May 6, 2014

Giving a damn: New York to Nashville’s Danielle Romero on reclaiming fabrics and telling stories

Danielle Romero’s take on pocket squares (considering the great appeal I find in them) quickly drew my attention. This was complemented by her use of locally found fabrics in making her products and the storytelling she imbues them. Here, she shares her story of finding her business New York to Nashville, in addition to her passion for narrative and history, particularly in the marketing of her handcrafted goods.

On finding and owning
a product-based business:

How did you arrive at the idea of making New York to Nashville?
In my previous life, I was a teacher, but after moving to Nashville and being around so many friends and family members who were self-employed, I knew I wanted to tap into my creative side and launch something of my own. For the past few years, I had been selling vintage clothing online as a fun past-time, and I often came across a great piece that was ripped or otherwise unsellable, but I knew that the fabric still had an amazing story to tell—I’ve always loved stories, so I had to find a way to tell them.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and establish your business? And why were they important?
Funny enough, I had to learn to sew! I had no idea how to work a sewing machine until I decided to start New York to Nashville. I have a few sewing machines. I usually use my Singer. Also, I immersed myself in learning the ropes of social media and networking. I am often shy around new people or in unfamiliar situations, but I had to become more of a people-person, if I wanted to become a member of the creative community. It was crucial for me to identify what I was uncomfortable with (i.e., introducing myself to strangers, showing the public what I was creating…) and tackle it head on. Starting a business is easy. Getting people to know (and care) about who you are and what you do requires a lot of time and effort. And it can be uncomfortable at times—but that’s how I knew that I was headed in the right direction.

The Tennessee Rose Vintage Rose Earrings

I very much appreciate the narrative, the prose and pictures, you weave (verb surely intended) into the descriptions and naming of your collections and products. Can you expand on what writing and history mean to you and your business?
Thank you for your kind words! As a young child, one of my fondest memories is watching Civil War documentaries, with my dad, when he got home from work. He loves history and that is something I’m proud to have inherited from him. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and my first major in undergrad was English. However, after the first semester of college, I realized that a degree in English was not quite right, so I changed schools to major in Russian Language, Literature + Culture, with a minor in American history. College was a time of being immersed in stories and historical characters and folk heroes. It did not lead directly to a traditional career, but it helped encourage my love of story. When people asked me about my undergrad degree, they would often comment that I probably would never end up really using it—and here I am, using it every day. I think the stories ARE my business—you hear a lot on how disconnected society is nowadays, and I hope that my stories are able to help bring people back to our common experiences and shared history.

Must ask: Considering your enthusiasm for writing and history, are there literary and/or historical characters that influence your work?
There are a few books I try to re-read every year: Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and The Brothers Karamazov (In fact, the reason I switched to a Russian degree was with the hope of reading this in the original Russian—I was a bit optimistic there). With New York to Nashville in particular, I have often imagined stepping back into the story of Gone with the Wind and capturing the essence of the southern gentleman. I grew up in New York, so that book opened up a whole new world to me when I first read it, and I started to really fall for the South. One of my first pocket squares was a red and white gingham that I named the Rhett Butler. I had so much fun with that write up that I knew I had found my niche.

The Rhett Butler II

Considering that you use reclaimed fabrics in making, I’m reminded of the CreativeMornings/Chicago talk by Raun Meyn who sources and uses discarded materials to make pictures frames and furniture. He said, “I love the character of old stuff.” What does using reclaimed materials mean to you?
I use a mix of modern and reclaimed fabrics for my products, but there is something thrilling—and crushing—about finding just a little bit of an amazing vintage fabric. It makes me really consider the story I want to tell with that piece, because it may be the only chance I get with that material. It’s fun to imagine its previous life and whether or not the former owner would agree with the story I’m weaving around the fabric.

Moleskine notebook for new ideas and Pendleton notebook for planning

Your pocket squares quickly grabbed my attention. How did you hone in on applying your vision and taste to the pocket square?
The stories and the characters came first—and the pocket squares seemed like the perfect medium through which to tell them. If I was able to paint, I probably would have tried to paint the stories; if I was better at music, I might have tried to sing the stories. Learning to sew was appealing, so that’s what I did. I think I decided on the pocket square because it was something I could put a twist on—most pocket squares are made with a stuffy silk or expensive linen, and rarely leave the pocket. Mine are approachable. They’re friendly. And they’re workhorses—a good blend of form and function.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
I never thought I had much business acumen, but looking back, I was always starting successful little businesses as a young kid-so I try to tap into that and just do what comes natural. When I first thought about starting a business, I read a lot of business books—but in the end, I decided to just do what I liked and hope that others would appreciate it as well.

What are must don’ts in being a business founder and owner?
Don’t get caught in a comparison trap—that’s not to say don’t learn and grow from others who are more successful in your field, but I think comparison can distract you from creating something that is wholly your own because you are trying to keep up with what other people are doing. It can turn creativity into copying.

