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At DEFY, we admire the ambitious, cheer for the motivated, and root for those with unparalleled willpower. For Angel Johnson, these adjectives have resided within her since the beginning. And along the way, she channeled each one to ultimately create ICONI Leggings.
As the CEO and founder of ICONI, Angel built the company in the same manner as DEFY, being black-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned. ICONI is an all-inclusive, motivational brand of activewear made for women and men who believe they can achieve anything they desire. Not only is the apparel ultra-comfortable and ensures there is no movement it cannot accommodate, but its logo is also a symbol of power, strength, and versatility. But most of ICONI's message lies directly within its name.
DEFY sat with Angel to talk about her brand and how she has defied odds…
“I want to set a standard that having a dream and making it a reality is something anyone can achieve,” says Angel. “I always wanted to build my own business and I became the first in my family to do it. Yes, it took years of hard work, but I couldn’t have done it without my mother.”
Growing up, Angel was raised by a single mother who worked three jobs to make sure her two children had every opportunity to succeed. And in Angel’s case, succeed, she did. But it was preceded by years of prior success.
“All of my goals boil down to a single ideology, ‘break down barriers,’” says Angel. “I spent eight years in the Air Force with one deployment to Afghanistan. Before that, I was one of the first 100 black females to graduate from the Citadel.
“I wanted this for myself; I wanted to prove that all of my hard work would pay off,” says Angel. “But I would be lying if I said it was easy. There were certainly bumps along the way.”
It isn’t easy being a first-time business owner, and Angel will be the first to tell you that. Several variables come with starting a business. Some variables you can plan for, and some can come out of seemingly nowhere. Reflecting on the early days of ICONI and the adversity Angel faced resulted in a few laughs.
“If I were starting a business today, I definitely would’ve taken more time to develop a strategic marketing plan,” says Angel. “I was just so excited to hit the ground running that spending time setting up my business operations was all I could think about.”
With that in mind, she began focusing more on her marketing plan. Of course, the apparel - more specifically ICONI’s leggings - and its functionality were important. Having the opportunity to market herself as a black-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned makes her brand truly unique. She still found it hard to feel like she belonged.
“I think one of the most difficult things I’ve faced was believing that I deserved to be in the activewear arena,” she says. “There are plenty of companies who sell this type of apparel so battling with ‘imposter syndrome’ was tough.”
“I thought that maybe if I tried to do it like other businesses in this industry, success would have to come. But the more I tried, the less happy I was with what I was doing. So I decided to go my own way. Find my voice. Take everything I believed in and make it so ICONI was truly unique. And in time, we found the ICONI voice.”
One instance Angel vividly remembers came on the most important retail day of the year: Black Friday. Any retail business will tell you, Black Friday is the most chaotic shopping day of the year. On this day she experienced one of her biggest bumps in the road to date.
“Oh, Black Friday. What a wild ride that was,” says Angel. “We had a large order going out - eight boxes of leggings were on their way out to customers. We were still getting our bearings so, at the time, it was a big order for us. But somewhere along the way, the eight boxes were stolen.”
Angel sighs and holds a private moment of silence with a bittersweet smile on her face.
“There were some tears.”
While certainly a tough day for ICONI, Angel’s company prevailed. Mistakes happen, it’s part of being a business owner. But success is dictated by how you
When you take a closer look at what ICONI is and what it stands for, you see how Angel’s entrepreneurial spirit and eye-catching logo inspire people to become their best selves.
ICONI’s logo is a merging of two symbols: The power button and an ancient Ghanaian sign.
The base is a power button representing your inner strength and ability to flip the switch when you’re in the gym. The overlay is an Adinkra symbol that signifies vigor and versatility. Together they play a role in controlling your total wellness - especially when you’re just beginning a new fitness journey.
Unlike other activewear brands that print a single word of inspiration on their clothing, Angel took it a step further by putting entire phrases.
“Too often do you see leggings or shirts with a single word emboldened across the chest or down the leg,” says Angel. “But why just a single word? We feel that a phrase hits a point of emphasis. We want our customers to feel a connection to our brand. One word gets you started, an entire phrase keeps you going. It’s your reminder that we’re a team who is right behind you all the way.”
Creating the ICONI activewear line was born of a sudden thought while grinding away during an early morning - 1:00 AM to be exact - workout. Normally her workouts were cathartic, a stress relief during her time as an Air Force lieutenant. But over time, she had noticed she wasn’t completely satisfied with the leggings she had been wearing.
“Let me just say, leggings are not cheap,” laughs Angel. “I had been wearing leggings on this particular day that were comfortable but found that the waistband kept rolling down and impeding my squat form. That’s when I thought ‘Are there any leggings that are squat-proof?’”
It was then that the plan was first set in motion. But performance wasn’t the only thing Angel was concerned with. How many women had the same problem? How many were self-conscious in their clothing? How many felt comfortable in their leggings while also feeling comfortable in their skin?
“Body image is such an important topic in today’s world,” says Angel. “One of the goals of ICONI is to empower women to look in the mirror and not only love what they see, but love who they see.”
Here Angel paused and said her most powerful statement of our sitdown…
Empowerment is a word very near and dear to Angel. As the founder of a black-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned business, she hopes that other minority women can feel inspired to blaze their own trail and achieve their own goals. Call it an epiphany. Consider it a calling. Label it what you want. To Angel, it was as much about pursuing a personal goal as it was for changing the lives of others - and not only those with fitness goals.
“I grew up in a small suburb of Charleston, SC,” says Angel. “Opportunities were limited. And seeing my mother bust her butt for so many years was where I drew the most inspiration. I would not be here without her. I love her so much.”
While Angel’s mother always pushed her to be her best self, Angel draws inspiration from other successful women in business.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t heard of Spanx,” says Angel. “Sarah Blakely is a huge inspiration for me. What she’s done for the confidence of women around the world just amazes me.”
Some women who have inspired her took notice of what ICONI has been doing in the activewear industry.
“Full disclosure: I love Oprah,” says Angel. “How could you not? And that’s why it meant so much to me and ICONI when she put us on her annual list of “Oprah’s Favorite Things.” When we got the news I was over the moon. What an incredible honor!”
Like DEFY, at the core of the company's business model is the initiative to give back to communities. Giving back is a way to connect with customers, but more importantly, to help those in need. It’s why ICONI donates 10% of all profits to nonprofit organizations.
“ICONI prides itself on being black-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned, but we also want to be known for our philanthropic efforts,” says Angel. “You’ll find all of the institutions we donate to listed on our website, but we haven’t limited our efforts to only the Denver metro area.”
“We’ve helped fund organizations that are geared towards anti-racism, stopping domestic violence against women, heart health organizations, Girls on the Run, and more. The ability to give back is so important to us.”
It’s businesses like ICONI that DEFY, also black-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned, strives to align themselves with. Determination and the idea that you need to be successful, being a reflection of your mantra is the best plan of action. Angel is more than just a business owner. She's more than just a veteran or a black woman. She is an inspiration.
And that’s why DEFY couldn’t be happier to partner with such an amazing organization and even more outstanding woman.