I do not know Christiane, but I do know of her first company, DwellStudio. Then I found her Instagram feed, which consists of the most enviable interiors I’ve ever seen—many of which have been featured in her recently released tome, The Finer Things. Christiane is one of those women who make you feel bad for ever complaining you have too much to do. After selling DwellStudio to Wayfair, she moved into the position of their creative director and then recently left to launch the book, plus two (yes two!) new lines, Cloth & Company that debuted on One Kings Lane and Lemieux et Cie. And she has two kids, ages nine and ten.
I want to keep my intro brief because this is a long interview, but I didn’t want to cut anything good. So I (sort of) apologize for the length, but I hope you’ll find it’s worth finding the time to read.
Please introduce yourself to the TFI readers: At this point in my life, I would call myself a design entrepreneur. That’s an evolution, because my background is actually fashion design. I have an art history degree. I also got a degree from Parsons School of Design in fashion design. A lot of fashion design has to do with textiles, textile art, fashion history, design history–all those things. I think when you’re in a design kind of milieu it’s all related. I had two internships at Parsons, one was at the Gap when Mickey Drexler was there and it was doing women’s wovens so I was designing and specing women’s clothing. After that, I went to work for Isaac Mizrahi and I actually worked for the woman who was the head of fabric and fabric sourcing. I learned a lot about surface design and manufacturers and I got to buy from some of the best mills in the world. I learned a lot about the nuances of a really beautiful luxury fabric.
When it came to graduation, I was lucky enough to have a friend whose husband bought a home furnishings company. He said, ‘I’ve got this home furnishings company. It’s called Portico. I’m looking for a design director, why don’t you come and try it out?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I’d already had two fashion jobs very closely related to what I do here so I might as well go there.
I went to Portico and I started designing. At first it was bedding and towels and deck pillows and throws and all that stuff that was very closely associated with what I had done and then I started to do furniture and other things. I put it on the floor and got to see how it sold. It sold very well–by 2 to 3 times some of the stuff that was already there, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to do this myself.’
After about 12 months, I left Portico. What I left with was a manufacturing base. I had been working with these factories directly and I had good relationships with all of them. They’d seen the sales success and so (unlike today) those guys were willing to front me the samples. So for startup costs, it was just a lot of handshakes.
I launched DwellStudio in 2000 via a trade show. That’s what you did back then because there weren’t direct platforms like Etsy or millions of ways of launching your own website. I did it the old-fashioned way of where you get a trade show booth and you send out a PR release and you just hope the rest falls into place. Fortunately in my case, it did and we were off to the races.
Along my entrepreneurial path with DwellStudio, there’s a couple of benchmark moments, launching the company was a benchmark moment. Three years later, we got into the baby and kids market and kind of redefined what that looked like. That was a benchmark moment.
Then in 2007, we were tapped by Target. We went in and did everything at Target from furniture to baby products to apparel to home furnishings. That was a big benchmark moment for us. We stayed at Target for about four years and then I decided that I wanted to make sure that we didn’t become just a Target-only brand. We left Target and we got into furniture ourselves at the high end. We signed great licenses with furniture, textile and upholstery companies. We went into all the specialty stores and then we opened our first store in 2012 on Wooster Street in New York.
In August of ’13, I sold the company to Wayfair, which was kind of a fork in the road decision. I got to the point where I’d grown the company as much as I could on my own steam. In order to really supercharge it, we were going to have to open retail stores and build a huge back-end logistics infrastructure.
You have to look at yourself as an entrepreneur and say, ‘Here’s what I’m good at. Am I really the right person to take this to the next place? Am I really the person who’s going to build trucking routes and overpack centers and do all this kind of stuff? If I raise money, these are the things I’m going to have to do. I’m going to have to roll out retail stores, I’m going to have to get distribution centers, I’m going to have to get trucking logistics and all these things.’
I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to do that. I’d rather partner with somebody.’ I don’t want to raise money and lose it. It’s just not something that I’m interested in doing I was thinking, ‘I’m going to sell this to somebody who can.’ So I did.
