Eyewear Designers Coco & Breezy On The Importance Of Afro-Latina Visibility

Jessica Miller, courtesy Coco & Breezy

There are few real, household names in the world of eyewear, but Coco & Breezy are certainly two of them. The twin sisters — Corianna and Brianna Dotson — founded their eponymous eyewear brand in 2009 and almost instantly became popular amongst stylish celebrities. They're perhaps most well known for creating the Third Eye sunglasses Prince wore for a 2014 appearance on SNL, though that's far from their only iconic design.

As many people of color experience, Coco and Breezy's identity as half Black, half Puerto Rican women became inherently tied to their work — especially in the eyewear industry which, the sisters have discovered, is very white and very male. They've experienced potential retail partners saying they'd love to carry the brand's eyewear, but only if they reshot their marketing materials to include fewer brown people. The twins also tell Bustle that, when they first started getting interviews, people assumed they were 100% African American — a misconception that neither twin bothered to correct at first, for fear of further discrimination.

Now, in addition to regularly releasing new eyewear collections and DJing as a pair at events across the country, Coco and Breezy have made using their platform to reiterate the importance of diversity in all industries a priority. Ahead, they chat with Bustle about bringing authentic diversity to a team, new challenges that came along with entering the VC fundraising stage, and publically embracing their Puerto Rican heritage.

How do the two of you make sure you're seen in everyday life? How do you use your platform to ensure other people are seen as well?

Breezy: We make ourselves seen by being unapologetic no matter what type of room we're in. It took us a long time and confidence building to get to that point. But now we think that it's our duty to speak out about certain issues that maybe someone else wouldn't have the privilege to do. If, for example, we're with the CEO of a company and they love us, we need to take advantage of that and speak about certain social issues that are going on.

It's one thing to post about social issues on your Instagram, but it's arguably even more important to have those real-life conversations with people who are in positions of power. Can you think of any specific times when you had to go in and basically be a voice for your entire community?

Breezy: We were on set of a shoot one time, and all four models were people of color with natural hair. Two people had afros, and myself and another gentleman had locs. And the hairstylist didn't know how to do our hair. That really pissed me off. The fact that the client didn't think that it was important to hire somebody that actually knew how to do our hair... I thought that was a real issue because there are a lot of hairstylists that specialize in doing natural hair they could have hired.

Breezy: [One of the models] was kind of new to doing shoots and he didn't know that he could speak up about those certain issues. We were shooting for a really big designer brand, so he also didn't want to lose the job. I sat down, and [the stylist] didn't do too much in my hair, which kind of pissed me off because I'm like, "OK, I came here. I'm supposed to get my hair done, but you don't know what you're doing." But it was when he sat down after, that it really struck me because she had no idea what to do with his hair either, and didn't have the proper hair products. I could just see that she was treating him like a guinea pig.

Breezy: And so I stepped in and I said, "Hey, where's his hairstylist?" And [the producers on set] were like, "Oh, well, we can go to Walgreens to go get hair products." I told them, "You guys knew that it was going to be four people with natural hair. There are so many hairstylists that specialize in natural hair that could have had this job." And I said to the hairstylist, "You're super sweet, but you shouldn't be here."

Breezy: I was pacing around the room, saying, "Who hired her? Who was the producer who hired her? We need to talk." Everyone from the brand was freaking out and embarrassed. I know potentially I could have lost the job then, but I also knew that it was my time to step up and speak out. They eventually apologized, saying this would never happen again.

These brands want to show diversity [in their campaigns], but then when it comes to production [of these campaigns, the staff] isn't diverse. How can you tell the story of a diverse community when you don't even have the proper people to do our hair on set? It doesn't make sense.

Breezy: That was about six months ago, but it happens on about 80% of the shoots that we go on. Instead of just posting about it on social media, we aren't afraid to speak directly to the client. In order to shift the needle, we are taking a risk. But there's also so much information already out there. There should be no reason why we would be going on set and no one know how to do our hair.

Do you think that, in general, the fashion industry is doing a better or worse job than other industries in terms of inclusion?

