Small steps, all good, for girls in the hood

To Infinity and beyond: Laurie Russo and her daughters -- Sarah (center) and Melissa Wandursky -- in the "Funderdome."

From the Big Picture file comes Laura Alison Design, the functionally fashionable Huntington startup boasting the trendy “Infinity Collection” and an infinite amount of patience.

Well, perhaps not infinite patience. But founder Laurie Russo – a professional hairdresser who cut into entrepreneurism when the unique hooded scarves she handcrafted for her daughters generated sudden and significant interest – is certainly a champion of the long view.

Now seven years since she incorporated L M Web and Design (dba Laura Alison Design), the founder and her fledgling fashion empire have taken only small steps – but they are all forward steps, Russo noted, each positioning the startup for a potential breakout.

Take, for instance, Laura Alison Design’s “failed” 2016 Kickstarter campaign. Targeting $7,000, the late-summer crowdfunding effort raised only $3,746 in pledges – but it was worth 10 times that in terms of exposure, according to Russo.

“We sold pieces all over the world,” she told Innovate LI. “We sold pieces to Switzerland, to India, to Australia, to Canada, all based on connections made through the Kickstarter campaign.”

The same theme repeated this summer, when Laura Alison Design enjoyed 15 minutes of fame as a contestant on “Steve Harvey’s Funderdome,” an ABC Network game show pitting entrepreneurs in one-on-one pitch-offs for thousands of dollars in startup capital.

With $20,000 up for grabs, Russo and her Hooded Infinity Sports Towel were bested by a Utah inventor pitching “ZeroSweat,” a once-a-week antiperspirant. But the Long Island entrepreneur and her partners, daughter Sarah and Melissa Wandursky, were still thrilled with their network-television debut.

“We did not win,” Russo said. “But we did win, because we got national exposure, and that was the whole point.”

And more than a little local exposure, too. Not only has Laura Alison Design’s e-commerce site sold some 350 units since the Aug. 13 “Funderdome” airing, but Team Infinity has been making the media rounds, with Melissa Wandursky appearing on a local news broadcast in her Wyoming hometown and the family being featured by Long Islander News and other regional publications.

“When you’re a small Long Island company, it’s very hard to let the world know who you are,” Russo noted. “We want to get our product out and have people find out about it.

“We’re trying to brand ourselves, and that’s the most important thing right now.”

And even if she thought the network-TV exposure would generate a slightly bigger sales bump, 350 units is “a great start,” the entrepreneur added – and again, perhaps not the most important metric.

“Through ‘Funderdome,’ we sold pieces all over the country and in Canada,” Russo said. “That’s really fun and exciting, to connect with new people like that.”

All she wants is what’s beyond Funderdome: Laura Alison Design didn’t triumph on Steve Harvey’s game show — though maybe it did, according to Russo.

Such connections represent important steps toward Laura Alison Design’s projected big enchilada: professional (and collegiate) merchandising, a natural form-meets-function-meets-fandom trifecta for HoodiFit Infinity Towels designed specifically for the workout set.

“The whole idea is I want to get into is sports licensing,” Russo noted. “That’s my dream for the piece.”

The seven-year-old startup is taking a ginormous sprint in that direction this month. Some 500 Hooded Infinity Sports Towels are being distributed free to lucky attendees of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, thanks to a personal connection between Russo and a higher-up at Samsung subsidiary Harman International Industries.

Harman International, a Connecticut-based provider of “connected car technologies” and related tech, has branded the Infinity towels with Harman and JBL-brand logos and is sharing them with guests in Harman’s box at the National Tennis Center in Flushing.

Russo, who was in the box Aug. 28 to see Venus Williams win her opening-round match of the Grand Slam tournament, said the exposure provided by Harman International was already paying off.

“We’ve been getting a lot of hits on our website via the U.S. Open,” she said. “A lot of great feedback from the guests. Now that they have their pieces, they need to start wearing them for word to really spread.”

Laura Alison Design will take a more altruistic bent during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The startup plans to donate 10 percent of proceeds from a limited-edition piece – embroidered with the traditional pink breast cancer ribbon and the words “strength, courage, fight” – to

Russo said her Sri Lankan manufacturer will produce the breast cancer-embroidered towels to order, and is ready to fill plenty of orders. So far in 2017, the manufacturer has churned out roughly 1,200 units – the 500 U.S. Open promotional pieces and another 700 units in anticipation of a “Funderdome” bump – and has enough material to produce 10,000 more, according to the chief executive.

Russo hopes to dig into those natural-cotton reserves big-time in 2018. With her team designing a new Infinity scarf with a waterproof hood – “We’ve had a lot of requests for that” – and the CEO targeting two major-league-sports-marketing conventions in Las Vegas in January (the 2018 Sports Licensing and Tailgating Show and Promotional Products Association International’s 2018 Expo), the hairdresser-turned-fashion maven believes the big-picture approach has created big-time potential, particularly for the HoodiFit Infinity Towel.

“I see this going to the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and collegiate sports,” Russo said. “These make sense as promotional pieces, because you can wear them as part of your workout gear.

“So, it’s not just promotional,” she added. “They’re actually functional.”

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