You recently left Wayfair where you were the creative director. What was the experience like? It was great. Talk about rounding out my experience as an entrepreneur. I fundamentally understood how to build a consumer brand, how to scale a consumer brand, how to market a consumer brand. When I went to Wayfair, I learned about the nuances of a technology company and what ecommerce looks like, the challenges around that and the places you can win and the places that are difficult, and where you can growth hack a brand and all those things. I got to round out my retail knowledge.
Now I have run a catalog, I’ve run a store, I’ve been part of an eCom executive team. It was amazing to me. It was like going to business school with an eCom major in the most intense way. I was supposed to stay for five years, but I ended up staying for two because I’m an entrepreneur. Being a corporate boss wasn’t necessarily the best thing for my type of personality.
Now I have so much more knowledge than when I started DwellStudio. I got to go out and deploy this against consumer brands and what that looks like in the 2.0 stage, which is, I think, where we are today.
Can you talk a little bit about your new book, The Finer Things? I thought it was very interesting because it really got into the particulars and the process of home décor elements. Why did you choose to do a book in that manner and what was your favorite thing about doing it? That book is an ode to quality. I started to research topics and then I thought, ‘I can research this topic, but there’s somebody out there who’s the absolute expert in this. Why don’t I just go to them?’ That’s the evolution of the book. It became a much bigger thing than it started out. It started out being Decopedia and it was going to be a loose encyclopedia of design.
It ended up being an ode to design, an ode to expertise, an ode to craftsmanship. Because there’s so much information out there, and not all of it is true, not all of it’s accurate. I wanted to get the accurate information. When you want accurate information, you go to the biggest expert in that field.
I tried to break down design into these disciplines, whether it’s walls or floors and then talk to the absolute experts. If you want to understand about hardwood floors, you can read that chapter and there’s three people in there who have devoted their life, who know more about hardwood floors than anybody else on the planet. Those are the people that you want to get the information from.
The book is huge, too, it’s meaty which is nice. I literally thought, ‘Well, I’m probably never going to get my PhD, so maybe I should just do it on my own and this is what it’s going to look like.’ It’s like my doctorate thesis and my magnum opus all in one. It was this long journey. It took four years to write that book. The part that’s heartbreaking is there are all these amazing schools in Europe where they teach people how to do incredible murals and things like that, there are masters but there are no more apprentices because nobody wants to do some of the stuff anymore. I think it’ll come around in the same way that all of a sudden making artisanal chocolate is the hippest thing in the entire world.
You’re very busy. You’re launching two new companies Cloth & Co and and Lemieux et Cie? Can you explain the genesis of each brand, what they are, and what your goals are for each of them? Cloth & Company is really a disruptive idea around furniture. It’s custom furniture that gets to the consumer in six days. It’s fast fashion for home. You can only do that a couple of ways and that’s with onshore manufacturing and with some of the technology that we have in place around a digital printer and around a computerized system. What’s revolutionary about that is we don’t hold the inventory, it’s very nimble, it’s what a lot of these big companies are chasing after in terms of supply chain efficiency. It’s very, very, very cool.
What kind of pieces are you starting with? We can do everything, but the one thing we don’t do is sofas because it’s a different type of manufacturing line. We may get to it. The other thing is all of it is dropship. It’s UPS and FedEx. There’s no friction for the customer. That’s what everybody wants. Everybody wants what they want when they want it and for it to come in a box just like Amazon has trained us to do.
Are you working on the textiles for it too since you have that background? Yes. We have a digital printer that prints textiles, so we’re doing all of our own proprietary textiles and then we do custom collaborations and we do proprietary textiles for a lot of our partners. It’s really fun because it’s really nimble. My whole philosophy as a design entrepreneur is there are literally no more rules. You’ve got to make them up as you go because people in your own industry will say, ‘Oh no, you can’t do this. You can’t do that.’
Well, the truth is you can do anything as long as you can make it work. Everybody told us we’d never be able to do it and we said, ‘What are you talking about? Not only can we do this, but we can do it pretty quickly.’ My co-founder Meganne and I turned it around and under seven months from conception to production. We launched it on One Kings Lane in October and then we’re supplying every single platform with product at this point. Often time it’s unbranded, but it’s all there.
