Crown Affair’s Dianna Cohen on Creating an Intentional Haircare Brand

At Refinery29’s Talking Shop series, we chat with up-and-coming small business owners about their launch experiences, the big challenges and victories they faced, and of course, their products and services.

“I do Pilates now, and in one of the classes the instructor was like, ‘Lift through the crown,’ and everyone in the room got up,” the Crown Affair founder said. Diane Cohen told me on a recent video call. “And I was like, yeah, the crown is really that powerful.” With a LinkedIn that boasts behind-the-scenes passages from A way, Outside Voicesand In the shine (among other notable startups), it’s no surprise that Cohen would one day be the visionary behind his own company. “I’ve always loved working with brands, founders and products that changed the way people saw themselves when they used them,” she tells me of her journey to launch Crown Affair, the clean and elevated hair care brand which elevates daily routines to the rank of ritual.

Ahead, we chatted (virtually) with the founder herself about what it was like to launch a business six weeks before the pandemic, walk into Sephora, and how she gets people to love their hair.

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Tell me about the origin story of Crown Affair. Have you always been passionate about all things hair?
“It was always my thing, even growing up. I grew up in South Florida, and kids would run and jump in a chlorinated pool, and I would walk into a bathroom and stick my head under the sink because I wanted clean water instead of chlorinated water in my hair! Hair was also something I always invested in – I had the Mason Pearson Brush when I was younger, which is always a big thing, and I remember that moment very viscerally.

Tell me about your professional background before launching Crown Affair.
“I worked in New York for 10 years, but I didn’t necessarily come from a big beauty company, which [beauty] founders are doing, which is an amazing experience. Hair has always been a part of who I am, and it was through conversations with my community that I realized that a lot of my hard core felt super disempowered by their relationship with their hair; it’s like decades of advertisements telling you what “good hair” is.

I couldn’t agree more with all of this. So tell me about the process of starting the business. How has the pandemic affected that?
“I started working on the brand on nights and weekends before the pandemic. I saved money from my brand consulting gigs and started contacting suppliers – all of this before [conversations surrounding] supply chains and things like that weren’t as we know them today.

“I knew I couldn’t just throw shampoo and conditioner because, number one, I really wanted to tell people what they were missing. But second, building a brand is a big part of creating visual literacy. That’s really what I wanted to do with the towel, the combs and the brushes.

“I started by finding vendors on the tool side, buying products, having friends try them, telling people about the brand. I reached out to our former creative director at Away, Sho Shibuya, and met him at the Crosby Street Hotel. I was like, I have an idea. Let’s start building it. So really just bringing people into my orbit even then. But there was a tipping point where I was like, If I have to place an order for 10,000 units of hair oil and hire people, I’m going to have to raise funds. So I started this journey and I was blessed with, you know, the experience that I had on the consumer side. But then locked in our investors. That was towards the end of 2019, and we launched the business on January 28, 2020, about six weeks before COVID hit.

What does your team look like now?
“The most important thing has always been the people. We only had four or five people on the team when we started, so I was always asked the question, “How did you reduce [in response to the pandemic?’ And I’m like, ‘There wasn’t much to scale back when you haven’t scaled!’ This new world we’re living in has always been a part of our DNA.

“There are obviously tons of challenges with COVID, but it also was an incredible time for hair care as a category. People finally had time to take care of their hair at home or weren’t rushing to their salon as much. I spoke to women early on [in the pandemic] who reportedly breaks out twice a week, and you don’t do it anymore. The behavior has really changed.

“Our team is still quite small, but the world is also changing: I didn’t know the word ‘TikTok’ when we started the business, and now we’re posting several a day. So that requires different resources and being nimble with how people discover, buy and share with each other.

I totally agree. I also feel like people view hair care as a form of self-care.
“This is the whole philosophy and mission of the company. The hair industry uses very loaded language that makes us feel bad about ourselves. But it’s about the experience and the ritual of taking time for yourself. I’m all about consistency in your rituals, whether it’s with physical activity, nutrition, logging — for me, my philosophy is the same with hair care. It’s not just that the products work and you see results, but really understanding how to feel really good about your hair and be the best version of yourself.

Tell us how you chose your brand name.
“Once I had the name in my head, I was like, ‘This is it.’ But a lot of people told me to make a one-word name, or maybe a French word that has multiple meanings. But I always used to think, ‘I’m sure when Tiffany [Masterson] was going Drunk Elephant, people around her were like, Excuse me, what’s it called?

“The name Crown Affair really came to me because I love The Thomas Crown Affair. Also, my husband and I met nine years ago at the René Magritte exhibit at MoMA, which featured the painting ‘The son of the man‘ – which was the tableau for the final scene of the 90s version of The Thomas Crown Affair. I love that there are such deep artistic and cultural references in the brand. It’s all the little Brâncuși things and surreal moments and references to Ed Ruscha. It’s a literal love affair with your crown.

Let’s talk about commercial successes: what are you most proud of so far?
“I mean, [getting into] Sephora is a huge win as they are an amazing partner of a cast and prestige [standpoint]. They really tick all the boxes, and it means everything to have Sephora as a partner to share Crown Affair’s mission and vision.

“I am also very proud that each of our products has been Code Violet approved. What I love about Violet Gray – aside from the fact that it’s where I bought hair care before launching Crown Affair – is that they are incredibly intentional about making sure the products work. To stand next to Oribe and Christopher Robin, and other legacy brands using Violet Gray and knowing our formulas deliver, especially as a new own brand? I’m really proud of it.

This is not an easy task !
“Also, goop has been a truly amazing partner. Gwyneth has officially invested independently, on Series A, so that was pretty cool. She found out about the brand through Goop’s buying team, brought the product home and said to herself, “This is amazing. She really believes in the brand. I’m obviously a fan of GP, but she tries a lot of things! The fact that she has been so supportive of the brand means a lot.

What has been your biggest business challenge to date?
“Well, that’s so funny, you asked me earlier, like, what was it like starting your business? ‘Cause I go back in my head, and I’m just like, the world is so different [now]. Like everything [pre-pandemic] felt like endless possibilities. And I think one of the current challenges is the reality of the world. It’s just a weird time right now with everything going on, and it’s the most important thing as a leader to put people first. Creating this space for my team is really important.

“I wonder if I had the same idea for Crown Affair today, if I would have the same momentum because there is so much in the world now. And I deeply believe in only launching better things that serve a purpose.

What is your ultimate goal with your brand?
“I just want anyone who doesn’t realize what their hair is capable of. Skin care over the past decade has seen such a movement, and hair care has long been an afterthought, unless This is not about a style moment. I really want people to take their time to find a ritual and use better products. That’s the vision. I really want to spend the next decade growing and hopefully… the, to change the way people relate to their hair. I have to do it because that’s what I really love to do every day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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