How a Kentucky-Born Musician Used the Pandemic to Launch a Fashion Brand from Bali The story of how Hartwell Sawyer started cult-favorite fashion brand Royal Codes.
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When it comes to expressing herself through fashion, double standards are a quagmire 34- year-old Hartwell Sawyer understands all too well.
One of five siblings raised in conservative Versailles, Kentucky, the co-founder of the bohemian cult favorite fashion brand Royal Codes recalls a closet full of androgynous jeans, cowboy boots and boxy t-shirts. In a small town where athleticism yielded popularity, being artistic and musical left Hart to accept being on the outside.
Sawyer later moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, but the scrutiny continued. Confronted with the harsh reality of being one of many young women with a song and a dream, Sawyer experienced pressure to conform to the "LA look": a slim, taut, airbrushed body primed for inspection at every angle. There were professional breakthroughs; she performed at Coachella and concerts all around LA and has numerous songs out on Spotify. Yet the city's brutal demands and her own worsening diagnosis of interstitial cystitis became increasingly suffocating. "As much as I found creativity, it was such a competitive environment that I always felt closed off, disconnected. I could never fully flourish," she says. "Women were constantly tearing each other down rather than supporting one another."
Seeking an off ramp from the conveyor belt of the Los Angeles music industry, Sawyer moved to Canggu, Bali with her best friend and business partner Ryan Fontana. The relocation allowed the musician to tap into a new audience — and crucially, herself. "I realized that I'm like an exotic flower. When I transplanted myself here, my creativity, feminine essence and expression underwent a process of expansion. Everything unfurled and became safer, radiant, softer," she explains.
It was in the soft embrace of this tropical paradise that Royal Codes was born. Sawyer had long been designing and performing in unusual dresses herself, often with stylistic nods to antiquity and royalty. But when the pandemic hit, concert cancelations gave her the space to finally lean into other passions and find a new way to support herself while creating value in the world.
Today, Royal Codes is a fully fledged clothing line with a loyal community of women empowering one another across the globe, reaching as far as Austria, Denmark, America, Germany, Canada, Malta, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Israel. Although the company comfortably profits in the multi-six figures, it maintains a commitment to philanthropy by donating money to local Balinese food fundraisers and giving sets away monthly to women in need. All pieces are handmade by a family in Bali and primarily utilize natural fibers such as bamboo and cotton. Sawyer selects fabrics based on their ability to achieve the feeling of comfort and confidence in your body: "It's important to me that everything I create is stretchy and comfortable. Clothing should be understanding of our day-to-day lives and forgiving of changes in our bodies. If it's too restrictive and uncomfortable, I literally can't wear it," insists the entrepreneur.
Sawyer hasn't forgotten the bullying, struggle with self worth and impossible double standards of the entertainment business. Rather, she uses the wisdom accumulated from her experiences to help other women discover their "inner goddesses" and more authentically navigate their personal and professional endeavors.
With its slogan "sexy, classy, comfy," Sawyer hopes Royal Codes inspires women to relinquish their insecurities and celebrate their innate sensuality. "Women are divine creatures. When we feel empowered, confident, worthy — that is when we are fully connected to the higher power. That is when we are our most beautiful."
In a candid conversation, Sawyer spoke about the unconventional journey from musician to fashion entrepreneur, how Royal Codes helped her to reclaim her body when dealing with her own chronic illness, and how her designs empower women to feel comfortable in their bodies.
How did you start Royal Codes?
For the past seven years of my music career, I wore these handmade pieces. When women asked me where I got them and heard that I made them myself, they would ask if they could purchase their own. I would tell them, "I only make them for myself." In part, I think I just liked feeling unique, but I also was so sick and drained in LA that I didn't have the energy to share my vision with others.
In Bali, my friends saw my outfits on my Instagram stories, and they had seen the transformation I was undergoing. My body was feeling better, which was improving my ability to connect with others out in the world and on social media.
I started to do fittings with women where I would bring a suitcase full of pieces I had made, and these were always a transformational experience. I could see and feel how women wanted to connect to their sensuality and femininity, and they wanted to be comfortable in their own skin while doing it. When they saw themselves in the garments, they would start crying almost every time. I didn't even have a business name or a real brand yet, I just had a passion. We started simple and grew organically.
When did you first start producing/designing clothes?
