Alicia Paulson

alicia paulsonOccupation: Handbag/Product Designer
Website: Posie: Rosy Little Things
Biography: Alicia Ieronemo Paulson is a designer who develops, manufactures, and sells a line of vintage-inspired handbags, accessories, gifts and crochetwear. Her company, Posie: Rosy Little Things, offers its collections through a web site and her brick-and-mortar boutique, Ella Posie, in Portland, Oregon.

What do you do and how did you start?
I design and manufacture a collection of handmade, vintage-inspired products that I sell on my web site and in my little boutique. I started Posie five years ago by offering custom silk-ribbon embroidery on a commission basis to fashion designers and interested individuals. That evolved into selling a line of embroidered sachets and photo albums wholesale. Selling handmade things wholesale on that scale proved to be kind of a nightmare for me — it required sales reps and showroom fees and road samples, not to mention a very low price point, since boutique buyers will double the wholesale price when marking up to retail (customer) price. Since I was paying my reps and my material costs out of what I was able to charge, the margin was so low that it just didn’t make doing all the work worth it. So in 2002, I made the decision to stop selling wholesale exclusively, start designing whatever I wanted whenever I could, and offer my creations to my customers directly, at a reasonable price that I feel really good about. My products are now available almost exclusively through my web site and at Ella Posie, our boutique.

How old were you when you realised you wanted to do what you’re currently doing and how old were you when you actually began.
I started doing embroidery in 1998, when I was 29, and after I was in a bad accident. I had six surgeries over six months while doctors worked to reconstruct my foot, which was in danger of being amputated. It was terrifying and painful, and, during my recovery and after my husband returned to work, I faced long days alone in bed with only visitors, nurses, television, and the kitty for company. I pulled out some old embroidery I had played with years before and started stitching from morning until late at night. I found that when I stopped, my pain was significantly increased, and I’ve since heard that doing this kind of detail work is widely known to be an effective pain management technique.

Eventually my skills and my health improved, and it became obvious that I was going to have to rethink all sorts of things in my life. I was working full-time as a book editor when I was injured, and I knew that I couldn’t keep up that kind of 45-hour-per-week, deadline-intensive work, and didn’t even want to. I had been very interested in my job, and had gone to graduate school in English, etc., but suddenly – I was different. People were starting to become interested in the embroidery I was doing, and began commissioning projects, and I found myself being incredibly satisfied by the thought of self-employment. And I could put my feet up when I needed to. . . .

So I think I was 31 by the time I was considered “recovered” and had quit my job and applied for an assumed business name and a Posie checking account and designed a business card. But I think I’d always wanted to make things for a living. My family was and still is very entrepreneurial and artistically inclined, and my parents had always encouraged us to work for ourselves–my dad was a freelance graphic designer and my mom sells fimo clay jewelry through craft markets. They fostered irreverence for the corporate world, so I was quite comfortable with the idea of not being a part of it. I’d had little businesses all through growing up and had always loved product packaging and display, so the concept of starting my own thing was never foreign to me.

Also during this time, my dad passed away at age 54 after a very quick but valiant struggle with cancer. I think that after a near-death thing like a bad accident, and then losing a parent, you sort of think: No time to waste here! Let’s get this show on the road! I’ve just been to hell and back so this can’t scare me! I felt very brave and impatient and adamant that if there were things in my life that I could control, like what I did for a living, then I would control them. So the transition was a long time in coming, but when it came it was very quick and sure.

Learn who to listen to and learn to say no if it doesn’t feel right.

Alicia Paulson

What jobs did you have before you went out on your own?
Movie theater candy girl, administrative and publications assistant, waitress in the best stuffed pizza restaurant in Chicago, creative writing instructor, editor, and probably a few others I’ve blocked out. When I look back, I would say that being a waitress is actually what gave me a taste of being self-employed: you had your own tables and your own chores and you were responsible for how much money you made on any given night. It was so busy and hectic and yet there was no one to really answer to-you were very much on your own. And since I worked nights, It was so much better than sitting in an office all day, which I have always, always, always loathed. Ever since I was little, I have always loved to be at home during the day.

