by Mia Kweskin
I am born and raised STL. I’ve been called “so midwest.” And I say with great pride that being a Cardinals fan is in my blood.
So when I was given the chance to interview WashU alum Jimmy Sansone, founder of the midwestern lifestyle clothing and accessories line The Normal Brand, I was eager to talk to the person who is redefining — or maybe even just defining for the first time — midwest fashion.
Like me, Sansone was born and raised in St. Louis. He comes from a large family, the oldest of ten children, who like him love the outdoors. He’s still friends with the people he grew up with here in St. Louis and, of course, he’s a Blues fan. He relishes in the rich history of his favorite St. Louis places and restaurants like Charcoal House, which his grandparents grew up going to. They told him that Charcoal House hasn’t changed a bit, and that’s exactly what draws him to it.
Sansone founded The Normal Brand in 2014 when he saw a need for a “normal” shirt, something he could wear from downtown St. Louis into the country after work. For Sansone, “normal” doesn’t mean mundane or average, but instead it means something personal and understandable: something you know and get.
The brand has grown to include women’s clothing, hats, backpacks and even dog beds and leashes that all aim to “celebrate life in the middle.” In 2015, The Normal Brand received an Arch Grant and, this year, Sansone was named one of the St. Louis Business Journal’s “30 Under 30.” Although the fashion world typically operates on the coasts and trickles to the midwest, Sansone is proud to be creating a standard that starts in the middle and trickles to the coasts. And it seems the brand has done just that. THE Jennifer Lopez posted a link to Entrepreneur.com’s story on the The Normal Brand on her official Facebook page with two magical words: “Love this.”
I recently spoke with Sansone about his company, the midwest and his time at WashU.
MK: What does being from the Midwest and living the midwest lifestyle mean for you?
JS: I love the Midwest and I love where I’m from. I like that you really have this duality of life. I identify with being from a city, but I’ve always been a big outdoors guy and so is everyone in my family. So I think that is a unique aspect of Midwest living in that you can be a guy who’s in the city and 20 to 30 minutes later you can be out in the middle of the country. On top of that just the traits you love about the midwest — it’s the hard work and the humble people. The support St. Louis has given our company — they get behind something that’s theirs. It’s a very loyal town, they take care of their own. Not to say that we don’t have our problems, but part of what I think is cool about The Normal Brand is that we can shine a good spotlight on this city and region. St. Louis is proudly displayed in our logo and we’re certainly proud to be here.
MK: What does a city like St. Louis offer innovators and entrepreneurs?
JS: The community is growing rapidly. I really entered it probably a year and a half ago and to see the growth has been incredible…[It’s] a prime example of people who support each other. The entrepreneurship community in St. Louis really wants the entire group to do well and to succeed. It’s refreshing. People are obviously competitive and want their businesses to do well in their respective industries, but there’s something about the group here in St. Louis where they really want all the companies to do well and the city to do better because of that.
JS: A high for me still is just seeing people wear the Normal Brand, just random people walking down the street or out of town, or at a restaurant or airport — seeing that always gives me a great sense of pride and puts a smile on my face. I always try go up to them and talk to them…As far as lows go, there are stresses in starting a business and running one. It’s always on your mind so you worry about a lot of things and how to make the next step. All of your choices hold a lot of weight, because it’s really on you and your team to make sure it continues to go in the right direction.
MK: Who do you go to when you need advice?
JS: My dad. I talk to my dad, and he and my mom have just been incredibly supportive since the very beginning and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. They have a great way of stepping back and being able to look at things critically and objectively and formulate a plan on getting around seemingly big barriers. The Normal Brand would be a pile of shirts and cool looking hats in a basement if it wasn’t for them.
MK: What’s the best advice your parents have given you?
JS: I think the biggest thing is believing in yourself and having the confidence that you can do big things if you write down your goals and then you just work really, really hard to accomplish them. That confidence and belief in yourself is I think the most important thing my parents gave me and my nine brothers and sisters.
MK: How did your experience at WashU shape your experience as an entrepreneur?
JS: Being around really talented people makes you raise your game. There’s no shortage of talented people at WashU. There are alums who have done phenomenal things. I played football there. With Coach K [Larry Kindbom] and how they run the program, competitiveness is deeply ingrained in you if it wasn’t already when you signed up. I think the mixture of the hard work, the competitiveness and just being around talented people — it makes you want to set high goals.
MK: What advice would you give to a student at WashU who is an aspiring innovator?
JS: I’m not sure if I’m in a position to give advice — most people at WashU are probably way smarter than me — but I guess the thing that worked for me was in order to get things moving, to get things off the ground, to do something different and against the status quo, you really need to have a desperate attitude, meaning take away all options. When you’re faced with issues, there’s no escape plan so you have to find a way over or around or through those problems. I think if you have a desperate mindset and you work really hard, especially with the talent the graduates of WashU have, they can do anything they want.