The 15 local “makers” of home décor items, textiles, cleaning products and personal items hawking their wares to West Elm’s Chelsea location last week were savvy and sophisticated in the art of the elevator speech.
“The creative business is 85% business and 15% creative: When you understand that, you’re more prepared on what to do to be successful,” said Malene Barnett, a Bed-Stuy “maker” in West Elm parlance, who was there to tell the stories behind her tiles, rugs and wall paper — some which included Afro-centric themes — to West Elm reps.
“I know West Elm. I’ve studied West Elm. And I could bring a different flavor than some of the other locals,” said Barnett, the owner of maleneb.com.
The 70-plus North American West Elm stores began introducing the work of local makers in local stores about two years ago, now stocking about 4,500 products from 500 makers. Expanding that effort, stores held “shark tank” showcases last Thursday that seemed more like validating auditions judged with love.
Why are local artisans pursuing retail alliances when the internet allows them to sell wares from their own websites, and in the age of craftspeople-friendly portals such as Etsy?
“You can get found better if you’re in West Elm,” said Karyn Villante of Merrick, Long Island, the owner of Made Here New York.”
Villante already had some of her cotton blend throws at the store and came to pitch her new line. “I do sell online, but it’s taken a while . . . West Elm really helped” sales by allowing shoppers to see and feel the quality of her knitwear.
Partnering with such a store “is a win-win. It helps to grow your brand,” added an ebullient Barnett.
West Elm is already manufacturing its own products “in all the countries where I produce and they’d get better deals” on prices should her dream of designing a line of products for the retailer take root and bloom. She promised to help drive customers: “I already have a fan base. I have the Instagram. People are waiting for me to be in West Elm!”
Many pitched to further their own creative, political and personal dreams of being their own bosses while pursuing their passions.
“It’s so liberating to work for yourself, but it’s also incredibly scary,” said Lauren Singer, 25, of Williamsburg. She started her company, The Simply Co., with $41,719 she raised on Kickstarter last year.
Singer wanted West Elm to sell her three-ingredient 32 oz. jars of vegan organic laundry detergent. It’s a product that not only protects the environment but human bodies “from all these toxic chemicals.”
“Your packaging is beautiful and witty,” West Elm community manager Katelin Whitaker noted approvingly.
“Authenticity, approachability and story — story is so important!” were the principles Chelsea store manager Jim Holbrook was searching for, as well as products that filled specific niches: “We have a void right now in ceramicists.”
Holbrook was also hunting for holiday merch that aligned with the store’s brand and aesthetic and “people who do really nice Christmas ornaments.”
Singer — who lives a zero waste lifestyle and had a brief stint as sustainability manager for the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, had a story.
So did Lila Kydd of the East Village and Karina Margit of Clinton Hill, co-founders and co-owners of Rouxroo.com, which makes cheerful graphic organic throws, toys, bibs, nursery art and swaddles.
“I have a daughter and I was definitely going to go organic for the kid. I did research on cognitive development and realized that pale colors do not do it,” in terms of stimulating an infant’s intellectual development, Margit explained.
Margit was also inspired by her NYC living space, which “is not a 3,000-square-foot environment where you can hide all the ugly things.” She and Kydd decided to invent gorgeous child-centric items influenced by Piet Mondrian, Bauhaus and Louise Bourgeois as they figured out how to “bend” their aesthetic “so it’s interesting for kids.”
West Elm honchos had to confab before making the final cut. The competition was stiff, as execs planned to add only three new makers to the 20 now featured in the West 18th Street store, but Barnett was optimistic. Partnering with the company, she said, “is on my list! I’ve been putting this out into the universe!”