What steps did you take to create your own business?
Well, aside from the obvious ones like applying for a tax ID number and business name, I think the biggest step was gaining a big, bright, beautiful studio when we bought a new house. I’m so sensitive to space, and had always lived with nowhere near enough of it. I’m a true believer that if you don’t have room for your stuff and your projects, you won’t do them. In the mid-90s, my husband and I had lived in a 20-by-20-foot studio apartment where we moved furniture to pull the bed out of the wall every night, and, for me anyway, there was no room to employ any creative ideas I did have, somehow. But when I got the studio, I knew that with a room like this, I would just figure it out, no matter what. It was an incredible gift, and it motivated me to be worthy of it. The physical conditions were absolutely ideal and it opened up all sorts of veins. The ideas and the projects (which turned into products) just started pouring out of me. The effect that empty shelves and clear worktables had on my inspiration was incredible.

What kind of formal education, training or experience do you have that applies to what you do?
I have a BA in English and an MFA in creative writing, and believe it or not, both serve me daily in my work on Posie. But it’s taken me a while to see that all of my experience and education is informing what I do now. I’d been in school for English forever (I don’t even think my liberal arts college had a marketing degree) and I was encouraged academically, so I just always thought I’d do that, and be a writer and editor. (Also, everyone, including myself, had spent so much money on my education that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and not having people freak out.) But writing was always very hard for me, in retrospect, and I suspected that I didn’t have the drive it takes to do it professionally. I was always sort of off making something out of fabric and feeling guilty because I knew I was supposed to be writing. In grad school I took a flat-pattern-design class in the costume shop of the theatre department as an elective, and I was forever running into writing workshops or readings late, trying to hide these enormous paper patterns I had to carry with me. My friends were always like, “Where have you been? What are you doing?” I started to suspect that I liked making things better than I liked writing. Now I write in the service of what I make, and I think both mediums benefit. I know I’m much happier. And of course my work in publications trained me to design all of the marketing materials, packaging, catalogs, invitations, web site stuff, media kits, and the gazillion related forms you need for a small business.

As far as the sewing stuff and product design and construction, I’m just self-taught, from books mostly. I do believe that there’s a book out there to teach you almost anything. The work that goes into books is incredible, and the things that you can learn–from how to make stuff to how to run a business–just blows me away. I spend hours and hours and hours in fabric stores and bookstores just browsing through patterns, fabrics, photographs, and books, books, books (and magazines). If I sense that I’m having a bad day or about to, I high-tail it over to the bookstore, alone, and get a big stack of stuff and a coffee drink and stay for hours, until I feel better.

How did you first begin to sell/market your work?
At first, I offered custom embroidery on a commission basis and worked for a few local independent fashion designers here in Portland. We did a few trunk shows where I would show my samplers and take orders, but it became pretty obvious that people wanted an actual thing, a product, to go home with. I’d bought a bunch of wired ribbon to learn how to make millinery flowers and found that I was terrible at it–but I had $60 worth of ribbon I didn’t know what to do with! So I sewed some embroidered squares of dupioni silk together, stuffed them with lavender, hand-stitched on wired-ribbon ruffles and took them around to a few stores (which I was awful at–nervous and awkward and taking any rejection personally, of course). I didn’t know anything about wholesale or sales reps, but my sister was starting her own card company at the time, and we would sort of have these marathon phone conversations about what stores we should take our stuff to, how to price it, how to find a rep, what a rep even was. We didn’t know anything.

But eventually we found a rep together, and she took us on and started selling products to boutiques throughout the Northwest. Later, I signed with a bigger company that had several reps over six states and a showroom in the Seattle Gift Mart, but as I said, the amount of money that I was able to charge the buyers, knowing that they had to double it for the consumer, wasn’t enough after I paid my reps and my material costs and did all the work. So now I sell my work directly, through the web site and the shop, and although I may sell certain products in the line wholesale to boutiques that I really like, I’ll only do it if they butter me up and make me love them, and understand that I am not primarily a wholesaler. My goal is to make enough money to support myself and not make myself crazy busy. I have to cobble together several different ways of doing that, while always keeping an eye on the future. Right now I’m heading away slightly from piece-by-piece manufacture to designing patterns – you put your very best into a design, and get paid to produce copies of it, which is more sustainable in the long run and allows me to stay balanced.

