I love and respect and admire so much the three ladies you’re about to hear. You probably know them too. They’re my dear friends and are also great inspirations for me. Clare Vivier, Ellen Bennett and Tina Frey have built three very different and fascinating businesses around their creativity – and they joined me in my living room to talk about it. So if this feels like a relaxed conversation, it’s because it truly is!
These women have been in my life for a few months or a few years, but we support each other every day. We are open about money. We are open about our struggles and our ambitions, no matter how different we all may be. We’re just there for one another.
I hope you are as inspired and lifted by my conversation with these three amazing women as I was.
Carte Blanche: Turning a Creative Passion into a Business
On the hustle of surviving while starting your own business…
CLARE: When I stopped working with Thierry, my husband, and I just started working part-time jobs, like contract jobs. I was a production coordinator in the entertainment industry, doing commercials and music videos. And prop styling.
ELLEN: Which, by the way, all of that is a serious hustle. It’s not like you have work lined up. You have to find it, show up, then be lining up more, then collecting checks, then calling people up saying “Hey, I haven’t received my payment” while going to the next one and schlepping!
CLARE: Right, and these jobs are like three days to two weeks long and each time you do one, you’re taken off your own job. I was working on starting a bag line and then I’d take a job for two weeks and not touch it for two weeks and come back and be like, “Ok, where was I again?”
On starting off as an accountant…
TINA: My whole entire life, I was always super creative. Always making things and I loved it with a passion. Any time I had classes in school or university, I took art electives and it was my favorite thing to do. It never occurred to me that it could be my career. So of all things, when I went to university I actually did a science degree and then a business degree and became an accountant. It was not my passion and I kind of hated it. I think the way to build the gap was to slowly start working for companies that were more product related, like LVMH and Levi’s, and Christian Dior.
ELLEN: In the accounting department? That’s such a good place to be working and seeing how the hell they do it all!
TINA: Actually, you’re right. In hindsight it probably was because you understand how the nuts and bolts of a business runs. But for me, it was always about what people were making and that was the more interesting side for me.
On focusing on the creative instead of a business plan…
TINA: Because I was self-taught in this area, I just knew I had to figure out a way to translate what was up here into a physical object. And the easiest way was to go to the clay store and find what kind of clays I liked working with and basically sculpt that thing into a shape or a form, something that I thought was pleasing. I didn’t think about the business side at all. I just threw that all away because I don’t care, it just has to be something that I like and is beautiful.
ELLEN: That’s the best kind of creativity. You weren’t googling or on Pinterest to figure it out. It was coming from your head, which is your imagination, which is original.
TINA: It came from my heart, I think. At some point, when you think about a career, it’s not about money and finance and stability, all that boring stuff, which is great to think about, but I thought it’s not all about that, it has to be about something more.
On getting their first order…
TINA: I took the leap and made two bowls and showed up at the gift fair. People asked “How do I place an order?” I’d just shown up not having an order form, price list or a line sheet, nothing! I called my husband and said, “Hurry up, go to the stationery store and get me an order form, you know the one with the carbon copy!” Somebody wanted to place an order and I didn’t want to put order number one, so I put order 101!
ELLEN: Oh my god, that’s so cute that you remember that.
CLARE: Yeah, you’re my one hundred and first, I swear.
ELLEN: For me, it was an idea, I had no business plan whatsoever. My very first order was 40 aprons for a chef I worked for.
GARANCE: How did you do that, like how did you decide, ok, they’ll be this price, etc?
ELLEN: This is exactly how it went down. We were standing by the cash register and he said, “Hey, Bennett, there is a girl who is going to make us aprons for the restaurant, do you want to buy one?” And I said, “What’s she charging you?” and he said $40. So in a matter of 30 seconds, I had processed in my head, oh my god, this is the opportunity, the ship is sailing in front of you so you either get on the ship or the ship is going to go! So I said, chef, I have an apron company and I will make you those aprons. What’s the speed she’s doing them at and I will do them in less time and I’ll do it for $38. I wheeled and dealed it right there on the spot, he dropped that order, gave it to me and that night, I clocked out and had to run around like a lunatic finding sewers, cutters, fabric, people that could make me a pattern, everything. But I had an order and a customer and that customer was my chef, so I wasn’t going to fail him.
On the early days…
CLARE: Finally, it was the feeling of loving what we’re doing for the first time.
GARANCE: It’s like love, so you get excited and you don’t care.
CLARE: Yeah, you’re running on adrenaline. I was staying awake until 2am sewing, making patterns and just figuring shit out, figuring out the construction of things. I was so into it and it was exciting to me, so I never got tired.
