The Evolution of a Maker and Their Brand: Retailing, Manufacturing, and Licensing
This week marks the finale of the Design Talk by MV mini-series, “the evolution of a maker and their brand.” Heads-up: ***secrets contained inside** regarding what biz practice was my original bread and butter, the amount of product pitches I receive daily, and hints at some upcoming, as-of-now under wraps licensing projects.
My evolution as a designer involves creating my own designs, but also selling others’ designs. The evolution of my store, then, depends on both those stories: as the store grew, my space grew, and my manufacturing facility was incorporated into the store’s footprint. I’ll detail these stories in today’s Design Talk, taking special care to address both the privilege and the challenge of manufacturing in-house.
When I first opened up a store in a (VERY) small space on Crosby Street in SoHo, my wholesale business was supporting the retail side. My sales to other stores—Barneys, Neiman Marcus, ABC Carpet and Home, 40+ other stockists across the US and in the UK, Japan, and Australia—were paying the rent for my store. Eventually, the retail operations, merchandising, and curatorial side of my business began to develop. I had become a storeowner entirely to promote my own collections: tree scrims, textiles, pillows, and Plexiglas mobiles. But as I began meeting more people at tradeshows, and as my identity as a storeowner in a still-maker-centric SoHo grew, I would incorporate friends’ work into the curation of the shop. Pyrrha Jewelry, based in Canada, was the first person I brought in to exhibit alongside my own collections, and sales for their pieces quickly took off. (We met as neighbors at a trade show. The old school way!) It became clear that the more diverse the variety of things I had in my shop, the more incentivized people were to come through. And because my community was chock full of makers, creatives, and designers, I had a natural pool of work to draw from and to merchandise with. I began to find that not a lot of people were retailing like that at the time, in terms of incorporating independent designers into their retail models.
It was an organic evolution from exclusively selling my own product to retailing on behalf of other designers whose aesthetic I was passionate about. Over the course of 16 years, I stock and sell the work of 100+ other makers, and 70+ jewelers. I’m fortunate that I have a clear vision of what I like and don’t like, and what will or won’t be a successful fit at my store. This conviction as a buyer and as an aesthete is something I’m thankful for, and something I admire wholeheartedly in other creatives and businesspeople.
I will admit, though, that exercising that conviction was a cultivated skill. In the beginning, I would make exceptions as a buyer, and carry things whose designer I respected or was friends with, even though I didn’t necessarily have passion for their products. It took me a good while to become bold enough to fully trust my gut (and my eye) and be able to say no to friends or lovely people in order to craft an in-shop experience that was fully cohesive. I recognize that a big part of my store’s success is that it has a strong and clear point of view, which is ultimately my point of view. The cachet established from developing and fortifying that specific taste-ethos has increased the efficiency of my operations as a retailer. Now, designers and brands often come to me. I walk fewer trade shows and pitch fewer people, and I can count on receiving about 20 product submissions every day by email. I love the interaction, and I do my best to provide honest responses, ranging from an invitation into the store to feedback on disadvantageous market saturation, scale of production, or pricing. As I learned early on, a great experience in my shop is contingent upon newness, diversity, and heterogeneity of product, so we’re changing the space and introducing new product daily.
I’m always continuing to evolve and introduce more of my own designs, too. Last week, I talked about the ways I make my collections and individual pieces; here, I’ll dig a little deeper into the micro-manufacturing process and what that entails. It might be important, first off, to clarify why I identify as a “micro-” manufacturer versus manufacturer or craft manufacturer. To me, manufacturing connotes a large-scale operation, while craft production has a tendency to disassociate from highly skilled, technical fabrication. From an economic and entrepreneurial standpoint, this terminology encompasses the language and idea of a closely joined process and collaboration between designer/businessperson/entrepreneur and fabricator/manufacturer/assembler.
In my onsite fabrication studio, downstairs at 27 Howard, we use all UL Listed components for lighting. (UL Listing is an industry mark recognizing certain commercial-grade regulations in lighting and other design.) This includes sockets, plugs, wiring, and the like. However, when combined together, the end product is not UL listed. In order to do that, I would either have to send my components to a UL Listed facility, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of a single fixture, or—as I’m in the process of doing—certify this studio as UL Listed. It’s a pain, bringing in all sorts of inspectors and requiring a ton of red tape to get approval, but it’s worth it because it increases the salability of my fixtures to any public space, hospitality, or larger-scale commercial contractor, architect, or interior designer. When the studio at 27 Howard gets certified, I suspect it will be time to expand fabrication offsite. With that enters the possibility of manufacturing other lighting designers’ pieces, as well, developing an affordable option for other lighting folks who don’t have their own UL Listed workshops, likewise expanding the revenue model for my own business.
In addition to pursuing an expansion of my studio and workshop facility, I’m working on some licensing projects I’m super excited about. Being a designer, I see innovation in everything: design tweaks in existing products, new product possibilities, beautification-by-design, and simple fabrication fixes that could increase the utility of the things around us. I wish I could spend every day actually designing, and pursuing these ideas that are constantly running through my head, but unfortunately that indulgence isn’t part of the reality of running a business. Licensing product allows for this indulgence! The company I submit my ideas to handles the production (the headache part of product development) and capitalizes on my and other designers’ unique creative integrity. I get to play, with the benefit of new platforms of retail exposure. It’s quite validating having the opportunity to attach my name to these broader, often iconic avenues for sales and consumer relationships. Licensing also allows me to engage with materials that would be prohibitively expensive for me to work with on my own. It’s a total dream.
For those of you reading, you not only have my full micro-manufacturing story and know more about my precious goals for my business, but you will soon be the first to know about my upcoming licensing collaborations!
Stay tuned, friends.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin
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