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Melissa Legger meets Lisa Crosswhite to talk God, gear and online indi design retailer Gnossem …

WHO is Lisa Crosswhite?

I am an artist at heart who somehow decided that it was a good idea that I should start a retail business – I love building things and exploring the boundaries in life, conceptualising ideas, and giving myself to the execution process. I like being excited about my work, my friends, my lover …

If I’m not I sink like a deflated balloon. I’m extremely independent, and a lover of liberty. I like being around people who feel absolutely free to be themselves, and hold themselves to a moral obligation to be true to whatever that is.

Are you a lover or a fighter?

I am intensely both. I am so emotionally transparent that if you piss me off, or I see an injustice, it’s very difficult to hold back. This aggression is a utility in business, when channelled appropriately, but the channelling process is difficult when your fire is not easily tamed. Similarly, when I love someone I can’t be bothered to hold back the ocean. The best feeling in the world is being in love with a beautiful soul, and just being absolutely in awe of them.


Tell us how you grew up …

My first memories were from a tiny little German immigrant town in Manitoba, Canada. I lived there from ages three to eight and helped my dad chop wood; my mom made jam from wild berries around our house. They were both pharmacists who met in college in Winnipeg – Canada’s ugliest city. My mom was the only Chinese person in that little town and we were the weird little “halfer” kids. We then moved to one of the most beautiful places in Canada, the Okanagan Valley. This is our Napa Valley – full of rolling hills of vineyards and orchards … it was lovely … I had a very Christian upbringing. We went to a private school where we weren’t allowed to say, “oh my God”.

And as it goes for typical Chinese immigrants’ children, we were pushed to be over-achievers in everything … from piano, to ballet, to figure skating, to swimming, to karate, to extra-curricular math. When I was 12, my parent’s split, and my mom moved us to Vancouver.

I was a crazy rebellious teenager. I had given up the church I was raised with, I had no curfew, I was clubbing at 14 and rolling with drug dealers. I was totally mad at the world. I did go to college, however, and began travelling all over Asia for modelling work. I grew up a bit …

Who were your heroes when you were 10?

Probably God. I was raised very Christian, and in a very strict, dogmatic, Baptist, sort of way. We had to rehearse paragraphs of scripture by heart, and mistakes were disciplined. I remember being very close to God as a kid – and when I think back, it was my childlike brainwashed version of connecting with the energy of the universe as a whole. I would pray and cry, and ask God to make the whole world a better place. It was nice to feel something deep.


What was the tipple you first got drunk on?

I think it was like Bacardi Breezers or something lame like that. I was out drinking with a few kids – we were 13 – and someone’s older brother had booted for us. We were at our middle school park at night, like total hooligans, thinking we were so badass.

How did you become a model?

I was discovered by the same dude who discovered Coco Rocha in Vancouver. We were at the same mother agency. Given that she is much better looking than I am, she became a total supermodel and I didn’t. I was asked if I’d be keen on modelling in Asia where they were apparently into the “half-Asian look”, and I thought, “why not?!” So I began getting overseas contracts from age 19 and throughout college. I spent more time travelling my last few years of college than at home. I stopped modelling when I graduated.


Where did your business name, Gnossem, come from?

I made it up. It’s based on the Gnossiennes by Erik Satie – a French composer. I wanted something short but weird. Something slightly different, as our brand and product stands for independent taste … it had to be off the beaten track. I found out later that it’s a master number 11 in numerology, which is also one of my key numbers. Something about the name just felt right. Over time, I’ve thought to change it tons of times as its phonetically difficult for some people (the “g” is silent, as in gnome), but it just stuck.

Have you always known you were going to be successful in business?

Not at all … I never even thought of going into business until I was bored and demotivated at my previous job. I was researching some stuff for an advertising client and thought, “geez, e-commerce has such a scope for further growth, and independent style is not that easy to find online … why don’t I try to build the solution”. To be honest, I was planning to go into something a lot more nerdy. I had studied political science in college, graduated on the Dean’s List, and was considering doing a Master’s Degree in public policy. My family is full of nerds and artists. A few people, like my mother, also run businesses now but for the most part we are not the most business-minded bunch. Even now, I wouldn’t consider Gnossem or myself highly successful. I will, once we have millions of customers worldwide who absolutely love our stuff. We do, however, try very hard.


How did you handle the rapid growth in your company?

Through repeated fire-fighting. Until recently, it was only me at the helm, and there was a plethora of crises to attend to. While there was groundwork that we were building on, much of the day-to-day operations were about fixing leaky holes as we grew. We didn’t have time to just dock the ship, repair and then set off again. The most important thing to handling growth is focus.

It’s been key to me to understand what our focus is each week, and make sure this is clearly communicated through the team, so we can efficiently achieve our goals. I’ve also learned that you can run much faster with the right people. The wrong people just sit on the mountain, adding dead weight.

Gnossem’s Instagram tagline is “Style For The Unboring Woman”. Define Unboring …

Unboring is not boring. Boring is beige opinions, not caring about what you do or how you do it. Boring is dressing and acting like a generic product of your culture. Not caring to find yourself. It’s mundane conversation. It’s living life out of obligation to a set of beliefs that you don’t care to challenge. It’s cheap thrills, like Miley Cyrus riding a wrecking ball. It’s the expected. There are large numbers of unboring people out there. I hang with them all the time. I work with them. I am inspired by them. They are the kind of folk who listen to their heart and spirit, and do things in their own way.


Are you happy?

My emotional default state is happy! I had a few years of being default depressed. Work and social life can keep you busy, but it’s when you’ve disconnected and you’re alone that you can feel what your default is. Being default happy is the product of getting all your ducks in order, personally and professionally, as well as reminding yourself on a daily basis how lucky you are. I love feeling grateful. There is so much to be grateful for.