How A Gym Mishap Led To The Rise Of ICONI, An Activewear Brand Started By An Air Force Vet

ICONI activewear Team picture


Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Angel Johnson dreamed of being an attorney. She instead chose a path centered around service to her country, attending college at the Citadel military college on her way to an eight-year-career in the United States Air Force as an intelligence officer.

An embarrassing accident while serving, however, changed her career outlook.

Johnson had always been passionate about working out and was doing squats in a gym when her workout tights gave way.

“I was tired of having active wear that was not squat-proof in the gym,” she said. “I was spending tons of money on leggings and then they would be see-through, which is embarrassing—especially in a military gym. And I knew that if I was dealing with the problem of see-through activewear, then other people were definitely experiencing it. So why not create a solution?”

Angel Johnson, founder ICONI


While still serving in the Air Force in early 2020, Johnson’s newfound passion drove her to launch the motivational activewear brand ICONI (which stands for “I Can Overcome, Nothing’s Impossible”). Her initial plan was to sell products in gyms where she could meet customers face-to-face. But the realities of COVID-19 changed everything. Johnson instead began using social media to build a community around her product concepts. This allowed her to better understand consumer appetites, to preview what the company’s first collection would look like, and to take a truly inclusive approach towards meeting customer demands—such as offering sizes like 4XL.

“We started connecting with potential customers before we even had a product to sell them and were already providing value with fitness tips and home workouts during the pandemic,” Johnson noted. “I got my very first client that was not a family member or friend through social media and it was magical. It was so exciting knowing that a complete stranger bought into my brand.”

The Birth and Evolution of ICONI

Johnson’s startup was no venture capital darling at first. She bootstrapped cash any way she could, using the money she saved from deployments and temporary duty assignments to purchase supplies and inventory.

Then came her big break while still in the Air Force: ICONI was named to the 2020 Oprah’s Favorite Things list by Oprah Winfrey.

“Being on Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2020 made me realize that this was not just a hobby and that ICONI really had the potential to be the next great activewear line,” added Johnson.

Winfrey’s endorsement changed Johnson’s business dramatically. She estimates more products were sold the month following the Favorite Things listing than the rest of the year. And since then, the trajectory has been a gradual, upward climb.

Initially, sales were focused on 50 items at a time. Now, however, the company manages worldwide sales in the tens of thousands. But it has not been a seamless transition from the military into the private sector.

“I was an active-duty Air Force officer for eight years,” she said. “I’m used to every word from a general’s mouth being my number one priority. When I became the CEO of my own company, I had to learn that everything’s not a priority or urgent. I had to unlearn those habits which helped me lower my stress levels, focus on ICONI’s key growth areas and actually get more done.”

ICONI Back To Basics collection


ICONI’s Mission and Community Support

Another priority for Johnson as ICONI has grown has been to find additional ways to support communities and people in need. Thus, the company donates 10 percent of its profits to charity, which has included Clothes To Kids of Denver, Minnesota Freedom Fund, and the Healing Wings Foundation among others. At the end of the day, however, Johnson is all about being solution-oriented.

“At the end of the day, we are solving the problem of people not feeling confident in the gym due to ill-fitting, see-through, and non-supportive activewear,” she said. “When people do not feel confident in their workout setting, they are less likely to stay consistent and motivated, which in turn negatively impacts their health and wellness. Our focus is to ensure our customers can focus on their workouts, instead of see-through, non-supportive, low-quality, and boring activewear. We want our customers to know we are right there with them on their fitness journeys.”

Aaron Perlut is a writer, host of the Load Out Music Podcast, the front man for country-rock band Atomic Junkshot, and the founder of creative agency Elasticity.