What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do? The most frustrating?
Knowing that no matter how hard it is or how much time I’ve spent or work I’ve done, it’s all in the service of creating this little dream, which represents a true victory for me in a million different ways. There is something so incredibly satisfying about coming up with ideas and working your tush off for yourself and your own company instead of your boss that once you do it, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to do anything else. That said, it is kind of scary and a little lonely at times. And working alone, you know that if it is gonna get done, you’re gonna have to do it. If the money is gonna get made, you’re gonna have to make it-no more automatic pay check or 401K plan.

Do you have any fears about what you do, and if so, how do you deal with them?
I’m always afraid that the phone will stop ringing, but mostly I just try to be very disciplined about what I do and how I think about it. If it’s quiet, or it seems like no one’s interested, I just try to stay calm and do my work and keep making beautiful things, keep the infrastructure ready for when the phones start ringing again, stay prepared to get that great opportunity that always seems to come when you think maybe this time it won’t-a big sale, a great invitation to do a trunk show, a little publicity. Things go in waves, it seems-very much a feast or famine kind of situation at times, and when it’s slow I try to remember that I should enjoy it a little more than I do! There’s an epigraph at the beginning of Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life by Goethe that says, “Do not hurry; do not rest.” And I really try to live by that when I get scared. Steady on, keep the faith.

How do you deal with creative blocks?
I don’t seem to have any anymore. I have way more ideas (and fabric) than I have time to execute them. Usually I’m so busy with all the business stuff that I long for more time to do the fun stuff. And I make sure that, although I make things for other people for a living, I’m always working on a project for myself at night-right now it’s a series of crocheted pillows.

What kind of work environment do you have?
I work in a home studio that was built as an addition onto our 1927 house by the previous owner, who was a painter. We painted it pink, and the room absolutely glows, no matter what the weather. It faces west and south and has huge windows, skylights, and French doors leading into our backyard and garden. Please don’t hate me.

Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Gosh, right now, things are very tight. Very tight. I’ve invested a lot and need to make that money back, but the economy hasn’t cooperated lately. If I chart month by month I can see trends in my sales reflecting national issues, and since what I sell is considered something you would treat yourself to, not something you really need, I think my sales are reflecting peoples’ need to cut back on things they probably really want but can’t splurge on. It’s tough right now, I won’t lie.

What is your definition of success?
Success for me would mean continuing to design and make exactly what I want and market and sell it exactly as I want, and still make enough money to support the business and myself comfortably. Success would mean getting to create my own schedule every day. Of course, I also love knowing that people are happy with what I’m making and that it’s bringing a little bit of fun and flowery stuff into their lives. I’m still so tickled when customers come and just start smiling when they see what I’ve made. I love seeing that. It makes me laugh and feel connected with the world.

Who or what are your inspirations?
Gosh. So many. Famous people, like Audrey Hepburn for her style and everlasting generosity and kindness. Laura Ashley, Cath Kidston, Nigella Lawson and the country of England for green heaths and calicos and crumbly stone walls and nostalgic comfort kitchens and down-to-earthiness. Veronica Mars, Girl Detective. The Gilmore Girls. Debbie Bliss, knitwear designer. The novel Snap by Abby Frucht for its vision of a sparkly, sassy, serendipitous creative life, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, for illuminating the alternatives and writing the novel I would’ve wanted to write if I could’ve. All the other girls at play, for obvious reasons. My husband, Andy Paulson, for inspiring all of us who know him, including his lucky patients, to see the world the way he sees it.

Words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals.
Do it. At the end, no one is ever going to thank you for not living your life. You just have to sort of bang on through, don’t worry about being perfect, don’t worry about whether people think you’re a “success” or not. You will be. You just keep slogging away at it, and remember what a gift it is to have this kind of independence and responsibility and opportunity to do it on your own, exactly as you want to-you will make as much money as you need, because you’ll have to. Learn who to listen to and learn to say no if it doesn’t feel right. Trust the feeling in your stomach. Laugh at yourself. Have a good time. Be happy with what you’ve done each day and whom you’ve done it with, because that in itself is a worthy contribution to this crazy world.

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