Leah McSweeney is not afraid of standing up for what she believes in. She’s not afraid to say what she thinks or go after what she wants. Furthermore, she’s not afraid of failing.
This fearless spirit manifests in all she does including how she runs her company, Married to the Mob. Launched in 2004 as one of the first streetwear brands designed by and for women, she built the brand with the funds she won from a $75,000 settlement she won after suing New York City following an altercation with the New York Police Department.
McSweeney built her company around the values of embodying the female perspective of what it’s like to run with the downtown New York scene. Moving forward to continually disrupt its men’s dominated marketplace, MTTM constantly emerges year after year with highly regarded original collections.
On April 16th, McSweeney joined us for a panel to chat with us about her career and her advice on how to make it as a creative entrepreneur. Here’s the snippet of the conversation featuring her isolated responses pulled from the conversation. You can also watch the full conversation in the video below.
Her Agenda: The first question I have is, have you ever had a traditional 9-5 job and when did you that life wasn’t for you?
Leah McSweeney: When you said 9-5 I remembered some really weird jobs I had in highschool like working at TJ Maxx…like working for a car insurance company. I was super young it was high school but you know what, it’s not the 9-5 thing that I’m not good at. It’s the authority thing.
Her Agenda: So when did know you weren’t going to be working for someone else, that you would be starting and running your own company?
Leah McSweeney: I knew that pretty young. I didn’t go to college but I interned a lot. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My first fashion job was at Mass Appeal. I was assisting the fashion editor and that really didn’t last that long either because then my friend was like ‘come to Europe with me, I’ll pay for your ticket.’ And I was like ‘I’m there!’ So, I had to tell the woman like listen, this is great, can you rehire me back? I gotta go, I’ve never been to Europe before and I’m going to get to go to Paris and stuff, and so I went. And, whatever, I didn’t get rehired. I think I knew it wasn’t going to work. I tried working at friend’s stores, retail, the Guess store, Alife — I mean my own boyfriend fired me. I can’t. I gotta do my own thing.
Her Agenda: You’re pretty established at this point, so along with being creative there’s administrative tasks you have to deal with. How do you keep the administrative side of what you do from overriding the creativity and the creative side?
Leah: It’s funny that you’re asking that because I’m dealing with this right now. I have been, but since Married to the Mob has grown a lot within the last couple years. And with that, the space in my brain to do the creative stuff now is me dealing with employees and cash flow and my bookkeeper and the accounting dealing with the backer and the banks. And it’s like wait, I’m supposed to be creative? How am I supposed to be creative when I’m thinking about all this other stuff. That’s kind of what I’m dealing with right now at this moment. I complain about it all the time actually.
Her Agenda: How do you deal with it?
Leah: Just working a lot. Just trying to be grateful. When I catch myself complaining I’m like alright, stop these are good problems to have. It’s like a puzzle I’m constantly trying to put the pieces together. Well maybe I’ve got to find an operating partner that does the shipping fulfillment invoicing stuff so I don’t have to be on top of other people about that and I can focus on more creative stuff. Having a clothing brand is a lot more than just being creative, a lot, a lot more.
Her Agenda: Speaking of administrative things, can we take a brief second to talk about how you managed to raise the capital, find the capital, or save the capital to do your own thing?
Leah: So, a couple of years before I started Married to the Mob I got into an altercation with a New York City police officer who was actually a sergeant. I was one of the lucky ones who only got punched and got my teeth knocked out. I sued the city. A year into starting MOB like in 2005, I finally won the money from 2001. I won like 75 grand, amazing right? I bought like two Goyard bags, but then I returned one. I returned the duffle. It was so painful to do that. Then I was working — I can’t remember where I was working– but I quit that job. Or maybe like half got fired, half quit. It was a mutual breakup kind of thing. Then I used the money to A – live off and B – keep funding the company. But more to live off of…because if you’re working retail and you’re trying to do your own line, it’s really hard. If you’re not putting everything into that one thing, it’s very hard to keep it going.
Her Agenda: How do you stay productive on a consistent basis? Inspiration and ideas for most people is something that tends to come out of nowhere, and most times it doesn’t show up when we need it the most. So since motivation or inspiration is hard to get a grasp on at times, how do you navigate those moments so that you’re still able to get your job done?
Leah: I feel like my best ideas have always just hit me out of nowhere. Not when I’m like okay I need to come up with the next season’s collection now. That’s not how it works. I feel like when I’m not coming up with awesome ideas then I’m like well my brain’s just resting because it needs to rest and do it’s thing. Then you just have to be okay with it turning off for a minute. Plus I got to deal with all the other bullshit I was talking about anyways, so it kind of works out.
Her Agenda: Does it always just turn on in time for you to put in the ideas for the next season?
Leah: No, no it doesn’t and sometimes you make some stupid shit that doesn’t sell. That’s honest, that’s what happens sometimes. That’s life.
Her Agenda: Do you have a routine? Even if you don’t have one, what kind of structure do you have to your days to get things done?
Leah: I have a routine and I also have a daughter so she keeps me, she gets me up at 7am. Sometimes it’s not that much fun. But I’m not a routine kind of person that’s for sure. It’s almost like I’ve been forced. I’m forced to have a routine because I have employees so I have to show up at my office. I have a kid so I have to wake up and feed her breakfast and walk her to school. Before MOB was as big as it is now and before I had my daughter but I was still running MOB — sometimes I would wake up at noon, sometimes I’d wake up at 8. Sometimes I’d be designing at 4am, I don’t do that anymore, I’m sleeping at 4am for sure. I have a routine. I get her to school at 7am and make sure I’m at the office between 10 and 11 and I stay at the office until 7pm.
Her Agenda: Pursuing a career as a designer, or entrepreneur is not the most stable choice, who or what gave you the confidence to pursue this?
