When you don’t set out to be a business owner but at some point find yourself meeting with accountants, analysing your revenue model and managing 20 people, the path can be deeply, maddeningly unclear. And then there’s the pressing, almost existential problem of thinking you are not cut out to be an entrepreneur.
All of which is the position Leandra Medine Cohen found herself in. ‘I always thought I was better working by myself,’ says the 30-year-old New Yorker. ‘Becoming a businesswoman was, for a long time, a hard thing for me to confront. I was just being opportunistic. I mean, Man Repeller was only ever meant to be an extracurricular activity.’
Today, it is anything but. Almost without meaning to, Medine Cohen has built a media business at the forefront of the fashion industry. With over 2m monthly readers, Man Repeller is widely known for its ‘not-too-serious’ take on fashion and lifestyle. Even the company’s name is a satirical reference to how often men find high-fashion clothes a turn off. While recent stories include ‘My Botox Journey: From “Conflicted” to “Frozen Like a Lake in January”’ and ‘37 One-Sentence Reviews From New York Fashion Week’.
Collaborations make the bulk of her income. A long list of fashion brands and retailers from Maje and Michael Kors to Del Toro and Dannijo have partnered with her down the years. In 2013 she released her first book, a collection of personal essays called Man Repeller: Seeking Love, Finding Overalls. Three years later, she launched Man Repeller’s footwear line, called ‘MR by Man Repeller’.
‘A digital day dream’
Much more recently, visitors to Man Repeller have access to the website’s new shop. In a June article, Medine described it as ‘a sensorial playground that is a cross between, let’s call it, a digital day dream and our version of what a shopping mall should look like in 2019 (there are no Auntie Anne’s stands, but there is somewhat adjacent ice cream…)’. When you click on the site, it invites you to pick your own adventure: ‘I want to play’ or ‘I want to shop’. A wide variety of products from totes and hair clips to scarves and sunglasses are on sale. ‘Cheers! Cin cin! Santé! Shop!’ Medine wrote when it launched.
But select ‘play’ and you enter a kind of computer game in which there are piano keys you can click on which then make sounds; a dial you can play with to change the background from day to night; and a TV showing a sandwich on it that, as you change the channel, makes bite-size chunks disappear from the bread. It might seem like the ‘play’ element is there for people simply to have fun, to explore and see what new surprises there are on the site but, of course, one of the biggest metrics of success for e-commerce is how long a customer sticks around on the site. (Staring at products and interacting with them online makes someone more likely to purchase something, either during that session or later.)
While Medine Cohen says, ‘We won’t become a direct-to-consumer business, selling products and nothing else,’ she does confirm that ‘anything is possible’. In many ways, that sums up her outlook.
Medine Cohen launched Man Repeller while at Eugene Lang College, at The New School for Liberal Arts in New York, from her bedroom in 2010. It was still early days for bloggers and ‘influencers’ weren’t yet a thing. But her daily fashion wisdom on ‘trends that women love and men hate’ coupled with funny, sharp social commentary quickly gained her a cult following. With an ethos that ‘an interest in fashion doesn’t minimise one’s intellect’, Medine Cohen emerged as a preeminent voice in an often stuffy industry notoriously difficult to penetrate if you weren’t already on the inside.
Amelia Diamond, who was one of Man Repeller’s first employees, worked there for nearly six years before recently leaving to become a freelance writer and brand consultant – ‘A bittersweet moment and one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to make, like it was the end of a marriage. But, hey,’ she explains, we’re still always on Facetime to each other.’ According to Diamond, ‘Initially the fashion world couldn’t work her out. They were like, “Who is this girl posing on one leg like a flamingo?” She was a bit goofy. But she quickly won everyone round. She gets everyone so jazzed and excited.’
Warming to her theme, she continues: ‘I remember meeting her for the first time in our early 20s while I was going through some guy drama. She made me laugh about it so much. Before meeting her in person I randomly Facebook messaged her – the equivalent to going up to someone in the schoolyard and asking to be their friend! – about an amazing dress I had seen her wearing. I’d never seen anything like it before. And since then we’ve bonded over iced coffee from bodega corner stores, as far away from the cool New York cafes as you can get. She and I became so close because we’re both total weirdos.’
Coming of age during the ‘dawn of new media’, says Medine Cohen, it was easy to be jealous of her more traditional online peers who were, back then, much larger and flashier. But today she credits her stripped-back vision and decision to remain entirely bootstrapped with keeping the business on course.
‘All I ever say to my writers is: write whatever is on your mind. I follow the same rule. All we want to do is make sure people leave Man Repeller more, rather than less, full. We want them to experience an addictive moment through us. The reason we’ve been able to grow in this kind of slow and steady way is because I simply want to provide a living for my employees,’ she continues. ‘We’ve never taken on any financing. Things could change at any moment but, back then at least, I wasn’t ready to. Maybe that will change. So all of the goals and pressures we have experienced have been completely brought on by ourselves. We’re still completely self-funded. And I don’t even know what the end-game goal is.
‘Some people think that’s crazy, but I’m fine with it. I’m not trying to build towards a massive exit, I’m comfortable with this being a lifestyle business. “If you aren’t breaking things you aren’t going fast enough” – but no! So many brands think like this and yet don’t have any idea, really, what they are trying to build and for what purpose they have.’
Is it lonely being a sole founder? ‘It can be,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I feel like a giant loser! Imagine you really badly want to be with someone but just haven’t found them yet. It’s kind of like that. I can be volatile in my presentation and emotions, so it would have been good to meet a business partner to balance out some of these traits and create rails around my strengths.’
Central to Medine Cohen’s brand-building success is the way she has developed close bonds with her readers. Her put-it-all-out point of view on everything from the best lunches to eat at the office to her journey through infertility is a big part of why readers have shown her so much loyalty.
‘One of our biggest priorities is developing a genuine community. And if that community is going to consist of, I don’t know, maybe 2m loyal and interesting people, for me that’s much more compelling than 10m people who aren’t really invested in what we do,’ says Medine Cohen.
According to Diamond, Medine Cohen understood the power of community far earlier than nearly everyone else. ‘She made fashion relatable. That’s becoming more and more standard now, but you have to remember it really wasn’t back then. She knew how to grow audience when fashion used to be totally top-down, where everyone thought it was cool to keep things behind the veil. But it has never been a positioning on her part. It comes naturally to her. Her ideas always evolve and change, she is so open-minded. It’s like her feminism, she is always exploring what that means. She always wanted a very feminist company and she’s got that. Where she’ll take the company next is anyone’s guess.’
Medine Cohen, meanwhile, seems happy to go with the flow. ‘Success means something different to everyone,’ she says. ‘I absolutely believe there’s no one size fits all in any capacity whatsoever.’