Jeanine Hays of AphroChic

Jeanine Hays does design differently. By intertwining African culture with contemporary textiles, Jeanine created AphroChic, an interior-decorating-blog-turned-design-company.

This Philadelphia girl’s story began in 2007. With a law degree under her chic leather belt, she was working for a domestic violence non-profit in San Francisco, a stressful job that led her to the world of blogging. She created AphroChic, a place where she could let her creativity shine.  However, AphroChic wasn’t like the other design blogs: It was all about cultural diversity and modern décor, a combination that made Jeanine’s then-hobby something so much bigger than she ever imagined.

Just two years later, Jeanine partnered with her husband and introduced AphroChic as a brand. Her pillows, wallpapers, and other small goods coincide with Jeanine’s African heritage and AphroChic’s tagline, “Modern.Soulful.Style.”

Today, Jeanine tells us the story of AphroChic. What’s more, she gives us a glimpse into what it’s like to design an entire collection, partner with a spouse, and boldly bring culture into the home.

Full name: Jeanine Hays
Age: 34
Current title/company: Creative Director and Founder, AphroChic & blogger behind AphroChic
Educational background: Juris Doctorate from American University Washington College of Law; B.A. from Spelman College in Political Science

Year you started AphroChic: In 2007, I started the AphroChic blog. In 2009, my husband and I launched the AphroChic textile line.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My first job after college was as a paralegal for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. During that time I was worked with girls in the juvenile justice system. Many of the girls I worked with were victims of child abuse and horrific violence. While there, I completed a study on girls in the juvenile justice system that became a national model and began the citywide Girl Talk conference. After working with the Defenders I decided that I wanted to go to law school to study domestic violence law and public policy. After I graduated from American in 2004, I got my dream job working for one of the top domestic violence non-profits in the country to enact policies to help victims of violence. I discovered the job while searching on Idealist.org, was called for an interview, flew out to San Francisco and landed it immediately. A few months later, we were moving from DC to San Francisco to start a new life.

What were you doing when you started your blog and how has your career changed since then?
Well, at the time I had been working at the non-profit for a few years, and was looking for a creative outlet. My artsy side has always been at war with my legal side over what I’ll spend the most time on. I studied painting while I was in undergrad at Spelman, and again in Chile during a domestic exchange program for law school. Art, writing and design have always been passions of mine but law school had really shut off that side of my brain. My job was amazing (I have actually gotten to go to the White House for meetings on legislation), but I was desperately in need of a creative outlet. After years spent talking about design, my husband was the one who suggested starting a design blog to find a community of design-lovers like myself. I could not have imagined how much starting that little blog would change my life! AphroChic has taken me on the most amazing ride, changing my career completely. I left the non-profit world at the beginning to 2011, and am enjoying being a full-time designer, blogger, and soon-to-be author of my first home decor book.

What inspired you to start your blog?
When I started AphroChic I really wanted to fill a gap that was present in the design blog world. While I loved all of the home decor blogs I was following at the time, so few featured designers and artists of color. I actually remember reading a post on SouthAfrican designers on one of my favorite blogs at the time, and not one of the ten designers presented was Black. That got to me. I realized that what I really wanted to see was a blog that reflected cultural diversity, but that looked at it in a modern decor context, and then I thought hey, I can do that! That AphroChic has really become a place where diversity is celebrated, and where designers of color have found an outlet for their work is the thing I’m most proud of about my blog.

How does your culture and personal style inspire your brand?
In so many ways the brand is a reflection of who I am. When I was first trying to figure out what the content of the blog would be, it was my husband who told me, “You are your audience. Just write what you would want to read.” It turned out to be a winning formula and we carried it over into the creation of the AphroChic brand. My culture is extremely important to me, and I love to celebrate my heritage at home. That’s how I came up with the tag line, “Modern.Soulful.Style.” It expresses my love of modern interiors that have a cultural aspect to them and a personal story that is unique to the individual. That to me is what brings soul to a space. When I started the blog, I wanted to prove not only that personal heritage and contemporary interior design were not mutually exclusive, but that they were actually better together. That same desire was the impetus behind our textile line. I saw the same gap present in the world of textile design that I had seen in interior design blogs. My husband and I decided that if we were willing to talk about the gap, then we should be willing to try to help fill it. The textile designs that he and I created together were really focused on helping design lovers express a little bit of their cultural and personal style at home. I mean, what better way is there to do that than with a pillow of a girl with an amazing afro?! We think about how each design, and on the blog, how each post, is going to help those who come to our brand create their own culturally-inspired personal style at home.

