Monday, October 1, 2012

A Special Interview with Angela Menendez, Director of Merchandizing for Garnet Hill

My journey in art licensing has been an intense and interesting experience so far – I began in October of last year painting my first collection after reading about licensing for several months prior to that. This past January I was offered representation and off I went to a new adventure that took me to Surtex in May. In recent weeks I have decided to represent myself, so I am now out in the open ocean again, sailing away, charting my own course through the maze of this industry. As our special guest says below, I want to build partnerships directly with clients that will help build my brand.

My birthday is in October, too, so I thought to celebrate it with my licensing contract with Magnet Works – my Desert Garden design has been featured as part of their beautiful new Spring/Summer 2013 collection – and by inaugurating a new twist in this adventure with my first interview from the other side of the licensing business.

After meeting her at Surtex 2012, we're happy to introduce Angela Menendez, the Director of Merchandizing for fabulous Garnet Hill, who was gracious enough to let us interview her about the field from the perspective of a manufacturer and retailer.

The Moon From My Attic: Could you give us all a little background of yourself and how you got into this field?

© Garnett Hill
Angela Menendez: Well, I feel like now I have a dream job with Garnet Hill. We are small enough to have a team that works collaboratively, so I work really closely with the design team from concept to product finalization. The head designer and I shop the market looking for trends and inspirations and she will come up with themes and color palettes based on that. Then I'll work with her to build the assortment, so we're really an interesting balance, where I'll come in with what I would recommend for product expansion and categories of emphasis for a season and then we build the line together. We're very lucky to have a small but very talented team.

I've been here about 4 years, and prior to this I was VP of Merchandizing for Plow and Hearth, a retailer based in Virginia, and in that environment it was much more of a hard goods environment. We sold everything from apparel to hearth products to garden furniture. There we didn't have a design team per se so I worked more with designers who worked with vendors or once in awhile we'd hire freelancers to do certain projects. Still I was pretty hands-on in that world. Prior to that I was with LL Bean in product development, and LL Bean is such a large corporation that there roles are a little bit more defined. I was working much more off-the-shelf and the product development team was a separate team. I've learned that I actually really enjoy being part of a slightly smaller company that's design focused and where I can get my hands "dirty" in the work!

© Garnett Hill
TMFMA: It definitely sounds like the closer you are to being right in the middle of the work and the action, the happier you are - you can even hear it in your voice! Besides the collaboration dynamics of your job, are there other aspects of your work that you find really satisfying and inspiring, as well as what things do you find challenging?

AM: I think for me the most exciting part of a project is the inception, the initial development of the product ideas, working with color and fabrics and putting the stories together to identify and create a vision for what something needs to be - at this point you're right in the middle of that creative process. This is especially elevating when you work in conjunction with someone who you really understand and have such a strong relationship with. When we each come up with a vision for something, most of the time we have the same vision - or similar enough that we can visualize things immediately.

We don't take that for granted, because it takes so many years of close collaboration to get to that kind of dynamic in a relationship. The peak experience, of course, is when you get to see a design come to fruition and then go through all the iterations with the vendor and then be able to stand back and say, "yes, this is exactly what we wanted it to be." We sell luxury goods, very lovely products, and we take a great deal of pride in them and really sweat the details; for me, that part is also really exciting.

© Garnett Hill
On the other hand, it's a pretty high stress job because it's very deadline intensive and we put out about a 150 products per season, so it's a lot of work and it's all very fast. The frustrating part of it, especially for the design team, is that it's art but it's also production. As a result, there are many times when we have to make trade-offs - knowing we could continue to evolve something and improve it, but that it's really good enough to go forward with it as it is. With most every product, we have to find that balance between the integrity of the work itself and what we know is going to sell, and take it just to that point to keep it moving in development. Many times there are purely practical compromises that you have to make during the process, based on pricing or production efficiency, and when we have to do that it's a judgement call and it's always a trade-off of that original vision and idea.

TMFMA: Is that the same kind of frustration that you have to deal with when you buy art from another artist rather than producing it in-house?

© Garnett Hill
AM: When we buy a piece of art from an artist we usually see something in the artwork itself, sort of an underlying spirit in the original piece that we want to preserve. In our case, since we will often modify the art quite a bit, we prefer to buy it outright rather than license it. The design team might buy the art, then rescale it and prepare it for wide-width printing (for fabric) and for the screen printing process, we'll have to also reduce the number of colors. If we buy something that's really painterly or needs to have a cleaner background or cleaner lines, we need the freedom to do that. It's not that it's frustrating, but if we have to do too much of that, it can change the character of the original art and then we should have just started with something else. We've developed such a good, strong relationships with the artists we work with so they really trust what we do with their art, which is also a great credit to how we work with artists here and in the U.K.

© Garnett Hill
TMFMA: When you are looking at other artists or scouting out designs, it sounds like you already have some concepts, products, and themes in mind, and in that frame of mind something clicks with an artist you come across. Is that sort of how it works?

AM: Yes, although it can work both ways. We can go to the market with an idea, like we were in Paris at Bon Marché a couple of years ago and they had these really cool lines that "stuck" right away. This sparked some ideas about how it would be pretty cool to do a home theme. In fact, a lot of people on both the design and merchandizing side of the company had that same coincidental, parallel thought process - in addition, it was right after the royal wedding. We were all thinking the same thing even though we hadn't read anything about it or talked about it yet, so suddenly four of us came out with very similar themes. Some design themes emerged out of that trip and we went looking for certain things. But, we also go to shows and see something that's so fabulous that we'll decide that we need to build a story around this - so it can work both ways.

© Garnett Hill
TMFMA: From the standpoint where you bump up against art like that from outside, where do you typically scout for or find new art?

