Sandy Chilewich is a New York-based designer and manufacturer. Her Chilewich woven vinyl placemats and rugs are found in homes and restaurants worldwide.
What did you want to be when you were ten years old?
I don’t know what I wanted to be when I was ten years old. I certainly didn’t expect to do what I am doing now. I think most people aren’t doing now what they thought they were doing when they were ten.
What did you think your calling was?
I was thinking more psychiatrist, teacher, definitely more of a writer than anything else. All my life, however, I was always doing artwork. That is what kept me occupied. I would work with any media for that release. That was very consistent through my life. I never, at any point, thought that I would be a commercial artist. I did, at one point, think that I would be a real artist. In my early twenties I sent slides of my artwork to many galleries and got no answers or negative answers from all but one, who told me to come in. I brought in my portfolio and he says something to me which was devastating. He said, “Your work is very commercial. Would you ever think of doing commercial work?” I cried all the way down 57th street. I can’t say the next morning I woke up and said, “Hey, I’m going to be a commercial artist,” but it definitely stopped me from pursuing art to some degree.
I started to design jewelry. Very primitive processes- beading and so forth. I went to stores and I was getting orders- Bendel’s, Bloomingdales. I was living in NoHo at Broadway and Bleeker. There were many artists there and a few commercial tenants. We knew the building was for sale and we decided to give a cash offer because we were afraid we would be kicked out on the street. We all borrowed and stole to get the money together. In that process of negotiating I became close with my other neighbors, including this woman, Cathy Moskal, who was an art teacher. At that time, everyone wore what we called ‘Kung Fu’ shoes. They were Mary Janes with the thin rubber sole- you would buy them in black in Chinatown for about $3.99. We tried to make them in other colors and bleached them and dyed them in other colors. At the next building meeting we had all of these colorful shoes and everyone said we should sell them. I had an appointment to show Vogue Magazine my jewelry. It was one of these open appointments. Some assistant to the assistant to the assistant would look at it. I decided to also bring Cathy and some shoes. The response to my jewelry was kind of ho-hum but when they saw the shoes they said, “hold on a minute,” and got Grace Mirabella who was the Anna Wintour at that time for Vogue. This was on a Friday. She said we want all of these colors for the models. We are going to Sardinia on Monday. We worked over the weekend and brought them in on Monday, still wet. They did the shoot and decided to do a two page spread and it said ‘Shoes by Kathy and Sandy.’ We got Bergdorfs to buy some and we had a little business. We were getting all of this editorial press…. No one was doing things in multiple colors. We were right at the beginning of that.
We then started finding product that you would only find in one color and make them available in a number of colors. We would go down to Orchard Street and find things: white cotton gloves, white cotton stockings that nurses wore. Meanwhile, we weren’t making money but we were growing. The nurse’s stocking became very popular and we decided to find this mill. People asked for cotton tights- at that point there was only Danskin which was 100% nylon for dancers. We went down south and fell in love with the knitting operation. In addition to the shoes, now called ‘Hue Shoes’, we started making hosiery. It became clear that this should be the focus of the business. That is what became Hue legwear which we owned and ran for 16 years before we sold it. We learned a lot in those 16 years. When we started we didn’t know what we doing.
Did you go to art school?
No, I didn’t really graduate from any school. I was a terrible student. I was the best poster child for those parents that are freaking out that their kids didn’t get into Harvard. You don’t always have to go to school. I dropped out many times. On occasion I went to Art Students League but no formal training in art.
How did you decide that the Hue Corporation should be sold?
We felt that the brand had possibility for other products. Clothing, Shoes… We felt that we needed a parent company with some big, big bucks and a marketing arm that could help us do that. The brand is still out there and they are still a very strong brand. I’m very proud of that fact. I sold it in 1991.
Talk about your design process…
For me, I rarely start with something in my head and then put it to paper. Generally it is one physical thing that leads to another physical thing.
For instance, the pressed vinyl. This was me continually staring at these pressed vinyl doilies in the world. This is stuff that you would never put anywhere near your home. I was in Japan and I bought some of those antique silkscreens at a flea market. I was thinking what could I do to make these? I could never do a weave. I would never be able to simulate how beautiful this is. When I thought about the molded vinyl I thought that ‘this could do it.’ From that moment to actually getting the first product meant really understanding how the production worked. It is about hooking up an idea with a process. It is not just an idea.
You currently have a partner in Joe (Sultan). He’s the guy behind the scenes.
It’s pretty simple. I am the Creative Director of the Company. My DNA is a platform for the aesthetic of the company. Everything that revolves around building of the collections. Since I have experience in retail sales from my previous business that is my expertise.
Joe’s primary thing is handling all of our production. He has brought all of our placemat production in house. We are now producing 40,000 placemats a week in our own facility. But from a creative standpoint he is the one that created the backing for the material and is constantly re-engineering the material to make it more durable for commercial applications.
So this is a strong partnership in more ways than one.
