Interview with Claire Rodrigues Lee, founder of Neon Army

Find out how Claire Rodrigues Lee turned her songwriting hobby into a multi-award winning, platinum album-selling career. And why she’s now launched fashion accessories brand Neon Army.

What’s your career background?

Although I studied at the London College of Fashion from school, my career path didn’t begin until I was 33. I had a really bright future ahead, having worked as a successful child model, assisted a top fashion stylist and had even sold poems to Simon Elvin Greeting cards.

I was only 17 years old. The reason why, was because I ended up in the wrong relationship. I met my ex at 17 and was pulled out of that relationship by my dad at 33 years old. Only now, I wasn’t 17 anymore, I was 33 and a shadow of the confident, outgoing girl I once was. He had completely broken me down. 

I went back to live with my parents and joined facebook. I reconnected with a friend I’d known as a teenager and she introduced me to a book called ‘The Secret’ on laws of attraction and how by changing your mindset, you can change your prospects. At this point, I literally had nothing left to lose so I bought the book and followed its mantras.

Something about the book really resonated with me and for the first time in a long time, I had a sense of clarity. This was a clean slate to do anything I wanted and it was finally time to live for me.

I’d always written songs as a hobby and at times, found it an escape from my reality. It was the only thing I felt truly passionate about and was willing to give it my all to turn professional. It was a huge risk given my age and with no prior success but ‘The Secret’ gave me the tools I needed to potentially make it happen. Of course it helped immensely having supportive parents on my side. 

I used Facebook as a networking tool and attended networking events which in turn lead to great connections. I eventually found myself sitting in front of John Saunderson, a top music publisher. He thought I was talented and was willing to give me a chance. He said to leave my songs with him and in the meantime, he would arrange co writes with his team to create new songs for my catalogue. 

Within a couple of weeks, I had my first cut and then the next came soon after.

Within a few years, I’d become an award winning songwriter having written over 20 number ones specialising in K-Pop, J-Pop and C-Pop. Through the laws of attraction, I also manifested love and two gorgeous children.

Then covid hit and songwriting went on hold as I raised my children in lockdown. I started shopping online and couldn’t find fashion I loved so turned to elevating my existing wardrobe. I started to up cycle my jackets and bags by painting positive affirmations on them, my favourite angel numbers 222 and sewing on patches and other trimmings.

A style was emerging and when lockdown measures eased, people would compliment my creations. This then became the lightbulb moment for Neon Army. A brand, specialising in handmade and beaded, vegan fashion accessories full of colour and positive affirmations. 

I launched the brand in June 2022 and we’ve since hosted pop ups in stores such as Harvey Nichols, John Lewis and Fenwick.

How did your career change after having children?

I had my first, Ella in 2016 so by this point, my career was already flourishing. I didn’t go back to work until she started nursery at 15 months old. 

Being a first time mum is amazing, overwhelming and exhausting so I allowed myself that time to be with her and to be kind to myself. I’d waited for so long to have her and I wanted to absorb every second of it. I got back into the flow of work but I didn’t want to travel abroad or be too far from the nursery, so I worked from my home studio and this worked well for me. 

Then my son, Jack was born in 2019 and then it became more challenging to navigate the work/life balance. Only a few months later, covid hit which was unknowingly about to change my career path.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Neon Army was my lockdown baby although at the time, I was creating fashion for my own pleasure. It was only because people loved what I was wearing that my brain kicked into business mode.

I started the process of drawing designs and sourcing manufacturers to bring my designs to life.

There were many influences in my style such as my music background (the colourful neon lights of Tokyo and Seoul), laws of attraction (positive affirmations) and angel numbers 222. These numbers have followed me on my journey since I was 33- they say when you see this number formation, you’re on the right path, making all the right choices and are exactly where you’re suppose to be.

The name Neon Army came almost immediately and it made so much sense to me. The brand is not just about the feel good factor of bright colours and beautiful handmade products about also about our powerful messages. Being strong, brave and courageous and going for your dreams is everything and the word ARMY encompasses that.

What’s your USP?

The brand was created authentically as its an extension of who I am and what I believe. The USP is that all our products come with positive messaging and the angel numbers 222. Our accessories are handmade, vegan, designed in London and created by specialist artisans in India.

Who’s your target audience?

Having hosted pop ups, I realise that our target audience is completely varied. It’s actually very interesting to see how across the board our customers are. It’s most definitely a cross generational brand and because it’s affordable luxury, it’s accessible to more customers. That’s what I love about it. That anyone can have a piece of Neon Army. Our customers are known as cadets!

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I’ll be honest. As a small business, its full on. I’m responsible for every aspect of the business from product design to accounts to hosting pop ups. Social media is of course the way forwards but that in itself is a full time job. It’s effective if you find the right formula and I’m still working that one out! I have a lot of respect for content creators as I know first hand how much work goes into getting the right photo let alone creating a reel.

For me, personally, a physical appearance is the best way to spread the word especially for a product business. Customers need to see, feel and try your product. They also need to see you, the founder and creator. No one can sell like you can. You are the story.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

Hosting pop ups is my most successful marketing strategy as it means brand awareness for my product as well as sales. Also, you never know who’s buying from you. I hosted a pop up at Soho House and unbeknownst to me, a few top influencers bought and shared on their socials. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Work-life balance. If I don’t have help with my children then I can’t commit to certain things. They come first. 

And your proudest moment so far?

I actually have two things I’m proud of.

When I launched Neon Army in June 2022, I knew I was about to have a double mastectomy at any given time. I was on the waiting list and was eventually given a date for October 2022, so I committed to hosting a pop up during Christmas week at John Lewis in Oxford Street.

This appointment was cancelled twice causing much chaos and stress for me but I was given a third date for November 22nd 2022 to have the op which left me with less than four weeks to recover before hosting the pop up. The surgery went ahead and I was on that shop floor from store open to close for 6 days straight. There really is nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.

The second thing I’m proud of was that I had a meeting with a big hotel group in Dubai in February 2023 which ended in a no. I was disappointed but refused to give up. Manifest as they say and I did for a whole year.

I went back and had another meeting with them in February 2024 which ended with a yes. Never give up. A no isn’t a no forever.

Why is work so important to you?

My children and my dog Daisy are my reasons to get up in the morning but I need ambition in my life. Presuming if you are reading this article then perhaps you’re a little bit like me. I want to be successful and I want to make a difference.

Work reminds me of my own individual purpose and while being a mum is a gift I don’t ever take for granted, I also want something for myself. I also want to set an example to my children the importance of both parents having their own goals and careers in life.

Who inspires you?

Women that have built business empires while also raising a family. As a woman with a startup and a young family myself, I can really appreciate the challenges they’ve faced to to build their empire. Melissa Odabash and Holly Tucker are just a couple of examples of mumpreneurs I aspire to. 

How do you balance your work with your family?

When the kids are at school, that’s my time. I usually walk the dog straight after school drop off and I find that walk in the fresh air really good for starting my day right. I then delegate the rest of the time for work and jobs I need to do at home. When they are home they are my priority. Once they’re in bed, I do tend to do more work or catch up on emails.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

  • There is no failure in not succeeding, only failure in not trying.
  • If you don’t back yourself, then no one else will.
  • A no isn’t a no forever.

Find out more about Neon Army.