AphroChic is about intertwining culture and style. How has your own culture and style played a role in the design process?
Overall, AphroChic is a modern African-American approach to interior design. Being African-American, many of my designs celebrate the beauty of African cultures, but with a completely modern twist that makes our products very American as well as ensuring that they fit well within contemporary interiors. For instance, when designing our The Beat print, I knew I wanted to develop a new take on an African design. African kuba cloth has beautiful geometric shapes, and I wanted to take that traditional cultural print and modernize it in a current color palette that was on trend with the latest in design tastes. The result was a pillow and wallpaper pattern that celebrates the traditional culture of a specific group of African people while providing a colorful enhancement to rooms filled with Eames chairs and other modern furnishings. So whether we’re looking at modernizing a traditional African pattern, or creating a print that reflects African-American life as our Brooklyn Life pillows do, every design begins from a cultural standpoint, and then the modern layers come in with color and materials.

Tell us more about how AphroChic went from personal blog to business. How did you go from writer to designer?
It’s really been an organic process. When I started the blog it really took off, creating a life of its own in a way. I was still working at my full-time job in public policy, and suddenly I was up at night working on the blog, answering press releases, taking lunch breaks to do a shoot for a newspaper or online mag. It was really crazy managing it all, but it was clear that AphroChic was becoming my new path in life. The business was really just a natural next step for Bryan and me to take. I had begun working on a few designs just for fun, and then thought, “I wonder if I can turn this into a pillow?” And I am one of those type A people that just can’t let a question in my mind go. Suddenly I was obsessed with how to make a pillow, and I did a ton of research to find textile printers and pillow inserts. Funny enough, there was a printer literally blocks from where I lived, and one of the top pillow insert companies in the country was just down the block from where I was working! I don’t believe in coincidences—I knew this was the universe’s way of telling me that I had to pursue the idea of starting a textile company. With the full support of my husband and my sister (who helped with styling the catalog), the AphroChic textile company launched in 2009, and it’s been growing incredibly ever since. The next year we added wallpaper, and the entire collection has been embraced by bloggers, design enthusiasts, and the media. It’s been incredible!

Your pieces have appeared in many magazines and websites. How did you go about marketing your brand?
The very first marketing strategy was through the blog. We worked for a year on developing the products, and then a lookbook that was shot by Patrick Cline, co-founder of Lonny Magazine and the photographer for our book. As a blogger, I know the images had to be just right, and if they were, then other bloggers would fall in love with them and want to post about our new line on their site. I was right! Bloggers embraced the collection, and so many good friends wrote about the new line, and really for the first year all the press came from the blogosphere. Then, Lucky Magazine found out about the collection from reading a blog we were featured on, and we were in print. It was very exciting. The next year we wanted to expand not only the collection, but our marketing, and found out about a great publicist through a friend. He now owns his own firm, Rich Pedine PR, and I have to give him all the credit. Suddenly, AphroChic was in The New York Times, on Elle Decor, in California Home & Design. The marketing that Rich has done for us continues to get us fantastic press.

What do you feel makes your designs so unique?
We take antique cultural patterns, update them in modern colors and bold oversized prints, and the end result is a piece that is so much fun. I spend a lot of time looking at colors for each of our designs, and like to choose what I call “smile-inducing shades”. Bright yellows, pinks, and purples that just make you happy. I’m glad our collection can bring happiness and a little cultural style into the homes of our customers.

Your husband plays a huge role in the company. What are the advantages and disadvantages of partnering with your spouse?
I know people want to hear disadvantages—so many times they wonder how in the world we can work together every day—but we love it. Bry and I have been together for over 16 years, we are the best of friends, and we really enjoy working together and supporting each other. In working together we always have a sounding board. We never have to wait to go over an idea, or schedule a meeting to discuss something. Most of the time we’re right next to each other working on the sofa, and we can discuss things in the business as they come up immediately. We also recognize each other’s strengths which really helps us as business partners. I’m the chatty designer, I love to talk at meetings, do interviews, come up with new designs, work on the social media aspect of the business. I really enjoy it. And Bry is the logistics guy. He works on the retail side, new partnerships, shipping, and the general organization of our business model. I think because we both have particular roles in AphroChic we don’t step on each other’s toes, and we really balance each other out as a couple and as owners of our business.