AM: We do go to shows like Surtex, but more and more often we are also looking online and looking at design blogs - the blog-sphere has become a major influencer, so we're looking there as well. And if we are thinking of something and we haven't found it, then we'll commission different things depending on the artists' hands, such as if we have someone who is really graphic or someone who is working with cut-outs, or someone else who does hand drawing.

TMFMA: When you're either scouting or bumping up against artwork or artists, it sounds like for you it's less relevant that they have a complete collection as opposed to that you can see a real style and consistent hand.

AM: Yes - we're essentially looking for a unique point of view. At the last Surtex, we actually found a couple of designers who were new; it was their first show and they had just been together about 6 months. As a result, they really didn't have a huge amount to show. But, what they did have was so cool and so fun that we commissioned some things from them. And, we said, "you know what, we can't use what you have here but could you do this for us." They just had a hand that we thought would work for Garnet Hill, and they were happy to start working with us. An important part of it is just that personal interest and passion around the art and the product that makes it worth the effort - it's not just about commerce, but bringing this idea to fruition together. That can just be incredibly satisfying when you have a good relationship.

© Garnett Hill
TMFMA: It sounds like the relationship side of the equation is equally if not more important when you're working with outside artists.

AM: Absolutely. As part of that relationship we need to be comfortable - the relationship can help overcome the ego part of it. If you as an artist are coming in with something or an idea and it can't be modified, if you have the mindset that it can't be changed, then you're self-limiting. However, even if you've spent hours painting something up, if the prospective buyer wants to change it and you are OK with that, it allows the relationship to open up. And, ultimately, that is the most important part of the whole enterprise, the development of that collaborative partnership.

TMFMA: Another aspect of your work that would be interesting to learn is how do you balance the ability to set trends as well as know when or how to follow them?

© Garnett Hill
AM: Yes, this is a tricky part of the business. Since we work about 18 months out we have to anticipate what trends are going to be. But we also consciously select and edit the trends. We were talking about something just the other day with one of our art directors, looking around to see if we're missing anything, and she said, "you know what, there are some things we just don't have to touch." And she's right. Again, it comes to that point of view because otherwise if you're watering it down and you don't have a strong point of view, then the customer is going to also be confused. And in that confusion they're going to go buy somewhere else.

TMFMA: You still have to hold true to your own sensibilities and your own ideas. So given that, what are some of your favorite trends that you do resonate with right now?

© Garnett Hill
AM: I like that whole trend of high-low decorating, where people are essentially gathering things that they love - it's less about whether it's cheap or expensive. It's sort of a personally edited eclecticism where are homes and our spaces need to be more reflections of our personal biographies, of where we've traveled and what we love and love to do, and our families, and not worrying so much about looking decorated or which period it comes from. There's also this factor where there is furniture that we've inherited from our parents or we've bought at flea markets or whatever so all these things that we've purchased or made ourselves or repainted or revamped, there's just a lot of authenticity to that, and I like the fact that big collection designers are touting that rather than having everything staged. Also, I think the more uncertainty there is in the world, the natural instinct is to turn in and make our spaces safe, comfortable and reflections of us.

TMFMA: There is something very engaging about things becoming more personally meaningful to individual consumers.

© Garnett Hill
AM: Yes, and I would also say that people aren't afraid to spend quite a bit of money on a few things that have a great deal of meaning. But, for the things that need to be commoditized, then they'll look for the lowest price or best value. Our customer in general understands the value in investing in one or two good pieces rather than buying multiples. It doesn't mean we don't have things that are also reasonably priced, but even still there is a basic level of quality that you can expect.

TMFMA: So it's like the product also carries an emotional aspect, rather than just a piece of art or home decor...

AM: Yes - a lot of our Garnet Hill prints this fall have a sheet pattern that includes retro clocks - and they're kind of funny when you think of it, putting clocks on a bed. However, we thought it was funny and had a mid-century retro look and we had already sold a few pieces with it, so we just went with it. It's the kind of thing that makes people laugh. So we want to make people really comfortable and cozy. We also want to get that emotional response.

© Garnett Hill
TMFMA: It must be really challenging, when I think of your business, that when the market evolves and commerce becomes meaningful, then the market itself becomes really sophisticated and so how do you build meaning into the products you're selling?

AM: I think the trend is towards enhanced web content - people want to know what they're buying and why. They want to know where we make it, what's gone into it, they want to know what's inspired us. If they resonate with that, then they're more likely to buy it. I like that meaningful commerce phrase. We're really fortunate to be working with vendors and suppliers who look at the whole supply chain.

TMFMA: Something about information and the availability of information that makes this all very interesting.

AM: Yes, and it's about consciousness - doing things consciously versus just automatically.

© Garnett Hill
TMFMA: As a final question, do you have any tips, thoughts, or perspectives that someone getting into art licensing could benefit from - for example, when working with you?

AM: We were talking about design integrity and that point of view is important, to know where you stand and to be aware of which areas you can be flexible. Also, to understand what you want as an artist - do you want your designs represented only in certain markets or in certain ways. If so, you need to be discriminating about entering into relationships. We buy artwork outright instead of licensing, partly because we may use artwork for home but the ready-to-wear team may also want to use it, so it might have multiple uses and we like the flexibility to do that. As the artist/designer, you should understand how you want to brand yourself; it's very important.

© Garnett Hill
Also, listening and building the relationship. You're listening to the market, you're listening to what the vendors are asking of you and sharing with you. Then you need to be that tireless student of pop culture, taking it all in and interpreting what you see.

TMFMA: Right - that's the inspiration part. You have to take it all in and transform it and make it come from yourself.

AM: That's correct - and I believe that in that unique point of view is the soul.

TMFMA: Thank you again - we appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts with us!



You can visit their website and view all their great products at:

www.garnethill.com

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