When Vivien Lászlóffy puts her mind to something, she excels.
After becoming the CEO of fashion brand, Aeron, at just 24 years old, Lászlóffy has catapulted the business into fast, far-reaching growth, siting a “learn by doing" approach throughout her impressive, still unbelievably young career.
“I have high energy," says Lászlóffy. “I love doing a lot of things and I love doing them the right way, so I just took it as a challenge. I really had nothing to lose because they gave me that trust and I knew I was going to follow my instinct. I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I haven't looked back."
The Budapest-based brand, which was founded in 2012 by Eszter Áron, who serves as Aeron's Head Designer, is positioned as a luxurious contemporary label defined by unique fabrics, classic silhouettes and unexpected details. For Lászlóffy, it was a perfect match.
“I right away fell in love with the brand. It was totally my aesthetic," says Lászlóffy, who worked at Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, Diesel, Roberto Cavalli, and Maison Margiela, Cartier US and L'Oréal Paris before Aeron. “The approach to it is quite minimal. We only use innovative fabrics, like organic suede or luxurious fabrics like French lambskin. Our brand is not about defining an age. It's about a character, so it's really someone who has an edgy, cool, artsy, confident look. All our pieces are simple but often have an interesting detail to them. It's always super effortless. It's a hidden elegance, and you are dressed for every occasion."
Ranging from $150 for knitwear to $1600 for leather pants, the line has taken off in terms of popularity, thanks to Lászlóffy's leadership and vision.
After meeting Eszter through a family friend two years ago, Lászlóffy started helping grow the brand as a consultant, going back and forth to Budapest from London where she was living at the time. After having spent most of her career working for large firms, she says the time was right for a change.
“I wanted to do something different; either start my own brand or build a tiny brand; something that was more mine and more rewarding," said Lászlóffy, who was just featured in Forbes Europe's 30 under 30 for Retail and Commerce 2017. “If you work with a big corporation it's a fantastic school but you're not going to have that input and the responsibility."
Lászlóffy said after starting she realized she had no other choice than to jump into the role head-first, and taking each challenge as it came through a step-by-step approach.
“At first we were a small team and it was really about redefining every angle of the business; from the production to the design to the sales to the marketing," says Lászlóffy, who is of German and Hungarian descent. “We had something that was already really great but we had to nail it down. For me at first it was about understanding all aspects of this business. I had no idea about how the production cycle works. I'd never done that before and it's so crucial."
Her stint with Aeron wasn't her first time having to grow up fast. At the age of 12 Lászlóffy traveled the world alone with her tennis coach competing. When she turned 19 she moved to the US with a full scholarship to Boston University.
“I never dreamed I would be a CEO at 24," she says. "People always say to me, 'you were so young.' I say yes but age has never been a thing for me. From the age of 10 to 18 I was traveling the world playing professional tennis. I was number one in Hungary, and the top junior player in the world."
“You grow up very quickly."
The company, which has doubled each year in sales since Lászlóffy took the helm, has also expanded in terms of a retail footprint, namely across Asia, which she said was completely unexpected.
“It was honestly at first sort of a luck thing because it was obviously not our plan to specialize in Japan, for example, which is known to be one of the most difficult markets to enter," says Lászlóffy, adding that the buyers of some of Japan's largest retailers, including Ron Herman, Isetan and Tomorrowland, all bought the collection and then there was 'a chain reaction.' "Asia is the biggest market. Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, China are really crucial markets for us."
Although Japan is very different then the rest of Asia, according to Lászlóffy the country serves as the front leader in terms of fashion. After excelling in Japan, next came Korea, Hong Kong, and China.
“It was really about us saying 'we see it working; They like our design, they like the products so we need to get the right partners in there," says Lászlóffy. “So in November we signed the biggest trading company in Japan, which gives us a partner in a market that we are now able to monitor. It's really exciting. It's such a huge area and it has so much potential."
According to Lászlóffy , when she came to Aeron, the brand was in about 30 wholesale accounts globally and now it is in about 110 accounts, across 15 countries. With more than 15 employees, the company employee base doubled in just two years.
“The other day someone said to me 'you should do an MBA; you're the perfect candidate,'" she says. “I told them I'm doing a real life MBA. There's no case study that will tell you how you're going to react when the whole house is on fire and you have to calm down your investors, make sure that your suppliers are still on board, that your distributors are still there. That's the biggest learning lesson ever.
As the brand continues to grow, Lászlóffy says it is a personal goal to keep all production for the brand in Hungary, where Aeron was born.
“We are based out of Budapest, it's our home," she says. “Hungary has a long-standing manufacturing history and a lot of the top brands, like Stella McCartney and Moncler, are produced in Hungary. It's a bit of a responsibility not to walk away and produce somewhere where it might be cheaper. We wanted to be a leader in that. I'm happy to say we are still there and I hope we will continue."
The brand's newest collection, which was inspired by the region around Lake Balaton, which is located an hour from Budapest, is meant as a homage to the label's birth country.
“We included a color palette that evoked the emotions and feelings that the lake brings out, which is what originally inspired the collection," Lászlóffy has said of the collection. “We also endeavor to reinvent tailoring techniques and reinvigorate folk themes, based on traditional Hungarian clothing that has now been completely modernized."
Another future goal for the young CEO is smart hiring, identifying hungry young executives who want to follow in her footsteps.
“I always look at experience and not education, because if I look at myself or a lot of amazing people around me, it was the journey that defined us," Lászlóffy says. "I want them to be hungry to learn and to be open, and to be part of this journey. Every time I meet someone I know right away if I throw her into ice cold water she will survive and thrive from it. Above it all, I think that's the most important thing."
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."