Lauren Alexander is the co-founder and designer of LNA, one of Los Angeles’ most successful and enduring independent casual wear brands. Since 2007 she’s been ‘living the dream’ with a fashion brand worn by celebrities and stocked in innumerable ritzy stores. But it’s only in the past two years that’s she’s overcome deep insecurities and depression which blighted her 20s. Here she explains how the pressure of perfection led to a ‘lost decade’.
Equestrian in Training
I grew up in Southern California in Del Mar [a beach city in San Diego] on the beach. We had such an idyllic childhood, riding horses and going to the farm. Fashion and L.A. was so not on the radar—we had a real childhood and growing up I never paid any attention to how I looked—ever. It wasn’t even really discussed at home and as my twin sister was sick, the focus was on fun, being outdoors and getting her better.
My identity was completely wrapped up in being an equestrian. I woke up in the morning, I went to the barn, rode my horses and trained all day—I wanted to make the Olympics and I would do anything to make that happen. I attribute most of my success in business to my horseback riding years, because I had trainers and grooms who instilled discipline and made me be accountable. I had to be there early at sunrise, day in, day out to take care of my horse. It was a very strict environment and they were extremely tough. Then when I was about 17 in high school, I quit riding. I realised that it had become my whole life and that I didn’t have friends outside the horse world and everything had started to feel very small. Around the same time, I started to be exposed to L.A. via my mom and began to hear a little more about fashion and when I lost my sponsorship, I took it as a sign that it was time to change things up and live more of a normal life.
Coping with PCOS & Finding a New Identity
Because my sense of self was so connected to my sport—I was ‘Lauren who rides horses’—the reality was that I suddenly had no idea who I was. I didn’t know what to do with my time and that’s when all these insecurities about my appearance started to creep in. I moved to L.A. when I was 19 and almost immediately became incredibly conscious of my weight. As I’d decided that I wanted to get into fashion, I felt I had to become a whole new person and I was flooded with self-doubt. My 20s were without a question, the worst years of my life because I just didn’t know how to deal with myself. I hated everything about my face and my body—and really who I was—and spent the entire time trying to ‘fix’ things.
When I turned 30 it was the start accepting the way I looked. When I say that people are like, ‘what are you talking about?’ But I hated my nose and I had really bad skin for a couple of years, because I developed Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that I developed just as I quit horseback riding. I also started gaining weight—about 15-20lbs—very quickly and it was spinning out of control even though I was literally eating nothing. I would go crazy Atkins on tiny portions of high protein and work out endlessly. Then I’d still gain weight. When they told me I had PCOS the doctor said that I was probably going to be obese, that I would never be able to have children, that I’d spend my life fighting depression and acne. He then prescribed me a huge list of prescription drugs which I started taking immediately because I was so scared, but it just made me feel so much worse.
In the end, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went completely vegan, stopped taking the pills and did as much research as I possibly could, which ended up igniting my love affair with health food. In the end my symptoms subsided and even though the doctors had said it was impossible outside of mediation to cure the syndrome, I did heal my body holistically. Now there is a lot of literature around diet and PCOS, but back then it was completely ignored. However, it took literally years to manage and during that time I became incredibly depressed and I didn’t really know why.
Fake It Til You Make It
I was so insecure when I started my brand. It was 2007 and I was 22 years old. Having my own label has definitely taught me to be more outgoing and feel more sure of myself, but at the beginning I had to do a lot of faking it and put on a show. I initially wanted to launch LNA really because I wanted to make clothes that made me feel better about myself, so at least from the outside I could look good however shit it felt on the inside. It was like a Band-Aid for my emotional state. At the time I was always looking for ways to feel better emotionally. Whichever relationship I was in I clung to because I really felt that I needed the validation. Even when the relationships were horrible and toxic, I always stayed. The only thing I ever regret in my life is not being strong enough to get out of some of those terrible situations—when you’re insecure it’s so easy to let yourself be manipulated and those relationships just made me feel even worse about myself.
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I now really believe that your mind is like a muscle and thoughts and words take form and shape in your body. If every time you look in the mirror or you look at a photo of yourself, you’re like, ‘Oh look at my terrible skin, or my horrible nose,’ you get so used to saying and thinking that, so whenever you look at yourself, it’s the first thing that pops into your head, like an automatic reflex. I now try to replace the negativity with something positive about my body or my face. Your thoughts are your own reality–which might sound very L.A., but it’s the truth. It’s why amazing women and girls can warp their sense of themselves and why others who might not have a classically beautiful face or Instagram body can feel great about themselves. You construct your own value system, but you can also train your mind to see something else. Instead of waking up and being consumed with self-hatred and thinking you look like shit, you can focus on your straight teeth or great cheekbones. It sounds so small, but it can end up making a really big change.