Coco: I think that fashion industry is doing better. I know that brands are trying extremely hard to be inclusive. But if you're going to do a campaign about women, why is the production team all men? It has to be the women that are telling the stories of the women.

[Inclusivity] has to come from inside out. We're in the eyewear industry, and I think the eyewear industry is even 10 times slower than the rest of fashion industry. We've had eyewear stores who are selling our products tell us that our brand was too Black. We are one of the only Afro Latina, women-founded eyewear companies in the whole industry!

Coco: We have to show representation for the underrepresented in our marketing campaigns because other brands aren't doing it. And if they are doing it, it's not as authentic [as how we do it] because we know how to tell the story of a person of color. We know how to speak the language because that's who we are. But for Pride Month, we had our graphic designer who identifies as a gay man create all the marketing material because we knew that he was going to speak to the people we wanted to speak to.

Breezy: Our brand is small compared to a lot of bigger corporate companies. [Those bigger companies] have the budget and resources to be able to outsource to people.

What do you even say when a store tells you there are "too many" brown people in your campaigns?

Coco: I tell them that I will kindly pass on their business if it's an issue. If they tell us that they don't have any brown people that come into their stores, I tell them it's because they're not marketing to this huge community of people. We've been shopping way too long without seeing our faces in campaigns. Why would you have the audacity to ask me to change my campaign when I'm really seeing a huge community that never gets spoken to? It's a lot of white privilege, because if the tables were turned, it could never happen that way.

Are there also retailers who are excited about that point of view you bring to the table?

Coco: We have partnerships with a lot of optical shops that are in the Bay Area and other areas with a high population of people of color, and they're like, "Thank you so much. Our customers finally get to see themselves." We do have a bigger percentage of people that appreciate it [than who turn us away] and they're so pumped they finally get to see someone that looks like them in a campaign. That is really rewarding to me when that happens.

You've recently partnered with The Helm [a lifestyle brand that curates women-founded brands, both so consumers can shop the brands' products and so VCs can invest in them]. What has working with them been like?

Coco: The Helm has been amazing. About a year and a half ago, Breezy and I decided we wanted to raise capital, but we didn't know how to do it. So we told ourselves we needed to start going to more dinners and meet up with other women founders, which is where I met Lindsey [Taylor Wood], the CEO. It was before their e-commerce platform had even launched.

What they're doing is freaking amazing. These days, people want to buy products based on the person behind it. And so if you're able to go to a e-commerce platform and buy entirely from women-founded companies, it makes you feel good inside.

Breezy: It was also a full team of women, from the design side of things to even the production of the campaign. It was super collaborative with zero egos. One of our interns was on set of the campaign, where it was all women behind the scenes, she was like, "The energy on set just feels different." The next day we had another shoot with a different company, it was all men, and it was a different vibe. The energy just wasn't the same.

What has your experience been as you enter a new round of VC fundraising?

Coco: It's a challenge. But we're really just centered [in our brand identity] right now, so we're starting to take meetings. It's a lot of making sure that people get it. We want to make sure we have the right people on board that actually understand our vision. We know that that's going to take time. Breezy and I, we didn't go to college.

Breezy: And we've never worked in corporate. We don't have that, "I used to work at this corporate job in this position." on our resumes. What we do have is that we built something out of nothing and we have gotten all this amazing organic marketing with zero marketing budget spent.

Coco: I think the biggest challenge is that, since we're women of color in this space raising capital, people look at us differently. I sat down someone the other day and he was telling me about how he was able to possibly invest in a founder that didn't really have their product market fit yet, but he used to work at Apple. I'm like, "OK. Cool." But I'm like, "Why would you choose investing into that founder versus us? We're in 450-plus stores, we've had every celebrity in the book wear our products, we've put zero dollars into marketing, and grown our social media? We have proven ourselves." He was like, "Because it makes them feel more comfortable to invest in a founder that helped grow another company."

Coco: It hurt me so hard to hear him say that right in front of my face. It was just like, "Really? We've done all this with so little resources, but you would rather invest in this one person just because of their resume." I think again with our systemic issues, we just didn't have the resources to do all of that.

