August is officially National Black Business Month and PAPER is showing love to some of our favorite Black-owned businesses throughout the entire month. Our dedicated series, Booked x Busy, is all about shining a light on the entrepreneurs and brands that embody Black excellence.
Festival season and large-scale fashion events may be on pause for now, but Neon Cowboys is a glimmer of light for anyone looking to tap into their inner cowboy or cowgirl.
Founded in 2014 by entrepreneur Asia Hall, Neon Cowboys is a Black-owned wearable tech brand that specializes in illuminated western wear, including glowing apparel and accessories. Famous for its signature, patented light-up cowboy hat, Neon Cowboys also shines bright with its line of color-changing/holographic face masks, LED-powered boots, fiber optic bralettes, UV acrylic nails and more.
Photography: Andrew Taylor
Beloved by many in Hollywood, Neon Cowboys counts celebrities Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, Winnie Harlow, Bella Thorne and Chanel West Coast as fans. Even the queen of country herself, Kacey Musgraves, is a huge fan, having collaborated with the brand on a limited edition Kacey Musgraves x Neon Cowboys hat.
If that wasn't enough, 2020 alone has been quite the wild ride for Hall, with Neon Cowboys making appearances on HBO Max's popular ballroom reality competition show, Legendary, and launching its first runway showcase at New York Fashion Week. The brand has even left the wild wild west to grace international runways, notably making appearances at London Fashion Week.
PAPER sat down with Hall, who's an avid fan of all things tech, gaming and country music, to exclusively reveal her newest collection, discuss how Neon Cowboys is pure yeehaw chic, how she saddles up for success and why being a Black woman in fashion is electrifying.
How did Neon Cowboys get its start? What inspired the name?
In college, I would attend country music festivals and line dancing bars. During one of the events I attended, I envisioned the crowd filled with cowboy hats lit up like neon signs. Inspired by this, I hand-glued my first 12 prototypes and took the hats to a music festival to test the market. Once the sun set, the audience went wild for the hats. Seeing the high demand, I set out to build the business.
The name Neon Cowboys perfectly encapsulated the product and concept I had envisioned. I intentionally pluralized the name so that it would stand for a group of people and be inclusive.
What motivated you to merge the worlds of technology and fashion by creating wearable tech?
Growing up in the LA scene, I was exposed to fashion at a very young age. My father was the creative director of the luxury womenswear brand, Halston, and later returned to developing his own label, Kevan Hall. I was also heavily exposed to the far reaches of the internet, video games and e-commerce.
Becoming heavily influenced by both worlds, I attended a liberal arts college for Computer Science and Art while simultaneously launching my first e-commerce brand with my brother, called Once Youth. Appreciating my unique experiences, I wanted to merge both worlds of fashion and technology to further explore my passions and disciplines within wearable tech.
All of your pieces are limited edition, only producing a handful of units at a time. Why?
Exclusivity, sustainability and financial resources. At the core, we are artists and designers. Our passion lies in creating and we're still learning the business of supply chain, inventory management and fulfillment. This has been beneficial because our pieces are considered artistic collector items. A good example of this is our original hand-glued hats. We have about 2,000 customers who have hand-glued hats by me when I first started Neon Cowboys.
Last year, I went back to our initial music festival and our fans ran up and said how they would never sell an original Neon Cowboys hat. The labor of love that went into those initial 2,000 was insane!
What is your favorite piece from the Neon Cowboys collection?
My Neon Cowboys' hat is my baby. It took me six years to get mass manufacturing down with the ability to scale. In the initial two years, I glued each hat by hand and toured the country selling them from vendor tents. They were my initial vision to start the brand and ultimately what the company is named after. They are now utility patented and have earned me the title of "inventor."
A ton of celebrities have been spotted rocking your line. Who would you love to see in Neon Cowboys next?
What does it mean to be a Black-owned business, especially when the Black Lives Matter movement is getting so much attention?
