Do you have an alter ego?
You know, a part of your identity that’s tapped when you want to be your most fierce self? Johnika Harris does. And you’ve likely seen the manifestation of it emblazoned on your favorite celebrity.
“I created the Milan Rouge persona in 2008 after years of people mispronouncing my real name,” Harris/Rouge shared with Essence. “As a college student, I was thinking about my future and the woman I wanted to be around the same time Beyonce was deep into her Sasha Fierce era, and I was really inspired.”
In her early 20s, Rouge said she was yearning to transition into a new phase of her life. “I come from the hood,” the West Philadelphia native said. “I was getting into fights. I was constantly surrounded by negative energy and it wasn’t until I was around 23 when I really realized how important it was to create a change for myself. Milan Rouge was that better version of me.”
Always a fashionista, Rouge said she chose the name after studying some of the greatest designers’ backstories and noticed a through-line: they were birthed in Italy. “In 2012 when I was researching and trying to create a brand (Milano Di Rouge), I saw that most fashion houses named their brand after the designer, and the most impressive designs were often Italian. So I chose that name to represent my line.” She also said it’s a backronym for Making Dreams Reality.
She started out selling t-shirts from her car’s trunk, delivering purchases directly to customers’ doors, and DM’ing influencers and celebrities to spread the word about her brand. “I reached out to everyone–nobody was above my outreach,” Rouge shared. “It was a slow build at first, but I’m a good person and I think people responded to that.”
As the buzz around her brand grew, just three years in, she said items would almost immediately sell out, but she wasn’t turning a profit. It wasn’t until she had a conversation with her father, who is incarcerated, that she learned a lesson that changed her life (and business) forever.
“My dad was a hustler before he went in, so he knew all about scaling and making your product work for you,” she said.
During a visit in 2015, Rouge said her father pointed out that when her inventory sold, it took three weeks to get new products in. He explained she needed to adopt the same mentality as major brands: abundance.
“In those three weeks when I didn’t have product, my customers had to wait, and I was also not making any money–I’m just spending it. So the ‘aha’ moment for me was to never sell out. And that helped me scale. So every time we would get low on inventory, I would double the order. And then if we got low on that, I would triple the order.”
This strategy paid off big time. That same year, Rouge said she was selling three months of supplies in 30 days.
Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a celebrity that hasn’t rocked Milano Di Rouge. Everyone from Ciara, Cardi B., Rick Ross, Moneybagg Yo, and Lil’ Kim among others. Now, as she nears the 10th anniversary of her brand this year, she’s aiming to inspire the next generation of women business owners live out their dreams.
“I want to be the mentor I didn’t have growing up,” she said. “We all deserve to create the life we want regardless of the life you were born into.”