TINA: I used to stitch the bags for my things.
ELLEN: I used to hand-deliver the aprons all over Los Angeles!
TINA: I used to do that too!
ELLEN: I thought if I don’t hand deliver them, they’re never going to order again.
On what sets them apart…
CLARE: Some of these other brands that are very corporate, they don’t feel like they have a heartbeat. It’s true that there are people behind them but it’s more of a business plan versus it coming from a very personal point of this is our creative, for lack of a better word, I was going to say vomit.
ELLEN: It kind of started as creative vomit!
TINA: It’s our identity.
CLARE: It’s a real boon for us that we’re able to call upon this unlimited resource of our own selves.
ELLEN: It’s also the thing that makes each of us different and original, un-copyable in many ways. Other people can copy the designs that we’ve made, but they can’t copy the future creativity that we have within ourselves.
TINA: You also look at what you create as a whole, it’s not just one object, it’s the whole identity of your collection. There’s a certain DNA to it.
On not being a control freak…
GARANCE: Who of us is a control freak, because I’m not.
TINA: I’ve always been.
CLARE: I don’t think I am.
ELLEN: I have moments.
CLARE: I would say yeah she is (to Ellen).
GARANCE: Clare, I would say you are.
ELLEN: How do you know that?? I just got accused!
CLARE: It’s our brand image and what we built from the beginning. It’s really important and there is no one speaks that language better the same way we do.
On knowing your weaknesses…
ELLEN: I recognize now there are other people who can come and support me and do it better than me. Whereas before, the pressure I felt two years ago, that I had it all on my shoulders and I needed to be the hero and I needed to make it happen all alone, so I shifted that perspective.
CLARE: I never had that feeling. I always knew what I was not good at and where my strengths were.
On what drives them to grow their business…
CLARE: So many things drive me. I love that we employ a lot of people. We employ about 70 people and I’d love to employ a lot more people. That’s creating jobs and giving people livelihood.
ELLEN: You have to find what success looks like for you. Remembering that your journey is your fucking journey and to stop looking at other people’s journeys, that’s giving me a sense of peace. Like ok, shut the fuck up about who’s on the cover of Inc., just look at what you’re doing! You have a factory, you have a husband you love, you just got married, you’re healthy and you’re 31 years old and there are young women who look up to you and say, “Holy shit, she grew this company with $300!” I should be proud of that!
CLARE: I think I see this with Ellen, too, but we want a seat at a larger table. And I think by having the size of companies we have now, for Ellen and I, our worlds have opened up to a lot of other worlds and they’re mostly run by men and we’re sitting at a table with a lot of men. And I feel that I want to be sitting there.
ELLEN: Same. But we want to be sitting there for different reasons than they want to be sitting there.
CLARE: Of course. Affecting policy and decisions and the way our city is changing. If we can sit at a table with Garcetti and his people because we’re women-owned, no, we are business owners in Los Angeles, not women business owners, just business owners. We’re going to affect policy in a way that’s going to benefit other women. I think that’s what’s driving us as well.
On what their dreams are for the companies…
TINA: Just to not lose its soul and always coming up with something beautiful that people enjoy and has that spirit behind it. Because that’s why the whole thing started in the first place and I don’t want to lose that. If it grows, I wouldn’t be against it, but I kind of don’t want to put on that business hat. I want to make sure it doesn’t lose its soul.
CLARE: That’s such a zen response. That’s my sentiment, I love your sentiment, but when I think about what we’re doing at our company, we’re not curing cancer, these aren’t of the utmost importance. But what we do, is bring joy to people and that’s our mission and the optimal thing. The best thing we can do is bring joy and if we can continue to do that, that’s the ultimate goal. But yes, I do want to continue growing the company!
On being true to yourself…
ELLEN: For everybody and anybody out there, everyone’s journey is different and what makes you special, is you, and that’s different than me. What we need more of in the world is originality and unique points of view and perspectives. It’s important to go out there and be the best version of yourself and that will bring success because that’s the most unique thing out there. There is no one else like you, or me or Clare. Don’t try to be like your neighbor, just be yourself. That journey is hard, painful and difficult, but it’s the right journey to be on and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s a good one worth fighting for.
Be sure to check out Tina’s designs and stay up on new products and collections here! To stayed tuned on Clare and her brand, Clare V., you can get an inside look into her world here! And don’t miss out on Ellen and her company, hedley & bennett for all of your apron and chef gear needs. And finally, if you’re in LA, swing by the new Firehouse Hotel in DTLA that Clare and Ellen recently collaborated on.