What advice would you have for girls looking to find a position in a similar field? What would you look for when hiring a new employee?
Focus broadly on your education. So many people in this field went to school just for design, but when you own your own business, design is often the last thing you get to do. There is a lot of brand management that goes on and financial organization that’s needed. Whether you want to be a textile designer, graphic designer, artist, anything creative, be sure to pick up some business skills and marketing courses. Take a business class at your college, go to a workshop on using social media to build your brand. These things are necessary even in the world of design. When we get to the point of hiring new employees for AphroChic, I really want to work with someone who is well-rounded and who can jump into different areas. In any given week, my job can consist of writing an article, styling a photo shoot, working on content for our book, and talking to new retail partners. My background in art and law comes into play each and every week, and that’s the kind of person I needed working with us. Someone who actively uses both their left and right brain to get towards their goal.

What were the biggest challenges of starting your own company? Greatest rewards?
The biggest challenge is not having a roadmap. I always had a roadmap in front of me. After high school I knew I was going to study political science. After college, I knew I was going to go to law school. And after law school, I knew I wanted to work in public policy. Now, there is no roadmap—it’s all on me to create the road, and that can feel very daunting. I find that you really have to trust yourself and be very, very patient, and the right path will be revealed in due time.

As for rewards, there are so many! I love it when someone purchases a pillow, or a roll of wallpaper, and they write us and tell us how much they love it. It’s amazing to know that you have made something that is going to be in someone’s home and that’s going to add to their life positively, even if it’s just in a small way.

In addition to overseeing AphroChic, you’re also a design expert for HGTV.com, DIYNetwork.com, and many other sites. Plus, you wrote a book, coming out Fall 2013! How do you find balance in your busy life?
I wish I had more balance. Right now there really isn’t time for any. I’m trying to keep up with the demands of growing this brand, and I really want it to be a success. To do that, especially in the first few years, you have to give your company all of your time. I do have some moments of daily bliss though—going out for soy chai, getting an ice cream cone, having a nice lunch in the middle of the afternoon with my hubby—those are all really great moments that help me get through the day.

Tell us about the book writing process. How did you find a publisher?
The publisher actually found me. It’s funny because I will never forget the day I heard from our publisher. I was in San Francisco. My husband was taking his comprehensive exams for his Ph.D., and I got this email from Clarkson Potter asking if I was ever interested in writing a book. Since it was exam day, I couldn’t tell Bry the news until later that night, which almost killed me. The next day I responded with an email that said, “Absolutely,” and a month later we were writing our proposal. A few months after that we started our first photo shoots, and this month we are finishing up our final manuscript. The entire process has been a dream come true. People say writing a book is like having a baby. I don’t have any kids just yet, but it is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. The process is long, as you go from writing down your initial ideas, to really putting words to paper. And we decided to take all original photos for our book, which included some fun travel with our team to Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, and we shot here in Philly, over a nine-month period.

What has made our book-writing process so fantastic is that it’s really been a family affair. My sister and I style the homes together, Bryan and I write the manuscript together, and my brother-in-law is our videographer. I love that we all get to work together on something this big. Like everything else at AphroChic, it has been so much fun and very rewarding.

Take us through your average workday.
8:00am – The alarm goes off and I hit snooze for an hour
9:00am – Time to get up and make breakfast and a fresh pot of hot tea (I can’t work without it)
10:00am – My workday begins. Most of the time I start by answering a few emails, and look over the schedule for the day, especially if we have meetings.
11:00am – First meeting of the day. I like to plan morning meetings with press folks or retailers and walk them through the collection.
12:00pm – Writing. Right now most of the time has been spent editing our manuscript.
2:00pm – Lunch! We always break for it, and also get in some Netflix. Archer is our favorite.
3:00pm – The editing continues.
5:00pm – Another tea break, and usually a little TV (we’re addicted)
11:00pm – Answer more emails. I like doing it at night. It’s the most quiet time of the day.
12:00am – Post tomorrow’s blog post. I never write them too far ahead of time. I really like to be inspired and write about what I’m loving in the moment.
1:00am – 2:00am Read blogs, pin, and finally get to bed.

What advice would you give to your 23 year old self?
Don’t worry about what others think of you. Make sure that you like who you are and that you stand for something.