Nichole Lynel’s motivation in business began as a consumer who desperately wanted to fill a gap that she often saw in retail—an inclusive shopping experience for all women. Though running a business wasn’t a space Lynel was familiar with, she was on a mission to curate inventory that represented the Black women she grew up seeing.
Throughout her journey, Lynel confronted adversity with a pen and paper, and used those lessons to develop a successful brand through trial-and-error, teambuilding, and strong customer relationships. Still pivoting, Lynel ventured outside of her comfort zone with the addition of her cut-and-sew collection, NL the Label, and release of her memoir, My Fashion Fairytale. Both of these have enabled her to empower women everywhere to feel beautiful; which for Lynel, is the real win.
Nichole spoke to Her Agenda about her journey as a first-time business owner, making large-scale goals attainable, rebelling against society’s “pretty,” and more.
Her Agenda: Let’s dig into the building of your store. How does one approach starting a business of this magnitude?
Nichole Lynel: I was coming out of my first business—in which I knew absolutely nothing about fashion design or running a boutique. I knew general information but didn’t have a blueprint other than reading ‘Girlboss’ and working retail. I worked on sales floors but had no idea what happens on the back-end. I just jumped out there, threw myself into it, and started by trial and error. I had no idea about markup and profit margins—I did everything wrong at first.
The second time around, I had a clear vision of what I was coming back to do. I decided that I had big goals, and I wrote them all out in the beginning. I wanted to create a million-dollar brand within my first year of business, so how was I going to do that? What type of customer do I want? What does my customer need for her life? I envisioned every aspect before I went out and found it. I dreamed it up, drew it out, and decided what I wanted that shopping experience to look like. Being a woman of color—a Black woman—I wanted to have something that was just for us. I’m curvy, and I never saw myself in fashion magazines or major retailers. I wanted to create that experience for the right price and for the working girl. I got to know my customers and developed a relationship with them, and from there, I was able to buy more quality pieces, put them together, and tell a story.
I dreamed it up, drew it out, and decided what I wanted that shopping experience to look like. Being a woman of color—a Black woman—I wanted to have something that was just for us. I’m curvy, and I never saw myself in fashion magazines or major retailers. I wanted to create that experience for the right price and for the working girl.
Since then, I’ve moved into design and I’ve made huge mistakes. I lost so much money. I tried to manufacture in LA, I’ve tried to manufacture overseas. I’ve had my money taken. It’s been a tornado. But I stuck with it.
Her Agenda: Let’s swerve a little to your team’s involvement in day-to-day operations and overall success of your business.
Nichole Lynel: I recently added someone phenomenal to my team and watched them yesterday as we shot a campaign, and I remembered one of my good girlfriends saying, you can do anything, but you cannot do everything. I feel like that’s such a struggle for creative entrepreneurs—finding people that you can truly depend on to help bring your vision to life. It’s hard because everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. Everyone wants to be the boss. It’s hard for people to come together with a common goal.
I have a small business so there’s no such thing as this is not my job. I can’t just sit in one position. We’re all in, all the time.
I have brought together the most phenomenal group of women, and we do things that are just mind-blowing. It’s important to have an amazing work environment and a team of people who are going to show up and make that vision come to life. I have a small business so there’s no such thing as this is not my job. I can’t just sit in one position. We’re all in, all the time.
Her Agenda: You mentioned goal-setting as a priority for running your business. How do you dismantle major goals (e.g. $1M sales) into action items?
Nichole Lynel: I saw what my daily goal needed to be and thought, what does that look like? The average order on my website is between $100-$150. That’s 30-35 people that I need to reach daily to make a purchase. How can I tell a story that’s going to make 35 people purchase something? I worked extremely hard on that part until I got there. After that, I doubled and tripled it. I break my goals down into smaller numbers that are easier to manage. We throw out numbers all the time, but we really don’t know what it takes to get there or stay there consistently. It’s easy to drop it one day, but with a boutique, I have to be right every time. I don’t have a product where I can just whip up more. I have to be right about the selections every single time. That comes with knowing who my customers are and what they need.
I break my goals down into smaller numbers that are easier to manage.
Also, consider what that’s going to take out of you. Are you still happy? It can become overwhelming and you can become a slave to chasing things—and it feels good. You get the reaction you wanted and everyone is congratulating you, but it can feel so empty and isolated. We’re in a pandemic and a lot of us are inside, faced with our feelings. Ask yourself, what is it going to take out of you to go to that next level? Could I just be happy where I am? Is that…a thing?
Her Agenda: Your shop has expanded to include NL the Label, which I consider a great mixture of styles and price points—creating inclusivity for your customer base. How did this come about? Was the execution a bit easier the second time around?
