Hannah Lavon: Sock it to us!

I admit, I’m a sock person. I enjoy a good colorful or whimsical sock. I think some of it stems from my many years on the karaoke stage where my ankles were about eye level with folks on the floor. I always got a kick when patrons would bring me a pair of festive socks as a gift. So I was pleased as punch to meet this week’s Portrait, the queen of whimsical socks, Hannah Lavon. Her company produces PALS Socks, socks that are not only fun, but that can be a catalyst for change. Their aim is to “create a more open-minded, more empathetic and more colorful world” through every single pair of PALS. 

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m originally from Long Island, but I haven’t been there since I graduated high school. 

You don’t say Long-Guy-land, where’s your accent?

I think if you listen long enough you’ll hear a little taste of it. Enough to tell I’m a Jew from New York! 

And the fam?

My dad was an engineer and my mom was in marketing, before getting pregnant and becoming a housewife, which was a waste of her MBA, right? My sister is also an engineer, so I always thought that I was the weirdo and the stupid one in the family and that they were all the intellectuals. Not me, I was never in the gifted classes or any of that. But my dad’s dad and his sister were artists and I was really creative. That was my thing.

But you did get to college, so brava. 

Yes, I went to Syracuse and got a BFA in the advertising/design programs with the goal of becoming an Art Director for an advertising firm, but I soon found out that I’m very bad at office politics. I’m not good at small talk and being fake and playing the game. I did the work because I was good at it, but it wasn’t the career I’d hoped for. 

And I’d imagine it could be a bit misogynist.

Well, I only ever worked for one woman who was a creative director, the rest were all white men, so I guess you’re not wrong! 

How did you make the transition to working for yourself?

One of my mom’s side gigs was that she used to sell novelty Jewish products online, or on the world wide web, as they said then, and I would go with her to the trade show in NY. I was in college, or maybe recently out of college, but anyway, I would see all these really creative people and it was really cool. It hadn’t occurred to me, before that, that to make stuff and sell it could be a career. They were living a dream to me. That was the seed for the idea to go do something different. 

I started out with paper products making greeting cards and other things. I got into doing toilet seat covers and mugs and a bunch of stuff. I started with $600 and sold enough to make my first wearable products which were mittens. I sold them for about 4 years while I was freelancing in design and came to a point where I didn’t want it to be a side hustle anymore. Mittens were seasonal so you only had about two months to sell them, not a great model. And I was thinking I wanted something that had meaning for me. I wanted to help make the world a friendlier place by helping to inspire our youth by physically showing through cool socks how beautiful it can be when we’re different and all that that implies. The premise that not having to be alike to get along was an appealing idea to me, especially for kids. Though it’s funny, we have a lot of adults buying socks too. We started out geared more towards kids but now we’re leaning towards products for all ages.

Your PALS come in different pairings like chips and guac, gingerbread and candy cane, giant gorilla and mutant lizard. Did you come up with all the original designs?

Yes, I did all the originals and now we’ve invited collaborations that are designed by different artists.

You have such fun and cool colors, what inspires you?

I’ve definitely been inspired by kitsch and old cartoons. I used to be into old school Nickelodeon; I still am! There’s so much that inspires me, all the great art that comes out of Tokyo. I love all the weird, wacky things that give you a good feeling. Even the silly trashy things like “90 Day Fiancé” and other things that provide an escape can be an inspiration. 

I want to know which socks were inspired by that show! What was your favorite illustrated book as a kid? 

One of my most favorite books as a kid was called, “Balloonia” by Audrey Wood. It was done almost in the style of a graphic novel, about a girl who travels to the land of Balloonia, where all balloons come from. The artwork was really cool. I still have it, and now my toddler is obsessed with it and it’s one of her favorite books! 

Full circle! So where did you develop your desire to be so inclusive in all you do?

I grew up in a very conformist town where it was not cool to be different, it was fit in or die. I’m from Great Neck, and it’s a very conservative area and not a great place if you’re an independent thinker, and as someone who was different, it was difficult. Because it was a heavily Jewish area, I didn’t face much anti-semitism, but I definitely felt on the outside. I wasn’t in a clique, I had a few friends, but I was a floater. I also had a mild stutter so I got teased, and I was very athletic. A lot of the boys who were emasculated by that used to say very unpleasant things to me. Because, you know, I was better at sports than them. And then being a part of the LGBTQ community and female, and a Jew, I took all of that and made it the mission of PALS to be more open minded and adventurous and to build community. Because when you see a person wearing PALS socks, you know that they’re a little weird and that you could be friends with them. You know that they are probably going to have similar values, and they know that you’re not a shitty person. You’re the kind of person who wants to meet people from all walks of life and make friends with someone who may not be just like you.  And they also create conversations, because people see them and respond to them so it’s, “Why don’t they match? What’s the meaning?” And then “Where did you get them!” Instant bonding. 

Well, it certainly seems like it’s been successful, you’ve sold over 1 million pairs in 800+ boutiques worldwide, and you’ve been featured on Forbes, Good Morning America, Romper, The Bump, Parents Mag and in the new book “Girls Who Run the World” by Diana Kapp!  And you’ve done an amazing amount of charitable work! 