Do you feel like Instagram and the internet as a whole is a net positive for brands like yours? Could you have ever had this success without it?

Coco: No, I think the internet had a lot to do with [our success.] It's that emotional connection. People now want to feel like they're a part of a community, and they also want to feel connected to the founders of company. Of course, they're buying the product, but they're also buying into a story and a community. Social media in general has just been a really great platform for customers to really have that emotional experience. It's almost like they feel like they're best friends with the founders of the company, and they want to support whatever their friend is doing.

In a 2015 interview with Latina, you said that your Latinx heritage doesn't influence your eyewear designs, but it does influence the business and how you operate. Is that still true?

Breezy: I don't want to be stereotypical, but my mom is a spicy Puerto Rican. She grew up in a very strict Latino family household. When she was growing up, she couldn't cut her hair. She couldn't wear certain things. She couldn't spend a night at a friend's house. It was just these little weird rules that I think are kind of consistent in a lot of Latin homes. She always said that she wasn't going to raise her daughters that way. She gave us the freedom to be ourselves. She allowed us to go for our dreams. And I think that that has truly helped us become the women that we are today, breaking the status quo. I think a lot of parents put their trauma onto their kids, but my mom did the opposite. And in the past five years or so, we've really started embracing our Latina side.

Coco: Breezy and I just DJed the Afro-Latina Festival [in July.] It was so beautiful to be around brown Latinas that have curly hair. In our community there's also colorism that happens; people segregate themselves by if they have long hair, straight hair, if their skin is white or brown. We're half Puerto Rican, half Black. When we were younger we always felt like we were outsiders. The Latina community didn't accept us because we were too brown.

Breezy: It has a lot to do with why I still don't like speaking Spanish. Whenever I would speak Spanish they would always answer back to us in English, or laugh at us saying, "Oh, all these little black girls are trying to speak Spanish."

Coco: We always embraced [being Latina] at home. We were just too traumatized by society [to talk about it publically.]

Breezy: Recently, my mom sat down with us, because we were doing interviews and people were calling us "African American twins." My mom asked, "Are you guys afraid to tell people that you're Puerto Rican?" And I was like, "No, it's just that people are just assuming that we're full African American." And I used to be a little shy about it, because a lot of Afro-Latinas get discredited by people in the outside world.

Breezy: That's the Afro-Latina Music Festival was such a beautiful experience, especially for my mom. She grew up in a Puerto Rican household that held prejudice against brown Afro-Latinas. [The festival] was her first time being around a full community of Afro-Latinas and it felt beautiful for her. We actually had our mom play the congas while we were DJing. It was such a beautiful moment for us to share. We always grew up salsa dancing together at family parties. We would eat Puerto Rican food, and play all different types of percussion instruments, like congas. But for us to able to share this experience together publically was the best experience I could have ever had. I'm so excited to continue to have more experiences like that.

How does that freedom of expression your parents gave you tie into how you run the business or how you work with other employees?

Breezy: Our company culture is very family-oriented. It's really inspired by how we grew up. Our company culture makes us feel like family. Since my mom and dad gave Coco and I the platform to speak up, we're always giving our employees the same opportunity. We always make everyone feel like they're important and that their feedback counts. Now, I'm really noticing that the way that we grew up is the way that we run our business.

There are brands who struggle with diversity and doing it in an authentic way. For any other brand founders who genuinely want to improve in that area, do you have any advice on how to do that well?

Coco: It really starts with the internal team. If look around your office and realize your team isn't diverse, hire someone new. At least get someone to help consult because it's only going to come out authentically from someone who actually is passionate and has lived the experience.

Breezy: I would also say don't use the buzzword "diversity" in a campaign. I love that everyone wants to be diverse, but you don't actually have to use the word. Just tell those stories from an authentic place. [Diversity] should be a normal thing. It shouldn't be newsworthy, it should be inclusive. For us, our biggest thing is that we're building a community and everyone's invited.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.