And then there is Lemieux et Cie. Lemieux and Cie is really DwellStudio 2.0 except for with a much better business model. It is mostly licensing. I just signed a bedding license. I’m about to sign a furniture license. What I did this time around was really choose my partners carefully so that we can do just distribution globally. That was one of the main vetting points.
What will the aesthetics of it be? It’s kind of European mid-century. Really beautiful clean lines and quality manufacturing, beautiful details, but probably not as much print and pattern as DwellStudio. It’s my own personal aesthetic, which is why I’m putting my name on it. The creative at Dwell ended up, after 10 years in business, being driven by the buyers and merchants you work with versus the DNA of the company. I want to make sure we go out this time around with a very strong visual DNA and drive from there.
What comes easiest for you when you’re launching something new? What do you find is the hardest thing? The easiest thing for me is the brand vision. I see it very clearly and the structure. The hardest thing for me is writing a formal business plan. I’m not great at details. People oftentimes want to see a formal business plan and what you are thinking about in numbers. The truth is business plans at that stage are so subjective anyway, but I think I find that the hardest thing, to dig into the minutia.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed. I am not risk averse. I think as an entrepreneur, you can talk yourself out of anything. It’s probably good that I don’t write business plans because I’d probably talk myself out of things. I just jump. Also at this point, once you know what you’re doing, it’s a whole lot less scary.
Biggest success to date: For sure, DwellStudio.
Did you fail at something and what did you learn from it? Oh, I’ve failed at so many things. I think DwellStudio’s my biggest success and my biggest failure at the same time, because I made mistakes with the business structure. My staying out of the details in the end affected the business as a whole.
Also when you’re running the company yourself and self-financing, you can make a lot of mistakes that you can’t make in a much more structured environment where you raise money and you have people that you’re answering to. I think I learned a lot of lessons in Dwell that I probably could have done things faster and harder and gained more market share, but I wasn’t thinking that way because I didn’t really need to.
You got there anyway. You know what? The truth is I probably could have gotten there faster and bigger had I done certain things differently. Getting a consumer brand off the ground is one thing, maximizing its value at the end is a whole other thing. I probably could have maximized the value a lot more.
Best career advice you’ve received and also career advice you would give to somebody starting out in your field. My advice is talk to as many people as possible regardless of what you’re going to do, get as many data points as possible. If you’re looking at a job, talk to as many people who work there, who have worked there, who know that people that you’re working for. Get a really good sense of what you’re stepping into before you step into it. I’ve learned so much by asking questions it’s incredible. Before, I would leap before I looked. Now I do a lot of leaping, but I ask a lot of questions before I make the leap.
I think the best career advice that I’ve received is that nothing is forever. You’ll probably change your career a million different times. It’s like, don’t sweat it so much. I’d say operate on your gut, but people always tell me your gut’s going to change so much that nothing is a huge mistake. Also, your working life is a long game. You will do a lot of different things and so try out as many things as possible. You may train to be a dentist and find out you wanted to be a florist. There may be overlap in the skillset, but you got to try a bunch of things to get there.
It takes a while to figure out what you really love to do. If and when you can figure out what you really love to do, that’s the thing. That’s the key. You want to be in a place where you love what you do so much that you would do it for free. That’s when you know you have the right job.
Role models: Oh my gosh, I have many role models. Niraj Shah, the CEO at Wayfair was incredible. I think of him as a role model especially as I’m starting out these new companies, because when I started Dwell people would say, ‘You should spend money on branding and all these other things’. Shah retrained me as an entrepreneur. He makes all of his decisions based on return on an investment (ROI), bottom line.
Now, I do things completely differently. I don’t have an office yet, I’m working remotely. I have a really lean team, I have almost no overhead. These are all things he’s taught me. Nobody on his team ever flies business class. They all fly coach. I’ll probably never buy a business class ticket again ever. Not that I ever did really, but at this point, I probably never would. All those ideas about business travel and expense accounts and all these things, all of that’s gone and it should be. It’s a lot of money and it should go to the bottom line. Wouldn’t you rather everybody fly in coach and then distribute a better Christmas bonus plan? From a company perspective, the answer is yes. He completely reframed a lot of my startup business decision making.
Three words that describe you: Passionate, energetic, fearless.
Three words that describe your work: Disruptive, thought-provoking … and hopefully, well designed.
