In business as in fashion, attention to detail is what separates the good from the great—and if anyone understands the value of sweating the small stuff, it’s Jenni Lee.
In March, the Brooklyn-based entrepreneur launched Comme Si, a line of Italian-made socks designed to feel as good as they look. “My whole vision was that socks should be a functional luxury piece in your wardrobe. You should feel like you can wear them like an accessory,” she says. With semi-sheer crew-length pairs in ribbed silk and Egyptian cotton, her wares look equally at home peeking out from a sneaker as they do a leather loafer or even a pair of chunky slides.
Lee is a longtime sock aficionado herself, accumulating high-quality pairs on summer trips to Korea because there was no reliable place at home to find more. “I had a few that were this beautiful pale pink, and super soft and super thin… but I was like, ‘If I lost these, theres no way I can find this exact shade of this exact material,” she says.
At the time, she was leading the marketing team at Harry’s, the direct-to-consumer shaving company, and watching the sock category become a hotspot for direct-to-consumer startups—most of them geared toward male shoppers and athletic or novelty styles. She spotted a gap in the market for a more minimal, elevated line for women and set out to fill it.
“I had lots of conversations with the founders of Harry’s, who are my mentors, about my career goals and realized, ‘You know what, my life dream is to be a CEO/founder. I want to launch and run my own business” she recalls. “They were incredibly supportive about that decision.”
The cultural moment also felt right to strike out on her own, with spaces like The Wing supporting female entrepreneurs and women like Emily Weiss of Glossier and Jen Rubio of Away (both of whom Lee had met through the startup world) achieving incredible success. “I thought, ‘You know, maybe I could do this too.’”
Lee left Harry’s at the end of 2017 and took a few months to recalibrate—time that, she says, gave her full appreciation for the creative process and for days when “you might not actually be producing something, but you’re definitely thinking and getting to that next stage.”
First, she had to find manufacturing partners, so she tapped into her network to learn the ropes of supply-chain operations. She made a list of 127 potential factories (Lee is a big list person) and started cold-emailing and calling them one by one. Most she spoke with specifically produced athletic socks, and when she said she wanted semi-sheer, they directed her to hosiery factories. These didn’t fit the bill either, as they typically used nylon and polyurethane, synthetics she was hoping to avoid.
By May, she was running out of options. She had a vacation to Italy planned with her husband, but none of the factories there had responded to her—with the exception of one angry email saying her questions were too intrusive. “So my husband says, ‘OK, well, why don’t we just go and basically knock down doors?’”
Game on: Lee and her husband mapped out factories across the northern region, which is known for textile manufacturing, and rented a car to drive to each of them.
Finally, Lee’s luck kicked in. The first factory they stopped at was the perfect fit—an owner who cared about quality and, like her, wouldn’t compromise on ethics or materials. “We had a conversation and I left thinking, ‘This is our partner!’”
With a manufacturer locked in, she was able to start building the rest of the brand. She made a list of potential brand names that met her specifications; she wanted a short phrase (“I find phrases to just have more potential to be emotive”) that had not only some kind of meaning, but also an available URL and Instagram handle.
Comme Si fit the bill, with its relation to the French phrase meaning “as though,” “like,” or “as is.” “I liked this idea that it’s this filler phrase that kind of connects a sentence together but also is very casual,” she says, reasoning that with socks, “They’re not the main focus in most people’s outfits, but they are something that makes a difference, and if you care about them, other people will notice.”
Lee also sought out women and people of color for jobs like web design and engineering, because she wanted diversity to be part of the DNA of Comme Si from the beginning. And through a partnership with The Wing and Range Rover Evoque, Lee was linked up with Natalia Oberti Noguera, the founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels, “a network of women and femme angel investors focused on funding women and femme entrepreneurs.”
Oberti Noguera agreed that Lee’s focus on diversity was crucial to her brand. “It was reassuring to leave the meetings with Natalia, confirming that, if there are values and certain things that are really important to me, I shouldn’t sacrifice them,” says Lee. “I founded this brand with very specific values in mind and that’s something I intend to put first and foremost as I continue to grow my business.”
For her first collection, she drew upon the colors of her home state of Arizona for inspiration. “As an adult, I’ve had a newfound appreciation for growing up in the desert,” she says. When Lee was a kid, she saw the cacti in her front yard and longed for the Christmas trees of Home Alone. “Now, when I visit I’m like: ‘Wow, this is so unique.’ I don’t know anywhere else in the world where you can actually see the land meet the sky for vast expanses, and the colors look like a watercolor painting.”
She figured customers would probably gravitate toward the bold colors, like “arancia,” a warm sunset-orange, and “saguaro,” an earthy cactus green. Instead, she’s found that there are two camps: those who love the attention-grabbing hues, and another that sticks to neutrals.
Mostly, she says, the Comme Si customer is “a career-driven woman who’s really intentional about the brands that she buys. She’s probably graduated from buying fast-fashion and is buying a few investment pieces here and there.” She also likely invests in nice underwear and lingerie—items that, like socks, are “in the family of things that are really close to your body that you wear all day long, and that you should probably care about.”
This fall will bring merino wool and 100% cashmere, the samples of which are so soft that she hasn’t wanted to take them off, even in 90-degree weather. She’s also planning to launch a line for men after fielding enough emails and DMs from guys wanting to know whether they can fit into the larger women’s size.
As for everything else, she’s taking it one (very well dressed) step at a time.