Being Original Made Roman & Leo More than a Leap of Faith

When Angela and Justin Castelli got the ultrasound results from their first pregnancy, they did what any fashion-minded couple would do—they went shopping for their little boy’s first outfit. After an exhaustive trip through the local retail scene for children’s clothes, they were unimpressed. “We were like, ‘Really? These are the only options?’” Angela Castelli says.

Dinosaurs, teddy bears, and choo-choo trains in primary colors weren’t exactly what they had in mind. “We’re both really into fashion, and dressing on trend, and we wanted to dress our boys the way we would, in more adult colors like gray, navy, and maroon,” she says.

The 32-year-old mom started shopping online, where she found more interesting clothes for boys—clothes that fit better and reflected the couple’s urban tastes. “Maybe it sounds silly or superficial, but I feel more drawn to children who are clean and well-dressed and I think other people are, too,” Castelli says.

By the time her second son was born, she knew dozens of highly-evolved specialty brands for little boys. Everywhere the family went, people commented on what her boys were wearing.

That’s when Castelli, an IU Kelley School of Business grad with a degree in marketing, started thinking about opening a store focused on clothes for little boys. She sat on the idea until a major life event rearranged her views on practically everything.

Last December, Castelli was diagnosed with a golf-ball size brain tumor. Fortunately, she had great medical care, and six weeks after the surgery, she was back to life as usual, but with a new kind courage. All the reasons she shouldn’t start a business seemed hollow compared to the beauty and brevity of a well-lived life. “My husband said, ‘You’re going to be so mad at yourself if someone else does this first,’” she says.

Bolstered by her husband’s support, tons of research and her own experiences working in sales and marketing, last March she opened Roman & Leo, named for her two little boys, who are 4 and 2.

slideshow_3The decision was more than just a leap of faith. Castelli carefully planned the business, which opened in stages, starting with an online store, then a rented space inside a Fishers clothing retailer.

That interim step helped her test the market. “Things sold out so quickly that I couldn’t keep up with the inventory,” she says. Buoyed by those early results, she opened her own storefront. The online store is still a significant share of business for Roman & Leo, which offers 40 brands of clothing for little boys.

Early on, Castelli discovered that a bricks-and-mortar presence gave the online store a boost, in part because of the power of Instagram, where she quickly built 4,000 followers.

“Instagram is so visually focused, and it’s still very much a Mom community, so it works well for sharing cute pictures of kids wearing our clothes,” she says. “It’s really fun for us to see kids growing and wearing our product.”

Castelli loves the fact that Roman & Leo fills a void in the local market.  “Everyone we know has boys, and people are constantly telling us, ‘Finally, a store that focuses on little boys’ stuff,’” she says. “I think people come to our store because they know they aren’t going to find these brands anywhere else.”

While starting a business has been a labor of love, it has also been full of challenges.

We asked Castelli to share tips for people thinking about starting their own fashion-related business:

Be disciplined. “I think it has to be something you are passionate about,” Castelli says. Roman & Leo takes a lot of time away from family. She often works until 2 a.m. “If I didn’t love it, I would get burned out very quickly,” she says. Inventory and mopping floors aren’t her favorite things, but they have to be done regularly.

Be an expert. Castelli researched brands extensively before she started Roman & Leo. She knew which ones were inclined to offer exclusivity. Four years of buying for her boys also gave her deep insight about each brand’s fit and wash characteristics. “I think people really appreciate that genuine knowledge,” she says. “When you know your stuff, that’s going to come across.”

Be original. Roman & Leo got an immediate lift because no one in the area was focusing on clothing for little boys. “Don’t copy someone else,” Castelli says. “Do something original or fill an unmet need in the market.”

Be organized. To be successful, you can’t just be creative. You have to be organized. “If you don’t have systems or processes in place for everything, you’re going to struggle,” she says.

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