What is the size of your team? And what size of company do you prefer?
It’s just me—and I get some help from my husband and sister-in-law during those time when orders get beyond what I can manage on my own. I probably need to bring someone on, but I would hate to relinquish any part of the business to someone else—I love everything that I do.

How do you get the word out about what you do? How do you attract customers?
When I was JUST starting, I visited Nashville boutiques with my product to inquire about consignment—and that was really difficult for me to do, but I believe it was a huge step in learning to be proud of what I am making and believing what I am doing. It also made me come up with the elevator pitch about what I do.

Right now, most of my customers come through more organic means—I think social media has been an amazing way to connect with people and get them familiar with New York to Nashville. I haven’t done any formal advertising at this point.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?
I am trying to expand what I create and grow the business from the inside out. I am constantly thinking about new things that I can make what will stay true to the feeling I want people to have when purchasing something from New York to Nashville. Owning a business is very much like being in a relationship—things can easily fall into a comfortable routine, which is okay, but I think it’s important to keep bringing in new experiences and trying out different things.

Johnny Appleseed Bandana

How would you describe your business’ work culture?
And why is it important?
Since it is just me, it’s more about keeping a healthy work/life balance. If you are serious about what you do, being self-employed means that you have the meanest boss around.

Ecommerce can be intimidating to approach and realize. How did you implement your eCommerce Website?
With one eye shut! There is just so much out there for a small business to choose from—it’s overwhelming. I was having a lot of success on Etsy and I knew I needed to start a site where I could cut out that middleman. For my website, I use Squarespace and I did it myself—no web developer (yet!). Once I chose my platform, I spent many hours trying to lay out the website, figure out how to set up an online shop and create that online presence; I know I still have a long way to go—but I always prefer to do things myself.

On creativity, design, working:

With all of the busy things you do, how do you achieve “inner peace” and keep at it?
I try to take an “unplugged” walk outside once a day. You don’t realize how often you reach for your phone to check messages, mail, etc., until you tell yourself that you can’t.

What part of your work is particularly trying, and how do you deal with it?
I work alone most of the time—and although I am kind of an introvert, I’ve found that it is extremely important to keep myself a part of the local creative community since I don’t have co-workers. I started attending CreativeMornings here in Nashville, and I try to plan coffee dates or craft nights with other creative friends to just connect and share ideas, and talk about life.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?
My space is a work in progress. I like to believe I am a very organized person, but I’m probably a mix between pragmatic and messy. I work best by a big, sunny window with a favorite record playing. If I am feeling cramped, or that I cant see/get to all of my fabrics, it really hinders my work. I like to have it all out and around me—so I guess that means it’s a bit messy all of the time.

I have a dedicated workspace, but since I am still working on that work/home balance, I end up doing a lot of work at our dining-room table late at night.

How do you stay creative? What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?
I had my first baby in January and I thought, “Well, that’s it. I’ll never have a creative idea again”, and it has been the exact opposite. I am up with Ruby multiple times during the night, and I have had more ideas during those times than I know what to do with. My mom sent me a notebook for keeping by my bedside because I was worried about forgetting everything that popped into my head while I was sitting in the dark in the middle of the night, holding my baby. You definitely can’t force inspiration—but if you know when you get the most ideas, be sure to keep a notebook handy at those times!

What is your definition of bad design?
Mass-produced good design. When something is so streamlined that it is sterile and devoid of any character—the good design is drowned out. I am drawn to the slight imperfections in something a person has created.

If you were posed, “Danielle, I want to do what you do.” What’s your response?
If you’re willing to be a mean boss and a jack of all trades—you can do this. While my schedule is totally my own, I’m determined to be successful which means that I don’t work 9–5 with an hour lunch break, 5 days a week. Sometimes I spend an entire Saturday fulfilling and shipping orders, or I don’t stop to eat until late in the day. People tell me I am “lucky”—as if New York to Nashville fell into my lap or a brand builds itself overnight. It’s a lot of work to do every part of a business on your own; thinking up products, creating them, write copy, handling social media, learning eCommerce, websites, branding…but it’s wonderful because no two days are exactly the same.

From your company’s name, you came from the North to the South. How does the city of Nashville contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
Nashville, especially East Nashville—where I live, is amazingly supportive of local artisans and creatives of all kinds. I think a huge difference is that you can be heard here—in New York, there is a lot of noise that can easily drown out a small start-up. People are also extremely friendly here, it’s something I am still getting used to. They ask how you are doing and wait for a response. That makes it much easier to become a part of the local community and really feel connected. Strangers become friends quickly—often over a single cup of coffee. It’s a wonderful place to call home.

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Typeface of quotes is Caslon designed by William Caslon I (1692–1766).

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All photographs courtesy of Danielle Romero.

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