Nichole Lynel: It was a totally different beast and I’m still getting whooped by it, but it’s so much more rewarding. I design for my boutique as well, but everything on NL the Label was created by me. With my boutique, people would get confused because I have vendor pieces, but I design there as well. This was an opportunity to be clear and tell this story through NL the Label. That’s where I can show who I really am.
That budget is totally different, and when you’re wrong it’s heartbreaking. I’m a Black woman. I don’t come from a family that has a fabric mill and has been making buttons for 300 years. I didn’t go to school for this. But I’m so happy that it’s a successful and profitable business.
I’m a Black woman. I don’t come from a family that has a fabric mill and has been making buttons for 300 years. I didn’t go to school for this. But I’m so happy that it’s a successful and profitable business.
Her Agenda: People shy away from markets that are perceived as overly saturated. As a business owner who jumped, face-first, and went on to be successful, what’s your opinion on breaking into a heavily occupied space?
Nichole Lynel: You wouldn’t have that vision and it wouldn’t be on your heart if it wasn’t supposed to come to fruition. That’s just how it is. You have to check your reasons, though and have a talk with yourself. Who am I doing this for? Why am I doing it? I’ve always been a fashion girl. I’ve always loved clothes, photos, creating moments, women, glam. This is truly who I am at my essence. People get lost and discouraged when they put themselves out there and don’t get the response that they wanted immediately. Even when you aren’t getting the money or the results, you have to truly be committed to that thing.
It doesn’t matter who’s doing it; if you’re you, nobody else matters. I have a boutique, but no one puts looks together and gives it to the girls the way I do. There are people around the world who are waiting for you to do what you’re doing and you’re worried about somebody else? Do it.
There are people around the world who are waiting for you to do what you’re doing and you’re worried about somebody else? Do it.
Her Agenda: You released a memoir, My Fashion Fairytale (quarantine read!), earlier this year. How did that come about? As you stepped into yet another unfamiliar space, what was that experience like?
Nichole Lynel: I was originally going to write a quick e-book about starting an online boutique. I was talking about it with my friend, and she’s like, “Girl, snooze. No one needs another boutique ebook. You have a powerful story and you need to tell that story.”
I thought, no, I’ll save that for my grandkids. I’ll write a book or share my diary when I get older. It was one of the conversations that we never say out loud. We always talk about fatherlessness but we don’t talk about motherlessness. People assume you have it all together based on how you look. I want to show women that no matter where you sit, no matter what you’ve been through, you can decide the life that you want. I have been through things that’ll make most people crumble, but I made decisions for myself, and I wanted to tell the story of how I made those; how I truly changed my life and got my very own fairy tale.
Her Agenda: You’ve talked about re-defining the definition of “pretty.”
Nichole Lynel: I grew up with my grandparents; late 80s when Black women were naturally beautiful, celebrated, and glamorous. That’s not what they want us to believe nowadays, and that’s my goal through my store. I want to show that Black women being luxurious, glamorous, and beautiful, doesn’t mean that we have to be over-sexualized. It doesn’t mean that we have to look disheveled. It’s whoever you want to be, and I wanted to provide the clothes for them to do so. If you want to wear a ball gown to the grocery store, do you. There isn’t one particular mold or body type that makes you beautiful. I’m only five-feet and I’m a little thick. I’m not supposed to have a fashion brand according to standards. I don’t fit the mold, but I broke it.
Her Agenda: Your story has involved a lot of risks, learning as you go, and believing in yourself. What would you share with readers about journeying through uncertainty?
Nichole Lynel: We’re all trying to get the magic beans. The secret to avoiding the uncomfortable. Avoiding the broke. Avoiding the hurt. But that’s part of the process and is what makes you. Fearing that is just a part of it and you have to work through it.
I was doing a shoot the other day and it was hot, uncomfortable, and all of the things, but I know what it takes to get where I’m going, and I don’t quit. That’s the difference that will make you successful. I’ve already gone broke. I’ve already had my heart broken. I’ve had everything taken away from me. I’m not scared anymore. Unless you’re dead, it’s not over for you. No matter what has happened to you, if you have faith and you believe in you, that’s all that you need. You have to get up every day and take a small step. It doesn’t have to be some big, grand step. You don’t have to wait until you have tons of money. If the vision is on your heart, take a small step tomorrow to make that happen. I feel like we’re all waiting until we get the money. We’re all waiting until the time is right. We’re all waiting until we lose a little bit of weight, and the days are flying by. We’re focused on where we want to be but not how to get there. Break down the things that you need to get where you’re going, and make that checklist.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]