What motivates you? The adventure.
How hard would you say you work and how do you stay focused? Oh my god, I’m a workaholic. I have two things in my life right now: All of this startup stuff and my children. I go for ROI on both. I apply some of the same business rules to being with my children and helping raise them that I do with a business. You’ve got to be there. I hope I’ll have time for other things later. Right now, I don’t have a lot of time for anything else.
When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business and when is it not? Do you think the woman thing is relevant anymore? I think about this a lot. I think we do ourselves a disservice by even asking those types of questions. It shouldn’t matter. A good idea is a good idea and it doesn’t have a penis. I mean that really sincerely. I think we need to change the narrative. I don’t even think that that should be a question we ask ourselves as women. By doing that, we take ourselves out of the big pool and we put ourselves into the small pool.
One of the recent Flair woman I interviewed, angel investor Joanne Wilson, said she does think that women entrepreneurs are different than men. She thinks that they do just as well as men, but they tend to make the companies that appeal to them and are different than what men want to build. I mostly hire women because I think women are also able to multitask in ways that men can’t necessarily. You can deploy that to your advantage in a company scenario. That should be our inside secret. We shouldn’t be telling the guys that. That is absolutely our competitive advantage. Why don’t we all keep that secret and then just make the playing field level externally? Then we’ll see who wins. This is a long game. I have a pretty good feeling I know who it is.
You’re on the board of Every Mother Counts. Why is charity important to you? Why this one in particular? Philanthropy rounds you out as a human being. Thinking about things and thinking about how you can be helpful beyond what you do every day is really important. Every Mother Counts is a good fit for me because over the years, think about all the countries that I’ve manufactured in, whether it’s India or Bangladesh or Vietnam. It’s my duty as a person to do something in all these countries that have so much for me.
These are the women who have come and worked with me and for me in these factory scenarios and do to this day. They have children; they are working to get their children better education. I do manufacturing in Haiti. I’ve been to Haiti and visited one of the hospital sites where there was no electricity, no running water, no nothing. The midwives we had trained were there but there was no OB-GYN.
Not only were they delivering the babies, they were helping everybody else because they had the most medical training of anybody on site. It was amazing to me. It gives me chills.
Life goals: To have an adventure and have the best time I possibly can along the way.
Daily goals: To raise amazing children.
Daily rituals: Showering. Well, even that, I don’t get to sometimes. I think the one thing I do do consistently is brush my teeth. I’m a big proponent of oral hygiene. And my children ask for Nutella crepes in overwhelming amounts during the week, so I’m either brushing my teeth or making Nutella crepes.
Favorite inspirational or motivational reads: The World of Interiors. It’s inspirational and motivational.
Sites/people you follow: Instagram is my platform of choice. It’s all the European architects that I like to follow whether it’s Pierre Yovanovitch or all of the super aspirational interior designers like Axel Vervoordt. Those are the people I like to follow.
How do you unplug? I sleep a lot. It’s my favorite thing in the world.
Hidden talents/hobbies: Once I was a foot model. I was doing marketing for Target around teen beauty with Arthur Elgort, the famous fashion photographer. They found a whole bunch of foot models and Elgort said, ‘Christiane, you have the nicest feet of all. Would you be the foot model?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ My feet were on the back cover of Seventeen Magazine. I’m also one of those people that has that recessive gene where I can’t fold my tongue. I can’t lift one eyebrow. I think it’s, like, seven out of ten people can do it and I’m one of the three who can’t.
Do you collect anything? Weirdly I love vintage drinking glasses. Whenever I go to flea markets, I gravitate towards them. I have an eclectic collection and it’s grown organically. I’m not trolling auction sites for lots of mid-century finished glass. I somehow organically have collected a whole bunch of interesting drinking glasses.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: My apartment in New York. I couldn’t afford it when I bought it and it’s appreciated in value. I love it and I never want to leave it.
Coffee/tea: Coffee. Lots and black.
Morning/night: Morning. Actually, no. I’m neither. Is that bad? I’m neither morning or night.
Truth/dare: Oh, dare for sure. All day long.
Pastels/primaries: Just the color black.
Cats/dogs: Dogs, although I kind of like both. I see value in both.
Follow Christiane: Instagram.