Watch Coco and Breezy’s appearance on Your Attention Please, a recent Hulu series about black creators, and you can spot a subtle masterclass in branding. The twins – who were born a minute apart as Corianna and Brianna Dotson – appear in double-denim outfits wearing the glasses (Coco) and sunglasses (Breezy) that are now hugely popular with young adults across the US. When they set the needle on a smart vinyl player, it plays one of their own mixes. And they are sitting in a whitewashed room in The Lorca, a five-house retreat in the Catskills that the pair renovated to rent out as an additional revenue stream.
Creating all these pillars to their fast-growing business is central to their strategy of staying relevant in the long term. Together, they are also writing the blueprint of what creative business owners could look like over the course of the next decade, designing a far-reaching multi-platform brand built around their personalities and unique style.
All of which is a long way away from their high-school days as bullied outcasts when they wore sunglasses all day as a defence mechanism. Coco and Breezy Eyewear – which they launched in 2009 as shy 19-year-olds with just $1,000 to their name – is now sold in more than 500 stores across the US, having spread far beyond early adopters such as Rihanna.
They are also in-demand DJs who produced two addictive, dance-heavy R&B singles from their home studio last year, and make their own aspirational podcast, with episodes on finding your own narrative and mastering the mindset of running a multifaceted brand. They have danced in Beyoncé videos and onstage with their late friend Prince, for whom they designed a pair of iconic third-eye sunglasses. On Instagram, they look like the two coolest people you know, with their matching tattoos and nose rings – having as much fun as in the early days when they had 50,000 MySpace followers.
‘We do a lot of different things, but there is a thread that runs through it all,’ says Breezy. ‘The eyewear, the music and the real estate all have this theme of healing and empowerment. We had to create a safe space for ourselves, and now we want to do the same for other people.’
So much of their brand is intertwined with their own personal story – of two twins who felt intensely connected to each other but separate from the world. Born in Indiana and raised in Memphis, aged seven they moved to Chanhassen, Minnesota, with their African-American father and Puerto Rican mother. The suburb was nicer than the projects they’d been born in, but there were only a handful of black students at their high school, while soccer moms arrived at the school gates with Confederate flags on their cars.
‘Our parents embraced difference,’ says Coco, who identifies as the more grounded of the two, while Breezy is the go-getting risk-taker. ‘They never put us in a box, and gave us this total freedom to be ourselves. But at school, we felt like outcasts, and were badly bullied.’
But while they were getting their noses pierced at 13, and sporting mohawks at 14, they were also getting top grades and, ever since third grade, had been focused on starting a business. When they were 14, their father had a series of strokes and was told he couldn’t work, while their mother was studying to be an X-ray technician. To support the family, and alongside high school, they worked 90-hour weeks between them doing three different jobs – at the local branch of the Leeann Chin restaurant (despite being officially too young), and two others at the Mall of America (despite a rule against hiring family members). ‘We developed a strong work ethic back then, while realising that we didn’t have to play by all the rules,’ says Breezy.
Meanwhile, the sunglasses that they hid behind at high school had become part of their signature look – especially the safety goggles they’d adorn with studs and spikes, and which made them feel like ‘our own superhero alter egos’.
The twins moved to New York City after high school. Although they were mostly too shy to speak to anyone, they enjoyed partying. While living on $1 pizzas, they started selling their DIY goggles for $500 and up. With word spreading fast about the ‘MySpace twins’, an endorsement from the Concrete Loop black culture blog meant that they quickly had $10,000 worth of orders, despite finding it hard to scrape together rent on their ‘closet’ of an apartment in Brooklyn. ‘We had a website, but it was pretty janky,’ says Coco, the more tech- focused of the two. ‘And we were doing everything ourselves – going to parties and then staying up all night working on products and distribution.’
But while they nailed the marketing from the start, sales slowed on their high-concept sunglasses in 2010, and they started exploring ways to adapt and scale. They brought in as co-founder Duane Baker, a trained architect who had run a catering business and a franchise of the Golden Krust Caribbean restaurant. The ‘and’ in Coco and Breezy, Duane helped them grow the business, investing in slots at trade shows and adapting their sunglasses to appeal to a wider audience than celebrities and stylists. ‘It went from feeling like an art project to being a scalable business,’ says Breezy.
This was the early stages of disruption in the eyewear industry, with Warby Parker also forming in 2010 to challenge a market that had been monopolised by Italian eyewear conglomerate Luxottica, which owns everything from Ray-Ban and Oakley to Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision and LensCrafters. ‘We knew there was a market for something different,’ says Coco. ‘The challenge was to adapt our product for a bigger market, while keeping the essence of Coco and Breezy.’
With a focus on simplicity and efficiency, and with a small core team that still numbers just eight, they decided to only sell online and through selected retailers, and deal directly with factories, which can turn around products in 90 days after they’re designed and 3D-printed at Coco and Breezy’s Garment District HQ. When they added optical glasses with blue-light protection, they decided to sell every pair for $249. While the sunglasses vary in price, they come in the same four basic categories – round, rectangle, cat-eye and aviator.
That simplicity and focus has allowed the sisters to be more creative in other areas – from creating a limited run of third-eye glasses after Prince wore his bespoke pair on Saturday Night Live in 2014, to collaborations with brands as diverse as Adidas, Hershey’s and The Helm, the female-focused venture capital fund they created a collection for in 2019. Having bootstrapped from the start, last year they joined the Talent x Opportunity business accelerator run by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
While the twins had never spent more than a day apart until their 20s, they say that their individuality is important. (On 11 January this year, the pair launched separate personal Instagram accounts for the first time.) Moreover, they say their differences have been key to their success. ‘We’ve always helped each other through tough times, and we only have about two big arguments a year,’ says Coco.
For all the benefits of their partnership, one challenge has been to find space from a brand so utterly wedded to their selves – which launched with its founders as models, marketers and CEOs. ‘There was a point when we knew we couldn’t grow if we had to be at every shoot,’ says Coco. ‘We had to step back from things, but we’ve tried to make the brand feel personal. We’ve always used black models and been inclusive.’
Although the past year has been difficult for so many businesses, it’s been a good one for them. With theirs primarily online anyway, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has helped raise awareness and support. While some brands have been scrambling to catch up with the current vogue for CEOs sounding like activists, the twins have been doing it from the beginning – from cheerleading for the black LGBTQ movement to designing an affordable children’s glasses range with proceeds going to the Healthy Brain Network. ‘We’ve never needed an excuse to be vocal about issues that matter to us,’ says Breezy. ‘We welcome this wider awareness, which still has such a long way to go.’
There’s a long way to go for their own business, too. ‘We want to build this into a billion-dollar brand,’ says Breezy. They have small teams dedicated to their Catskills project and their music, allowing them space to pursue different ventures. ‘When you know what your brand is, it’s easier to delegate and keep everything feeling unified,’ says Coco. ‘I think people understand what we’re about, and what we stand for.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.