Social Media is a L.A. Export
I think social media has brought a lot of L.A. culture to the rest of the world. Here it’s completely normalized to want to change your body and your face—we have a phrase, “you’re not ugly, you’re just poor.” It sounds terrible, but there is such an emphasis on self-improvement and striving for perfection. Growing up I would never sit around a table with friends and talk about Botox or peels or plastic surgery. And now that’s entirely usual. When I first moved to L.A., I remember being asked why I didn’t do Botox, have a nutritionist or a personal trainer. Those things are just a given. It’s impossible not to wonder: if everyone else is doing it, why aren’t I? And then, how the hell am I going to afford all this? It was like all I was seeing around me was perfection and I felt that I could never live up to that. Where do you even begin? I don’t want to be that super-vain person who only thinks about how she looks. But when you mix fashion, entertainment and social media together, it becomes the fabric of your life– because it isn’t a world that’s celebrating or even forgiving of imperfections.
A huge proportion of images that we consume are retouched, edited and Facetuned—I see girls doing it on their phones all the time. Even though I know that and I can see it happening, it’s still difficult to remind yourself that those images you are comparing yourself to aren’t real. When we cast a model for one of our campaigns, she might be so beautiful, but then we start analysing her and picking her apart. It’s so crazy because she is already so perfect, but because of the shoot we are going down to the tiniest details—it’s definitely the kind of industry that can mess with your perspective.
I’ve always put a huge pressure on myself to look a certain way because of my job and the people I surround myself with. There has been such a focus on appearance – weight, beauty, skin, exercise routine. My maintenance has become so expensive, because when you add up the personal trainer, barre method classes, gym membership, hair appointments, the natural smoothie and tinctures, the supplements, Botox, facials and lasers, it becomes a full time job just to keep up with it all. The ‘being the best version of yourself’ thing can get excessive, I mean, I don’t even blink at a $20 smoothie. It’s easy to become addicted to the high you get from feeling healthy—and skinny—and take it too far. I’ve definitely done it several times. I was never able to be balanced in the past – I was always obsessed with what I was eating, what I wasn’t eating; how many days a week was I working out. But you do have to try and take the obsession out of it. It’s really, really hard to express self-doubt about any of these things, because often people don’t believe you or want to hear it. I get it: there are so many bigger issues that my weight or my acne scars, but it’s all relative. If you hate and obsess about anything for 20 years—no matter how small it might be—it can become a really massive issue in your life. Again it may not be a reality but it doesn’t mean someone isn’t tortured by what they perceive to be true.
Happiness is a State of Mind Not An Instagram Picture
What I will also say is that you should never ever judge someone’s happiness by how it looks from the outside and that’s true for social media too. During my 20s, it looked like I had everything. I was experiencing a lot of success with LNA and for my peers it seemed so amazing. I was so young, I had this successful company, I could support myself, we were in all these stores and all these celebrities were wearing our clothes…it was all the dream. I wish I could have appreciated those moments, but I just couldn’t because I was focused on my inner turmoil. It feels crazy to say now that I was unhappy for ten years of my life and that I lost an entire decade to feeling terrible about myself, but that’s the truth. And no-one would have ever guessed.
We’ve had so many ups and downs as a company. I think people think everything happened overnight. We struggled so many times over the past decade and that’s made me humble. We’re not assholes, because we’ve almost gone out of business several times. On the other hand, we don’t sit around and say, ‘Oh in 2012 we so nearly had to close the factory,’—we definitely don’t dwell on things. But because we’ve had those really rough moments, when it could have all gone away, we’re very resilient.
When I started LNA and I had no self esteem, experience or idea what I was doing which was an insane way to start a business. LNA’s journey is really my personal journey and these clothes that I’ve been making since 2007 have evolved with me and how I feel about myself. When people say we’re having our best year now, that makes sense to me, because I’ve never felt more at peace with my issues than I do now. Looking back at what I was designing ten years ago I cringe, but you start perfecting what you do and when you’ve been doing it for 10 years you finally feel, ‘I’ve got this’. Even last year sometimes driving to work I’d be worrying about all our employees and be concerned about how I was going to deal with a situation. I know I’m the boss, but sometimes I felt lost too. Now being a boss is one the favourite parts of my job. Being able to direct a business and have people who believe in what you’re doing is really special. My team is so important to who we are as a brand and finally after all these years and all this work on my insecurities I can actually say I know exactly where we’re going.