A very strong partnership but absolutely challenging. We work on it very hard. It’s not easy. Anyone that says it is easy is lying.
What is your current take on the economy?
I don’t know what to think. I think that it will take a long time—Joe feels that whatever pain we have people forget and go back to what they used to. I feel like once someone has had some scare in their life they do change. I do think that there will be a shakeout in terms of what retail will look like. I think one of the most interesting things that has happened is that the very highest end of the market, the real designer end of the market, the Pradas of the world. During the complete frenzy when the economy was completely crashing you could go to Bergdorf’s and buy Pradas for 75% off. You have women who used to spend $1200 for a pair of shoes who now have their housekeepers wearing them for $450. It has changed what is high end and what is low end. I don’t know how the end will be, but something is shifting there about what is considered luxury. I don’t think things will go back- there clearly will be some changes.
What advice do you give to entrepreneurs? I see this as a time for opportunity.
I think there is always opportunity. This is a perfect time. We started Hue during a terrible down time. That is when the market is craving for new stuff. Also I think the market is craving authenticity. The advantage of new people entering the marketplace now is that when I started you were completely dependent on retailers. I remember trying to get into Ann Taylor, waiting six months to see this woman, and being told when there is a chair across from her, “Don’t sit down you aren’t going to be here that long.” That was how people were treated. Now you aren’t necessarily dependent on retailers. You can actually reach customers.
To me, product is everything. If you have a great product that is truly unique- and you might think it is fabulous. You need to test the waters and go to the whoever the customer is going to be and you need to see if they will buy it at the price it needs to be and if they really, really like it. That works for a service as well as a finished product. If you have those two things I think you can make it.
When you design a product, what is your overall goal in mind?
I think one of the major reasons why my product is successful is that it doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation. I think that it is quite obvious when you look at it what it can do. It is pretty but you can wash this thing. People have that innate understanding. It is that combination of being really attractive and functional. My criteria when I design is that it needs to have all of those attributes. I am not interested in making something simply beautiful, I am interested in making something that is functional. And low maintenance and stain-resistant. And make it as accessible as I can, financially.
I start from how beautiful I think something is. Often what I start with is a process. I will look at a tiny little part of something else and say there is an idea there. Why don’t we look at that idea and see how we can translate that and interpret that.
How did the company Chilewich begin?
In the beginning I had the raybowls. That was one of the ideas I had in my head. It was the look of a butterfly chair as a bowl. And then, “How could I do this?” “What kind of material would I use?” I was using textiles in a very new way… not particularly intellectual- I like the way this looks. In my search for another textile I found a woven vinyl. I tried to incorporate it into the bowl and it looked terrible. But I was passionate. It has beauty, functionality… I didn’t know what it was going to be until I started working with it. Try different colors, try a different weave. Again, not too sophisticated. It is only now after years of doing this that I can envision something like the tuxedo stripe- but that was also a mistake! You need to keep your mind open to the mistakes that happen during whatever process you are in. The mistakes might even be more interesting than the original idea that you had.
Right now how many countries have Chilewich products available?
We are literally all over the world. The E.U., the Middle East, Japan, China.
Is there anything you regret?
No, I really don’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. (There is a) constant learning curve. I think that I am doing more things that are right than I am doing wrong. It balances out in the end.
What is next for Sandy Chilewich?
I think it is continuing to work with textiles. Personally, what I like to do every day is make product. What I did with the pressed vinyl . I would like to find uncoverother manufacturing processes and elevate them and make them more beautiful and more tangible. On the other side, I also enjoy setting a beautiful table.. for photography and trade shows. I am wondering what I can do with that pleasure to make that commercial. Basically my great love is the textiles.
Were you imagining when you started Chilewich that you would be this successful?
I think that given that I had another company before, I think that is my nature. I said this recently to my sister-in-law, who is an actual artist…
You say that there is a clear delineation between a REAL artist and what you do and I don’t see that at all…
Both are equally creative. The difference between an artist and what I do is that an artist doesn’t compromise. And shouldn’t. I will compromise. I walk a line all of the time between the integrity of my design and what the market wants. I think I am very lucky that my aesthetic is accessible. There are times that I will look at what I do and what I really love you never see because I just know it is not going to sell. If I were an artist that is what I would be making.
The other difference is who you want your audience to be. I like big audiences. It makes me feel good when a lot of people get to buy my stuff. An artist is really not interested in that. They are interested in good critiques among their peers and enough people to make their living to whatever degree they expect to make for themselves. When you are in business you just kind of naturally want to get bigger.
What makes you get up in the morning and how do you feel fulfillment?
That second scotch! I feel very lucky that I love what I do. I get up in the morning and I do what I want to do. There are some days that are harder than others. Some days where half of the day I am not doing what I want to do; some days the whole day I am not doing what I want to do. But enough of the time I get to creative and think about the material s and experiment with them. That is certainly what drives me. At the end of the day I have a scotch and I have another life… I have children and all of the other issues that come with it.
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