Getting Graphic

A conversation with Lisa Mayock, the founder of Monogram.

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Designer Lisa Mayock has always known exactly what women want to wear. In 2004, fresh out of design school, she and her friend Sophie Buhai launched their indie label Vena Cava, which became known for its incredible prints and pieces that could equally suit a tomboy or a girly-girl aesthetic. They printed their show notes as zines. They made a short film with Lizzy Caplan. They were just cool. Then in 2013, after numerous awards and a Target collaboration, Vena Cava disappeared, seemingly forever.

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So imagine my excitement when about a month ago, I clicked on a link promising to show me "the husband-and-wife duo making cool-girl graphic tees," fully ready to roll my eyes at whatever clickbait trash awaited, and instead found myself reading about Monogram, Lisa Mayock's new label, created with her husband, Jeff Halmos (who back in the 2013 was also known for a cooler-than-cool label, Shipley & Halmos, which he did with his friend Sam Shipley). I immediately fell in love with their site, their Instagram, and of course their tees. (I bought two.) Basically, if you love vintage tees, are a bit of a design nerd, and have a sense of humor, then this is the line for you.

I texted all my friends about my new "discovery" and emailed to set up a Lenny interview with Lisa. I talked to her on the phone about what it takes to start a business with your husband, why working as a team is better, and why libraries rule. Her three-week old baby, Pascal, also chimed into our conversation, and let me tell you, it was the cutest thing ever.

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Laia Garcia: How did the idea for Monogram come about?

Lisa Mayock: I am a big vintage-T-shirt fan. I have been my whole life. My dad had amazing vintage T-shirts from the '80s, and I have a couple of his. They are something I've been around and appreciated. I feel like it used to be really easy to find great vintage ones, and they were cheap and plentiful, but that has definitely changed. They're difficult to source unless you know where to go, and they can get pretty expensive. I started looking around for new tees that had that same vibe and came up short. I couldn't find anything that really resonated with me, and I talked to Jeff about it, and we thought, We should just make some.

LG: Were you hesitant about working with your husband? Or had it been in the back of your head that you'd probably do something together eventually?

LM: We were initially pretty hesitant about working together … we tried to avoid it, but we really liked this idea so much. I was a little bit more into the idea of working together than Jeff was. He interviewed probably five couples, people that he knew and friends of his parents who are married and have businesses together, and he made an Excel chart with all of their feedback in it. It was so cute! The chart had the rules that different people had set up, like how to make separate time for their relationship versus their business, and that's kind of how we started thinking about it.

LG: Do you have an office?

LM: We have an office, a little studio in Bushwick, and that has definitely helped the work-life separation. Before, we were working out of one of the rooms in our home. The business kind of took over, and it was really hard to separate.

Basically, we are business when we're in the office, but when we take a break for lunch, we go and take a walk together, have a little personal time. And we decided that when we're at home, if one person is talking about work and the other one is just done and is really ready to veg out on the couch or watch Silicon Valley or whatever, then we have to shut it off. If someone says, "We need to just have personal time right now," we need to honor that. So far it's working great.

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LG: And how did you feel about starting another fashion business?

LM: I felt like there was really a place for this idea in the market. I didn't feel like we were entering into a super-crowded space with what we were doing, and that definitely made both of us feel much more confident about the idea. It's very different from what we did before — we both had wholesale businesses at contemporary price points. That's a space that I probably wouldn't dive into right now, just because, to me, it seems like there's so much out there. Doing T-shirts, which I think of as a very democratic item, in a direct-to-consumer model with a lower price point was just very appealing to us.

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LG: Both of your labels have been done as team creations. Do you prefer working this way?

LM: I have always loved working on a team and having brainstorm sessions. If you're doing something creative on your own, it can be really easy to get in your own head and not recognize the way that something is coming off to the world. You might see it one way and think, This is definitely the message that's being sent, but everyone else might see it a totally different way. I think it's really important to keep other people involved in your creative process. It's such an asset.

As far as Monogram, I feel like 50 percent of our day is just brainstorming ideas and showing each other images. Also, I'm not a graphic designer, although I'm learning how to use Photoshop, so we work with a couple of really talented graphic designers who are able to execute things that I'm not able to execute. We feel super-lucky to be able to work with people like that, because they add so much to the final product.

LG: What is the best piece of advice that you've learned about starting a business?

LM: I think that it's easy, from the outside, to assume that if you have a business in fashion, you're going to sit around sketching and looking at fabrics, and that is definitely a piece of it, but the business part of it is so important. That's really where you're going to spend 90 percent of your time. I'd say take a business class. Take a merchandising class, take a bookkeeping class. I think those things are hugely important, because you can have an incredible amount of talent and not be able to get a business off the ground.

LG: If you're ever feeling a bout of creative block, what is your go-to to start the brain flow and renew your inspiration?

LM: That, for me is the public library. I love having a physical place to go to and to look in actual books. I think there's something that's cool, that's tangible, that happens in the library where the book that you're looking for might be next to something that you're interested in but you had no idea about. That's where I go to refresh my ideas.

I recently discovered that where I grew up in Pasadena, the basement of the library has an incredible trove of old magazines that goes all the way back to the '20s and '30s — weird old food magazines and fashion magazines. I look through them for images and then photocopy and collage them. That is definitely a place that is very powerful for me.

LG: You have a two-year-old son, and you just had a baby, plus you have your business — what do you do when you have a little bit of time to relax? Does that ever happen?

LM: Honestly, it's neighborhood walks. I really relish the opportunity to zone out. I kind of brainstorm on my own, taking walks in our neighborhood. We like to do family art projects at our house. There's a lot of markers, crayons, and Play-Doh, a lot of stuff like that at home. I haven't done this in a while, but I'm really looking forward to getting back into lifting weights. It's been my go-to exercise for a really long time, and I'm psyched to do that at the Y in a couple weeks. I love feeling physically strong. It's very empowering.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny and has loved graphic tees since her days as a Gwennabe.

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