirror room with positive messaging and quotes called the self-reflection chamber. We're doing events monthly or so, like, panels on mental health, meditation courses, different things of that nature. Also, larger-scale events, like our 2,000-person block party on Melrose Place this summer. Just different ways to bring out our community in the different cities we’re in.
Near the end of 2019, you announced a $1.8M raise led by LVMH and joined by strategic investors from brands like MeUndies and Sweetgreen. Not too many fashion brands are raising traditional rounds. What was your strategy around this funding? What’s next and where do you go from here?
When we decided that we wanted to raise, we actually didn’t really want to go the VC route. The institutional partner that we have in LVMH Ventures is much more strategic and aligned for what we’re trying to get to do. I would say that we're very much trying to take a long-term approach. We don't need to sell this brand after X number of years. We don't need to be doing X amount of revenue. But, we think if we continue doing things the right way like we think we have been so far and improving over time, we'll be at a place where we'll have many options and many directions we can continue taking the brand. We see it as much bigger than just apparel. Some of the stuff we're already doing on the content side, and potentially things we can do in other product categories, makes us feel like this is something we want to be working on for many, many years. It was just a good time to bring on some investors of, honestly, people we really admired and that have built great brands, to help us get to that next stage.
We're going to continue doing more storytelling not only around our releases but also more general content that we're going to be releasing. We're launching a podcast in March around the mental health space, and we'll also be doing some video content on our platforms as well as on some larger distribution platforms. On the product side, continuing to expand our product mix and doing more pop-ups. Then, eventually, permanent stores in cities in the US as well as testing some stuff internationally this year in Asia and Europe. We're excited about what's coming up.