Leah: I don’t think I had a choice. That’s how I feel. What else am I going to do? Thats how I feel. What else am I going to do, I have to do this. And I care about making millions of dollars. Maybe because I’ve been doing it for so long. Entrepreneurs have a certain personality type and we’re not scared. I’m not that scared of failing. If I fail I will do something else. I’ll just move in with my parents or something. I’m not going to be hungry on the street. I’ll be okay no matter what, because I always have been. There’s something with entrepreneurs, some kind of personality type. The confidence is there already. Even on the days where I’m like ‘oh my god what the fuck am I doing.’ I have no other choice.
Her Agenda: What is it like for you as a woman working in an industry that’s very male dominated?
Leah: I like it because I manipulate the guys and flirt with them and kind of get whatever I want from them. I’m kidding, no I’m not actually though. It kind of has it’s benefits being the only chick. If I need advice and one of my colleagues that has a brand that’s way bigger than mine they’re more likely going to give me all their secrets because I’m like the cute chick being like ‘hey, omg I totally like’ you know I play dumb a little or whatever. I do. I play it up. I’m like ‘oh my god I totally am not sure what to do about this. Can you help me? You know what, do you have any Bloomingdale’s buyer contacts? You’re the best, oh my god.’ I can’t complain about being in a male dominated industry, it’s not that bad.
It’s really fucked up, [but] I have a lot more guy mentors than female mentors, and women just have not been as helpful to me. I don’t know if its because the guys actually want to have sex with me, and thats why? I don’t know, I’m not sure. But it’s fucked up, because the chicks are not. I’ve had girls literally try to throw me under the bus, and ruin business deals that I thought were friends of mine. I haven’t had dudes do that to me. I’m not saying I like guys over girls, like I love my girlfriends. I’m just saying with business, I’ve had men be way more helpful to me, and if it’s only because they want to sleep with me, then whatever, I don’t care. It’s not like I’m going to give it up because of that. If that is why they’re helping me, that’s fine, but the women have not been helpful.
Audience member jumps in: You are in this male dominated world and get attacked on websites [and things like that more than most.]
Leah: I don’t know what the industry dudes [are saying], I think they’re my friends, but I don’t know what they are saying behind my back but when I call them and I need their help, they will help me. I’ll be be like “hey I need this shit right now,” and they are like “alright.”
Audience member follows up: I feel like on sites like Hypebeast every comment about you [is negative.]
Leah: I don’t even pay attention to the fuck boys that are behind the computer, you know what I mean? Those guys are probably virgins, you know what I mean. So I can only imagine what those guys do. If you’re waiting in lines to get t-shirts and sneakers, we’re never going on a date. You know what I mean. Just saying.
Her Agenda: You’ve been running mob for a little over a decade now and a lot of your battles happened in public, like getting sued and what not. What’s your key to longevity, despite all of that. Despite all of those who try to tear you down, you are still here, you are still strong, you are still growing. What is your key to success?
Leah: Bring it bitches! You have to get back up, and you keep going and sometimes it fucking sucks. It sucks to be sued and it sucks to have all that out in the public, but you just gotta keep going.
Her Agenda: Alright, I’m going to open it up to the audience for questions now.
Audience Member #1: I’m a creative director in advertising, and I have been super lucky from being a junior and just having amazing mentors in advertising, and now that I’m in manufacturing and entrepreneurship, it is so much harder, like you were saying to find strong, female, women that get it. [Women] that understand branding, that are at that level, that I can have that kind of conversation [with]. Aside from like SBA and that bullshit or your own personal network, do you have any other tips, aside from the cold emails or asking of a question to someone that you are super inspired by? Finding a mentor basically using any of the avenues aside from the traditional.
Leah: I have a couple of girls that own brands that I do, I mean I don’t want to call myself a mentor and give myself that kind of credit, but I try to help women as much as I can. When they ask, I help them. I mean sometimes if you’re DM’ing me on instagram, its kind of hard for me to respond. But there are some girls I have come across that –if I’m vibing with you and I believe in what you’re doing and I think that my time will actually help you be successful then I will definitely help you, because people have helped me along the way. That’s how it happens, so you have to give back, for sure.
Audience Member #2: I go to Pratt, I am lucky enough to go to an art school and be able to be creative, what kind of advice would you give to someone who feels like they are gravitating towards a creative field but hasn’t necessarily had the education or the connections in that field, but is still confident with what they do?
Leah: Well, I’m someone that didn’t go to college. And if my daughter, and don’t take this the wrong way, but if my daughter wants to do something creative, I’m not paying fucking 60 grand a year to send her to SVA or any other shit, like I’m not. I’ll get her an internship somewhere, but I understand not everyone can get that. There are so many different avenues to take to be creative, without going to school.
Audience Member #3: This is obviously for Leah, ever since I have discovered your company I’ve been obsessed with it and a huge fan. My name is Victoria, I got to AMDA, it’s an acting school, but fashion is my second love. I just wanted to know what do you see for “Married to the Mob” in the future? Obviously it’s booming and it’s amazing. Come on Rihanna was wearing the socks the other day!
Leah: First of all, thank you for supporting, I really appreciate it. The future of MOB… you know, I am not a future person. I like staying in the moment. It’s hard for me. If someone told me eleven years ago, like ‘hey, in eleven years you are going to be running a pretty decent sized company and you’re going to be in this store, and that store.’ I probably wouldn’t have believed them, so I can only imagine what’s going to happen in the next ten years. I mean I really can’t imagine myself doing it that much longer, like wow, but who knows? We are growing. My plan is to be mass, and some people are upset about it sometimes and — you know what I want? I want MOB to be like the Juicy of the East Coast, that’s it.