We try. 

You do more than that, I read that you have helped secure over $250,000 for charities and that the company has donated thousands of socks to children in need.

True, we have a fundraising program where we partner with schools and different non-profits where they sell the socks and get to keep about 50% of the profits. It’s been really great at helping groups raise money and feel good about offering something that’s been ethically sourced, with no child labor involved. We use companies that are certified for paying fair wages and use sustainable resources and we use eco-friendly practices to reduce our carbon footprint. We were just a part of World Down Syndrome Day. I don’t know if you know this but for March 21, which is World Down Syndrome Day, people wear mismatched socks to spread awareness. We do a big fundraiser and we’re going to donate around $40,000 in a few weeks. 

That’s incredible! 

Do you know our mission/concept for PALS? The best PALS are the ones who expose you to all of the good things that life has to offer, so when you wear these mismatched PALS socks you flaunt our manifeetsto of creating a friendly, vibrant, more open minded world.

Not to keep promoting it instead of talking about you, but it’s such a great company I can’t help it.  You have more than just socks, correct? 

[Laughing] I appreciate it!  Yeah, we have a lot of things for kids, masks and coloring books, collecting boxes and our popular see through Peek-A-Boots, they’re clear so people can see your socks and they’re mad cool. We’ve had requests to make them in adult size so that should be coming soon. And we have socks for adults too, whether you’ve reproduced or not!

Congratulations on all your success. 

Thank you for saying that. You know, I don’t think of PALS as successful. We’ve had a few setbacks last year financially with things not having to do with sales. I know compared to many other small businesses, we’ve been very lucky, but I don’t think a lot of people in Philly even know that we’re here, which can be frustrating. We’re not rolling in the dough, but I am grateful that we’ve been able to do what we’ve done so far. 

Well, the founder of Philadanco Dance Company used to say, we sell out all over the world, except here in Philadelphia where we barely get noticed. By the way, when did you move to Philly?

I moved here in 2016, right after Trump was elected, ugh, the worst time to move. It’s funny, I had a red, “Make America GAY Again” hat that I got at an HRC fundraiser. When I was moving in, my neighbor saw it in my car and thought it was a MAGA hat. She flipped out and started to cry at the thought of what kind of people were moving in next door. The story is that she felt like smashing my window until she got up to the car and got a close look at it and saw what it really said. She laughed/cried her face off and then rang my doorbell because she just had to meet me. 

That is funny. And now you’re a wife and mommy here in the city of Sisterly Affection. 

Yes, I met Jen in New York in 2011. We met on OKCupid, which probably dates me. We got married in 2015. She is an attorney. FYI, I think every good creative needs a good lawyer. It’s good, she has no interest in the business, she’s just a great advisor and a smart person who I can get honest feedback from. 

What are your toddler’s favorite pair of socks?

She’s a great spokes-baby because she loves all of them. She knows the different pairings and what they’re called. Donut and ice cream is probably her favorite pair. We also did a collaboration with an artist, Jason Naylor and he has a really colorful set, Shy & Outgoing which she also really loves. 

She’s two now. What was the craziest moment with her?

[Laughing] When she was born! I was in the delivery room with Jen and it was crazy to see everything that goes on. It definitely made me realize that I NEVER want to give birth! The whole giving birth, the afterbirth and all and I was like, “Oh, I’m good.” I like being daddy! 

I hear that. I’m good with being an aunt.  What’s the best part?

The best part? Seeing her development and how she’ll develop an interest in the things I love. For instance, I love Spongebob and now she’s super into it too. She knows the theme song and all the characters, it’s hilarious. They’re like sponges themselves at that age. She’s also really interested in science and nature and outer space, which is cool for a two year old. It’s amazing watching her grow and get her own personality but take in the things she learns from us.  

Okay, let’s do some rapid fire questions. You have factories in other countries. Are you a travel bug? What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?

I am! I love traveling. I’ve been to Asia a bunch of times, and my wife is from Guam, so we’ve gone there a lot. It’s a place I think not many people have gone to. Myanmar? I’m not sure which is the farthest. 

Don’t ask me, I love to travel but geography is my worst subject. What’s the first LGBTQ movie you ever watched?

“But I’m a Cheerleader”. Or maybe a John Waters film… No, it was “But I’m a Cheerleader”.

That’s a good one. Mine was “Desert Hearts”. It was one of the first lesbian films shown in mainstream theaters. 

I have to look that up.

It’s a classic. Other than your socks, what’s a conversation piece in your house?

I have SO many conversation pieces. I think I’ve created a crazy museum of fun and weird things in my house. I have a pretty robust collection of original “My Little Ponies” as well as a Popples collection and an original 90’s collection of Wish Trolls. I also have my original She-Ra: Princess of Power on her horse. I have a ridiculously large toy collection. 

If you were a Smurf, what would your name be?

I’d say Sleepy Smurf. With a Toddler in the house you’re always sleep deprived. 

Do you have a favorite motto or quote?

A few, but the one on my desktop right now says, “If you’re not an early bloomer or a late bloomer, you’re probably some kind of super cool fern or an incredibly fascinating species of moss.” 

From what I know of you, that seems apropos.