It's exciting to feel seen. Our customers have really championed us during these difficult times, which is a testament to how great our audience is. The vision for Neon Cowboys was to create an inclusive country lifestyle brand for everyone and anyone. It's incredible how many fans have said they've re-discovered the brand because our customers are spreading the word about us being Black and female-owned. Before the Black Lives Matter movement, we didn't really promote my face as the figurehead of the company. It's given me the strength to be proud of our work, to show up and show out. We are so thankful.
As a woman in both tech and fashion, are there any challenges? If so, what are some you're had to tackle?
The main challenge is financial investment or assistance. For instance, out of $85 billion in venture capital funding last year, only 2% went to female founders. And every year, women of color get less than 1% of total funding. It's strenuous to garner the respect we deserve within business, tech and fashion industries.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business or creativity for better or worse?
Initially, COVID-19 was extremely vexing. We manufacture and fulfill out of China, so we have been severely impacted since the start of the year. It wasn't until the pandemic spread to the US that our audience started to understand this global issue is out of our control.
In terms of creativity it has completely forced us to reimagine our product offerings, marketing and our entire business model for the better. Our top revenue months were during music festival season, summer and Halloween. Now that concerts and venues are shut down until next year, we've had to re-evaluate what Neon Cowboys means for the world.
We've concluded that our specialty is sparking joy through light and have taken that energy into people's homes during quarantine where they might feel disheartened and alone. COVID-19 has truly inspired us to be the best we can, especially for 2020.
Are there any changes you would like to see in fashion concerning diversity and inclusion?
We would love to see higher positions across influential fashion brands filled with minorities, women, LGTBQIA+ people in order for everyone to display their unique voices and inspire younger generations to be inclusive and reach their potential. It would also be phenomenal for every brand to actively bring awareness to current issues so that we can learn together and work towards eliminating toxic thought patterns.
Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the US. Who are some of the Black women that have inspired your journey?
I grew up around strong Black women at a young age. They taught me that my skin was beautiful, to believe in myself and that adversity would make me stronger. My Aunt Kasi Lemmons, who directed Harriet and Eve's Bayou. My Godmother Sheryl Lee Ralph who was the original "Dreamgirl" on Broadway and TV sitcom mother on Moesha. And my "Auntie," Kimora Lee Simmons, who pioneered Black/Asian modeling on an international scale and built an empire with Baby Phat. All icons with their dream careers and it's completely captivating to be in their presence.
Your ethnic background is both Chinese and African American. How have either or both cultures influenced your work?
My extended family is very close. On my mother's side, the eldest of six children, everyone married a different ethnicity. So, we have a massively diverse half-Chinese family with lots of cousins. Being Chinese has allowed me to appreciate and revere our culture. We work very closely with our suppliers in China and visit them annually to create new fashion tech designs and products for our consumers. Being Black has forced me to realize how others perceive me and wrestle with inevitably standing out from the crowd.
With an interest and passion, you have proven that Black people aren't a monolith. What advice do you give Black entrepreneurs who are taking the road less traveled?
Brute force, brute force, brute force. It is a battle from day one. Being a Black entrepreneur, you already know you will have to fight harder than most individuals. Here's the catch, it's worth every minute of it. Ultimately what you're fighting for is your freedom. The reality is you will never have all the answers so be sure you iterate at every opportunity. Be gracious in your mistakes, figure out quickly how to fix the problems, learn how to make your business work for you while you're sleeping and by all means necessary get your numbers correct (e.g. margins, net, expenses, etc.). Then iterate again!
Where do you see Neon Cowboys in the next 5 years?
Designing fashion tech couture for the Met Gala. Annual runway collections that encapsulate the capabilities of fashion tech. Custom costume and set pieces for movies. Digital apparel for video game avatar skins like Fortnite and Animal Crossing. We will continue to grow alongside the tech of our day and age.
Fill in the blank: My Black is...
Photography: Andrew Taylor
Thanks to you, the world has a little more light. What's next for Neon Cowboys?
We will continue launching new face masks, light up apparel and custom celebrity pieces. To close out the year, we are focusing on optimizing our fulfillment, customer experience and growing our outsource team. We're excited to get the business to be in a position where we can focus on our favorite disciplines, creating and innovating new fashion tech.
Photo via Instagram