The Evolution of a Maker and Their Brand: Growing Operations
Last week, I highlighted the backstories of some of the decisions I made while starting my business: which fabrics I began working with, which types of designs I decided to offer, and how I first embarked on the small-scale manufacturing of my orders.
The next big thing that happened in the evolution of my business, after deciding to focus on textiles, was that I decided to scale up. It was an exciting move, in which my company witnessed 100% growth… I brought on one other person. :-]
To be honest, I was surprised by how rusty my stitching skills were. (Turns out I’d underestimated the difficulty of yielding straight lines when stitching silk charmeuse to velvet!) I hired Maria Louisa, and we worked together out of my loft on Grand Street, responding to the purchase orders that were coming in from my stockists like Barneys and Neiman Marcus. I was a bit particular, and she was a bit of a diva, but we ended up laughing a lot and developing our skills together—my Spanish language skills, and her seamstress skills! When I later moved production from my apartment into my first storefront on Crosby Street (more on that move in Design Talk Article no. 3), I brought on another sewer to help out of that space, and one more to work from my apartment studio. I had now firmly established myself as a micro-manufacturer, training new employees as I hired them.
Because I was still small-scale and self-financed (in fact, I still am), I had to get creative with the fabrics I was able to source. As I detailed last week, I was lucky enough to be able to pull in favors from my years of working in fashion, and could order very small quantities of fabrics instead of the usual high and expensive minimums. Thus, I started by working with very basic fabric types that were “stocked”, versus new fabrics that were woven from scratch. In order to make these basic—but available—fabrics more interesting, I had to do some designer problem solving. For example, I worked with Ultrasuede because I could cut it and wouldn’t have to turn back the edges of the fabric, enabling me to do intricate things utilizing the full yardage with almost zero wastage. I also developed my own appliqué technique using minimal seams and cuts to reduce the amount of labor. This technique proved challenging to teach to my seamstresses and, along with my other designs, required a mentality of economics: how many turns will this pattern yield? In other words, how long will this realistically take to teach, and for the seamstresses to make? Is it a worthwhile creative pursuit? With economic parameters came design parameters, and these necessary boundaries forced me to get creative, ultimately moving me toward innovation.
Beyond textiles, I moved into wallpaper. I had always been an illustrator and a painter, so printing my hand drawn patterns for the wallpaper felt like a natural extension of my design practice and business. All my wallpapers are screen-printed, versus digitally printed, which means each color in the illustration or pattern requires a new (expensive) screen to be cut, and requires its own pass of the printer. It’s quite involved, but I find the quality of this type of wallpaper manufacturing gives the finished product much more warmth and dimensionality than otherwise. Another reason I choose to manufacture my wallpapers this way is that screen-printing permits metallic inks. I love their reflective quality, the way they interplay with light and movement in a room; even printed on dark colors or put up in dark rooms, metallic colors tend to add light to a space. (I’m all about that shiny bling —jewelry, brass, lighting design —but usually paired with something less precious, like matte paper or, like in my textiles, metallic leather with nubby linen for a true texture mix.)
By a combination of chance and a growing fervent interest, designing lighting came next. A friend of a friend had moved to Sarajevo, and saw an opportunity to work with the Balkan region’s traditional copper- and brass-spinning craftspeople. I began working with Bruce Gilardi to bring a modern sensibility to the traditional process and fabricate my lighting designs, which are assembled, along with other components, in my studio in New York. The domes and discs of my designs begin, in fabrication, as flat pieces of metal, and they’re hand-spun and -wrought to the desired shape with a lot of skill and impressive complexity.
My furniture pieces are also made here in New York. My current collection incorporates solid materials and components that are readily available for ordinary construction purposes, but which I’ve reconfigured to elevate the beauty of the materials. For example, I use a lot of solid copper and brass piping in lieu of synthetic or veneered substitutes, beautifying and refining the industrial building materials through unique combinations and finishes. Sadly, one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered in manufacturing furniture is that I’m losing some of my NYC-based fabricators and finishers to prohibitive rent increases. This was one of the reasons I started Detroit Built—I had to go back to Detroit to find craftspeople, and was discovering that a lot of these fabricators had their own lines of product, too, for which I wanted to offer a concentrated retail platform as a destination for all things Detroit-designed and -made.
Learning to take advantage of opportunities and serendipity when they present themselves has been key to building my business: you work toward something, encounter a problem, try to solve that problem, and end up unearthing hidden treasure, be it talent, product, partnership, or the seed for new business ventures.
Next week, I’ll continue discussing micro-manufacturing and my personal process and trajectory. I’ll rope in licensing, the evolution into carrying other designers’ products, and what (realistic) opportunities I have my eye on for expansion as a small business owner.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what specific questions you have about micro-manufacturing, fabrication, and the design process. Feel free to share in the comments below!
Till next week,
As told to Emily R. Pellerin
In honor of Bruce Gilardi, who recently passed away, I am fortunate to have been along for the ride with this inspiring and creative entrepreneur, who brought me to a place I would not have gotten to without him. An especial thank you to Bruce.