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On March 11, Brown Fashion Week hosted Francesca Aeillo and Olivia Perez, two entrepreneurs in the fashion industry, for a discussion about building a brand and being a female business owner in 2022. Aeillo is the founder and creative director of Frankie’s Bikinis, a fun-loving swimwear brand with unique cuts and playful styles. The company, with its social media prowess and frequent capsule collections, has built a cult following of 1.2 million Instagram followers and is frequently sported by celebrities such as Candace Swanepoel and Kylie Jenner. Perez is the host of “Friend of a Friend,” a podcast that has interviewed the likes of Bella Hadid and Millie Bobby Brown. In addition, Perez is a journalist, entrepreneur, and the founder of the nonprofit organization System of Service. The two speakers are longtime friends, which was evident by the way they bounced off each other throughout the talk. In addition, the discussion was moderated by Grace Moore, a director of Fashion@Brown’s Events team.

The conversation began with how Aeillo and Perez started their businesses. For Aeillo, developing a swimwear brand came organically. She spoke of her childhood in sunny Malibu, California, where donning a swimsuit was at the epicenter of her day-to-day life. Aeillo wore bikinis everywhere, even during her soccer practices. As a teenager, she began to search for different styles but found that cheekier cuts and fun prints were hard to find on the market. With the help of her mom, Aeillo located in-state manufacturers who could produce her designs. As more friends began to want them, Frankie’s Bikinis was born.

Aeillo’s ability to get in the “head of the Frankie's girl” and be at “the forefront of trends, both at business and fashion,” would set the brand apart from others and lead to its success. Instead of offering collections twice a year like most companies, Aeillo knew that customers wanted new arrivals and began to curate capsule collections released throughout the year. She also utilized Instagram at a time when the app was just beginning to boom. Aeillo acknowledged that many competitors laughed at Frankie’s Bikinis for being “an Instagram brand,” but asserted that the attention and following that accumulated ultimately set the company apart and launched it to fame. It was Aeillo's love for swimming and her competitive edge that drove her passion and dedication for her brand. When Candace Swanepoel posted a picture wearing a bikini in the brand’s infancy, Aeillo was no doubt thrilled and stunned. Even so, her immediate thought was “what’s next.”

Competition and curiosity also define Perez’s career. As a student at New York University, she interned for Teen Vogue, Hermes, Ryan Seacrest, Glossier, and Moda Operandi. Perez believes that her career is an exact reflection of all the things she loved most from these internships; for her, early experiences are, “less about finding what you do like but chipping away at the things that you don’t like.” Ultimately, “that’s how you create a sculpture that is completely you.”

Like Aeillo’s childhood love for swimwear, Perez spoke of how she was always attracted to storytellers and strong voices from a young age. It was this interest that enabled her to hone her own voice, both in the written word and through audio. Perez asserted that she is most “attracted to audio,” explaining an immeasurable gap between reading stories and hearing them. As she explained, there is power in podcasting, where listening to someone’s experience has an immeasurable and profound impact on the senses of the listener. 

Aeillo and Perez also spoke to the strong network of family and friends who helped them achieve their visions. For Aeillo, her mom was her strongest support. Starting her business in high school, Aeillo turned to her mom for everything. Similarly, Perez said that building camaraderie with people in the industry was invaluable for learning from others and building strong relationships. Both agreed that their ability to learn from other women in the industry went the other way as well by imparting advice to young entrepreneurs. As Aeillo aptly stated, “There’s always room for people in the industry, and as women, we should be offering assistance to other women.”

Both Aeillo and Perez are highly successful female entrepreneurs, and they spoke about the skills and traits that helped them get to where they are today. Aeillo recently took a personality test to be a greater leader and explained that her most prominent trait was “blindly optimistic,” which almost every entrepreneur ranks highly on. She explained that this blind optimism, combined with her competitive drive, created her ability to turn Frankie’s Bikinis into what it is today. Perez agreed, adding that a “low dose of paranoia” can be good for entrepreneurs. Both underscored the need to continually ask yourself what is next and what else can I be doing, an invaluable reminder for anyone carving a path for themselves in an industry.

As for the title of “entrepreneur,” the two speakers have mixed opinions about it. Olivia spoke of feeling “victimized” by titles throughout her career, explaining that she tries not to attach herself too closely to one to avoid being limited from pursuing others. She enjoys being all things - a journalist, host, philanthropist - and believes that a multi-hyphenated identity enables her to be curious about everything. In contrast, Aeillo appreciates the title but doesn’t think about it as much. Instead, her main focus as the leader of her company “is to support women and teach other women what it means to support each other.” This is the aspect of leadership that Aeillo loves the most: “the main point of it all is just to be inspiring to others, and showing up in your kindest way, and teaching other people.”

The topic of conversation then shifted to the biggest challenges that the speakers faced when creating their brands. Aeillo spoke of having faith in yourself. This is especially key in the beginning of building a company, since,“other people won’t support it until it’s legit.” The bullying Aeillo experienced forced her to finish high school online. Despite acknowledging that businesses are incredibly hard to build in the beginning, Aeillo emphasized that the return is far greater: “if you can persevere and get through it, you will become the best version of yourself.” For Perez, taking the initiative to really understand one’s finances in and out is crucial. “I wish I had taken more of an initiative to really understand it in the beginning because I made so many mistakes that could have been detrimental to my business.”

Even so, both have exciting projects coming up that reflect their work ethic and determination as women in business. Perez mentioned that “Something new will happen every week that you can’t believe is happening,” a feeling that continues to motivate her and drive her work each day. Aeillo spoke about a project coming out in May that is an extremely personal and special dream of hers. Although the release is secret at the moment, it is something she’s “dreamed of since starting this business,” and is “super near and dear to my heart.”

As the talk reached its conclusion, both speakers imparted their most significant piece of advice for female entrepreneurs. Perez made a point how technology has shifted the way many understand work. She emphasized having different experiences with different companies and surrounding yourself with other people. Doing something on your own but also working in a traditional business setting are both important. They can impart invaluable knowledge in different ways. Meanwhile,  Aeillo suggested that  being patient and kind to yourself is something female entrepreneurs must always remember. “Mistakes are an everyday thing, and you just have to get through each day with a positive attitude.” She continued, reminding viewers that, “giving yourself the grace and patience while you’re on the journey,” will lead to the best results.

Both Francesca Aeillo and Olivia Perez provided invaluable advice for young entrepreneurs hoping to forge their own paths in the fashion industry, from building a brand to having faith in one’s ability. The speakers’ friendship made the discussion even more entertaining and lively, and we  look forward to seeing what the future holds for them!

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