Crown Affair’s Dianna Cohen On Creating An Intentional Hair-Care Brand

Photo: Courtesy of Crown Affair
In Refinery29's Talking Shop series, we're chatting with owners of up-and-coming small businesses about their experiences launching, the big challenges and wins they've faced, and of course, their products and services.
"I do Pilates now, and in one of the classes, the instructor was like 'Lift through the crown,' and everyone in the room just like stood up taller," Crown Affair founder Dianna Cohen tells me during a recent video call. "And I was like, yes, the crown really is so powerful." With a LinkedIn that boasts stints behind the scenes at Away, Outdoor Voices, and Into the Gloss (among other notable startups), it's no surprise that Cohen would one day be the visionary behind her own company. "I've always loved working with brands, founders, and products that changed the way people felt about themselves when they used them," she tells me of her journey to launching Crown Affair, the clean, elevated hair-care brand that elevates daily routines to ritual status.
Ahead, we chatted (virtually) with the founder herself about what it was like launching a business six weeks before the pandemic, getting into Sephora, and how she's inspiring people to love their hair.
Tell me about the origin story of Crown Affair. Were you always passionate about all things hair?
"It's always been my thing, even growing up. I grew up in South Florida, and kids would run and jump in a chlorinated pool, and I would head over to a bathroom and like dunk my head under the sink because I wanted to have like clean water instead of chlorinated water in my hair! Hair was also something that I always invested in — I got the Mason Pearson brush when I was younger, which is still a big-ticket item, and I remember that moment very viscerally."
Tell me about your work background prior to launching Crown Affair.
"I worked in New York for 10 years, but I didn't necessarily come from a big, corporate beauty company, which a lot of [beauty] founders do, which is an incredible experience. Hair has always been a part of my identity, and it was through conversations with my community that I realized that a lot of my core group felt super disempowered by their relationship to their hair; it's like, decades of commercials telling you what 'good hair' is."
I couldn't agree more with all of that. So tell me about the process of launching the business. How did the pandemic affect that?
"I started working on the brand during nights and weekends before the pandemic. I saved money from my brand consulting gigs, and I started reaching out to vendors — all before [conversations surrounding] supply chains and things like that were not as we know them today.
"I knew that I couldn't just launch a shampoo and conditioner because, firstly, I wanted to actually talk to people about what they were missing. But two, so much of building a brand is creating a visual literacy. That's really what I wanted to do with the towel, combs, and brushes.
"I started with finding vendors on the tool side, buying product, having friends try it, talking to people about the brand. I reached out to our former creative director at Away, Sho Shibuya, and met with him at the Crosby Street Hotel. I was like, I have an idea. Let's start to build it. So really just bringing people in my orbit even then. But there was a tipping point where I was like, If I'm going to place an order for 10,000 units of hair oil and hire people, I'm going to need to raise money. So I started that journey and was fortunate to have, you know, the experience that I had on the consumer side. But then locked in our investors. That was around the end of 2019, and we launched the company on January 28, 2020, six weeks or so before COVID hit."
What does your team look like now?
"The most important thing was always the people. We only had like four or five people on the team when we launched, so I used to get the question all the time, 'How did you scale back [in response to the pandemic?' And I'm like, 'There wasn’t much to scale back when you haven't scaled!' This new world we're living in has always been a part of our DNA.
"There are obviously tons of challenges with COVID, but it also was an incredible time for hair care as a category. People finally had time to take care of their hair at home or weren't rushing to their salon as much. I spoke to women early on [in the pandemic] who would get blowouts twice a week, and you just don't do that anymore. The behavior really changed.
"Our team is still pretty lean but also just the world is changing: I didn't know the word 'TikTok' when we launched the company, and now we're posting multiple ones a day. So that requires different resources and to be nimble with how people are actually discovering and shopping and sharing with each other."
Photo: Courtesy of Crown Affair
I totally agree. I also feel like folks are thinking about hair care as a form of self-care, too.
"That is the entire ethos and mission of the business. The hair industry has been using really loaded language that makes us not feel good about ourselves. But it's about the experience and ritual of taking time for yourself. I'm all about consistency in your rituals, whether it's with physical activity, nutrition, journaling — for me, my philosophy is the same with hair care. It’s not just that the products work and you see results, but really understanding how to feel really good about your hair and be the best version of themselves."
Tell us how you settled on the name for your brand.
"Once I got the name in my head, I was like, 'this is it.' But I was told by a lot of people to do a one-word name, or maybe a French word that has multiple meanings. But I always used to think, 'I'm sure when Tiffany [Masterson] was making Drunk Elephant, people around her were like, Excuse me, what's it called?'
"The name Crown Affair really came to me because I love The Thomas Crown Affair. Also, my husband and I met nine years ago at the Rene Magritte MoMA exhibit, which had the painting 'The Son of Man' — which was the painting in the final scene of the '90s version of The Thomas Crown Affair. I love that there are such deep art and cultural references in the brand. It's all the little Brâncuși things and kind of surrealist moments and Ed Ruscha references. It's a love affair with your crown in the literal sense."
Let’s talk about business wins — what are you most proud of so far? 
"I mean, [getting into] Sephora is a huge win because they're such an incredible partner from a distribution and prestige [standpoint]. They really check all of the boxes, and it means everything to have Sephora as a partner to share what Crown Affair's mission and vision is.
"I'm also very proud that every single one of our products has been approved by the Violet Code. What I love about Violet Grey — outside of the fact that that's where I shopped for hair care before launching Crown Affair — is they are incredibly intentional about making sure products work. To be standing next to Oribe and Christophe Robin, and other legacy brands that are on Violet Grey and knowing our formulas are up to par, especially as a new, clean brand? I'm really proud of that."
It’s no small feat!
"Also, Goop has been a really incredible partner. Gwyneth formally invested independently, on the Series A, so that was pretty cool. She found out about the brand through the buying team at Goop, brought the product home, and was like, 'This is amazing.' She really believes in the brand. I’m a GP fan obviously, but she tries a lot of stuff! The fact that she's been such a vocal supporter of the brand means a lot."
What has been your biggest business challenge to date?
"Well, it's so funny, you asked me earlier, like, what was starting your business like? Because I go back in my head, and I'm just like, the world is so different [now]. Like, everything [pre-pandemic] felt like endless possibilities. And I think just one of the challenges now is the reality of the world. It’s just a strange time right now with everything going on, and it’s the most important thing as a leader to put people first. Creating that space for my team is really important.
"I do wonder if I had the same idea for Crown Affair today, if I'd have the same momentum because there's so much stuff in the world now. And I deeply believe in only launching things that are better and serve a purpose."
What is your ultimate goal with your brand?
"I just want everyone who doesn't realize what their hair is capable of. Skin care within the last decade has seen such a movement, and hair care has been an afterthought for a long time — unless it's a styling moment. I really want people to take their time to find a ritual and use better products. That is the vision. I really want to spend the next decade growing and hopefully changing the way people relate to their hair. I have to do this because it's what I genuinely love doing every day."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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