When I was seven, I realized that I wanted to feel more feminine. I took my brother's tank tops and clothes from thrift stores and cut them to make cute little dresses. I kept doing this throughout my teens. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found an amazing seamstress and designer who took my ideas and patterns and helped make dresses out of them. That's when I made the first iteration of the Royal Codes Cleopatra set, and that's when people started asking me where they could buy it.
Where does your fascination with ancient times come from?
I truly believe that all women — when we tap into ourselves — have this ancient intuition. I am here to help women activate that magic and creativity. From a professional standpoint, it is at the core of my business.
All of your clothes are handmade by a family in Bali. Can you tell me a little bit about the production process?
The process is beautiful and can take some time. I work with an incredible tailor — he is a master at what he does. Sometimes I draw something and bring it to him, other times we create the design together. I can bring him a handmade physical sample and he envisions a more refined, elegant version of it.
Sometimes it takes several months to finalize the process. He will make a sample for me to try on, make some notes, and send back. A lot of the time you'll find me at this big table, covered in samples, fabrics and needles, tape, pens and markers, making subtle changes; a half centimeter here, a quarter centimeter there. Then I return that deconstructed version.
Every detail is handmade and created in Bali. Even for the small metal details — we work with a master goldsmith who uses brass, sterling and gold plating.
You wrote, "One of the reasons I love designing is because of the way the clothes help me feel: Powerful, strong, beautiful. But the best feeling is when you feel stoked to live in your body. I believe everyone can feel sexy, and everyone deserves to." Can you tell me more about this?
Any person who has found success knows that if they talk about periods in their life where they struggled and had doubts, it makes their success feel that much more special.
I struggled so much with my identity and my body. I remember when I started modeling at a young age — my mom was a professional model — I felt enormously pressured to be skinny, to have a thin waistline. I started developing toxic habits like under eating. When I took a meditation class, I realized that I had a negative voice that was playing in my head: "You are fat," "You are ugly," "You don't deserve that."
And then I got a chronic illness called interstitial cystitis. I had pain, digestive issues and my weight was constantly fluctuating by 10 to 15 pounds. I felt so disconnected. I was cut off from feeling sensual, despite being in a healthy relationship.
Last year, my pain finally subsided, and I had more physical and emotional energy to put into my business. I had previously been hiding my struggles because I didn't want to look weak, but all it did was further cut me off from myself. That's why part of our messaging is around supporting women through the process of connecting to their own mind and spirit, because I went through such a painful journey of separation.
What lessons have you learned through your entrepreneurial journey?
One fundamental thing that I've come to realize is that what you go to college for isn't always what you end up doing in life as your main source of income. Being an entrepreneur means studying on your own time, thinking on your feet, expanding as your interests and curiosities grow. When I started Royal Codes, some part of me was caught up in thinking that I should be making a living from music alone because that's what I went to school for, but it's beautiful to not put all of your eggs in one basket.
Perhaps the greatest lesson has been the importance of hiring support. I grew up working for my parents' business and a lot of the time we worked as a family, even though we really needed additional help. There was so much strain, and without hiring more support and investing in the value of other people it was really stressful.
Because of that experience, I have always put a lot of pressure on myself to wear so many hats, and what I've learned with Royal Codes is how valuable it is to show up as a leader and be able to ask for support. It's like building pillars in a house. Now, we have 25 or so people in all different arenas helping us to build the business — they all show up with such heart and devotion. I look at hiring as energy and time that I'm gaining, rather than money the company is losing.
What was it like to pivot from music to entrepreneurship?
I'm still devoted to music, but when it was my sole pursuit I felt like there was too much strain on it. With music, I realized that I learned so much in school about how to write and perform and create, but I was never taught how to use music to make money. It's really important to learn these things — how do I market myself? How do I make success happen?
Being able to focus more on Royal Codes has been one of the best things to happen to me in my life. It happened right around Covid, when there were no more opportunities to perform my music in public. Being able to be home and focus on this craft has since allowed me to be able to fund my passion for music with the desire and hope that this investment will have a positive return."
What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business?
Something that might sound obvious but isn't always, is that starting a business should fundamentally come from your passion. If you're doing something based solely on the money you feel you could make, it will ultimately feel soulless and disconnected.
Additionally, it's really crucial to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Lean into the strengths, and consider the areas where others could show up better — that's where there is room to hire.
Teamwork is so crucial, and finding people who align with your mission and connect with the dream you've built around it will help you to succeed.