Angel Johnson’s gym mishap turned into the thriving activewear brand ICONI

Angel Johnson looking at ICONI activewear

28 March 2022 | By: Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter

This is Buy Black, a series highlighting Black-owned businesses. Here, we feature business owners who share their stories, provide tips for growing a brand and discuss the importance of supporting the success of Black-owned businesses.

Interview with Angel Johnson

In September of 2019, Angel Johnson was working out in the Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, when she had an awkward moment that changed her life. “I was working out with a friend, and he was like, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but I can see everything,’” remembers Johnson, who was an Air Force captain at the time. “I was like, ‘Oh no! I spent $80 on these leggings, what is going on?’”

A few weeks later, while working a night shift at the base, Johnson was still feeling frustrated about the situation when inspiration struck. She turned to one of her sergeants and said, “You know what, I’m going to start an activewear company.”

That was the origin of ICONI, a motivational activewear company that makes inclusive workout clothing for all types of bodies. Inspired by Johnson’s own gym wear mishap in 2019, the activewear is squat proof and, importantly, not see through. A Black and woman-own brand, ICONI stands for “I Can Overcome, Nothing’s Impossible”. And, since launching in January 2020, the brand has already seen phenomenal success – earning a spot on the coveted Oprah’s “Favourite Things” list, and growing the brand through online marketing with Amazon Ads and the Black Business Accelerator (BBA).

I Can Overcome, Nothing’s Impossible

A motivational activewear company that makes inclusive workout clothing for all types of bodies.

The challenges of launching a business

The first thing Johnson had to do after the incident at gym was research, research, research. She looked for the best fabric, the best manufacturers. She explored colour trends and learned how to request samples. She put together a list of 20 questions she would ask every manufacturer – questions like: “How long does it take to get samples? Is there a sample fee?” But, perhaps the biggest challenge Johnson faced early on was launching a business during a pandemic.

“I thought I was going to be hitting all of these gyms to market my brand in person, because Denver is all about fitness,” Johnson says. “I wasn’t really focused on social media. I thought I’d have my brand at fitness competitions. But when everything shut down I was like ‘Oh no, what do I do now?’”

So Johnson changed her plan. She pivoted toward social media and focused on selling products on her website. Looking back, Johnson says she would have done a lot more digital marketing in the beginning and launched her brand earlier on Amazon. “I would definitely try to learn more about free resources that are available,” Johnson says. “If I started sooner on Amazon I could have [worked with] the Seller University and learned about marketing that way, instead of spinning my wheels and going in so many different directions.”

Johnson also stresses the importance of there needing to be more resources for Black and women-owned businesses.

“People need to realise that Black and women-owned businesses can be successful. I also think the sponsorship and mentorship is important,” Johnson says. “If you’re from a historically under-served community, you might not have a mentor who can loan you money and your family might not be able to put that kind of money together. I was lucky to have been able to fund my business because I had been on two deployments.”

According to a 2021 report from the US Minority Business Development Agency, the strength of the broader US economy is increasingly tied to minority-owned businesses (MBE). As the report notes, “A clear and compelling case for the central importance of the MBE experience to the future of U.S. economic growth lies in simple arithmetic: minorities are a large and growing part of the U.S. population, yet minority productivity lags behind that of non-minorities.”

“Look to your chamber of commerce for a small business development centre, look to Amazon – those bigger companies and non-profit organisations can provide those resources,” Johnson says.

These programmes and resources can not only support business owners, but inspire new ones, she says.

“Too many times, a little Black kid isn’t seeing that they could be a business owner,” Johnson says. “These programmes give them something different to aspire to. And it’s also helping these Black-owned businesses grow. Regardless of if they’re Black or LGBTQ or women-owned it’s good to have diversity.”

Iconi’s success as motivational activewear

Throughout the last two years, Johnson has heard from customers about how her products have helped change their fitness journeys. “One lady left a review and said, ‘I didn’t have a supportive sports bra before.’ She said, ‘I threw out all my old sports bras and now I only have ICONI.’ Seeing stuff like that really makes me feel good,” Johnson says.

From the beginning, Johnson made it part of ICONI’s mission statement to donate 10% of all profits to charity. Last year, ICONI made hoodies for a Denver children’s charity. “They called us later and said the kids really wanted those hoodies,” she says. “That kind of stuff really drives me.”

ICONI launched to a new level in late 2020 after being featured in Oprah’s “Favorite Things.”

“I made more money and we did more sales on the day Oprah tweeted about us than we had done all the rest of the year,” Johnson says. “Before I used to bring one or two little boxes to the post office and put it on the counter. Then, when they saw us coming in they were like ‘you’re going to have to use the dock.’”

It was around this time that Johnson also started working with Amazon Ads and the Black Business Accelerator.

“It has been a blessing to work with Amazon. It’s opened a lot of doors and given me a lot of opportunities,” Johnson says. “I’ve gotten mentoring on how to use ads and how to use my ad spend wisely. They walk me through step-by-step.”

Today, Johnson is using Amazon Ads to help share her brand’s motivational message.

“Before, customers were finding ICONI just by our name. Amazon Ads helped us to expand to customers that were just looking for leggings that didn’t know anything about ICONI,” Johnson says. “As a woman it’s hard seeing messages that I need to look a certain way. It can be really frustrating when it can feel like I’m not included. Customers have liked that we’ve been very accepting of everyone. We’re regular people. Our bodies aren’t perfect.”

Johnson’s next goal for ICONI is to put an even greater emphasis on marketing. She’s also planning to release new collections and expand the size range of her products.

“I want the brand to be more inclusive. I want to have more options for customers like high-impact, low-impact and medium-impact sports bras. I want to continuously improve the brand,” Johnson says.

Interested in joining the Black Business Accelerator?