Rebecca Atwood is the type of woman for whom the word talented is an understatement. As Founder and Creative Director of Rebecca Atwood Designs, she’s the brains and creative force behind a line of pillows and fabrics that are now being carried in stores across the country. Her designs are bold; whimsical patterns and fun colors are mixed with a hint of luxury—and they’ve caught the eye of some of our favorite blogs and websites, such as Apartment 34, sfgirlbybay, and Rue Magazine.
So how did she get to where she is today? A leap of faith. Rebecca worked at Anthropologie as an assistant designer in the home department and at ny-lon design where she learned how to design a collection (and had the opportunity to travel across the world) but ultimately she felt there weren’t any opportunities for growth in her field. After some major personal introspection, Rebecca completed Jess Lively’s Business with Intention class where she learned her ‘spaghetti number’ (the bare minimum amount of money needed to get by). This helped Rebecaa realize she could make her dream of creating her own line a reality and she dove right in. Armed with her sister’s contacts in the blogging world (Grace Atwood of Stripes and Sequins!), word-of-mouth grew her small line into one that is now carried in stores such as Calypso St. Barth and her line has also been a Martha Stewart American Made design finalist for two years running.
She’s two years into the world of entrepreneurship and Rebecca has ample advice on how to run a successful small business. She’s been gracious enough to share the highs and lows of her career (Quickbooks struggles included!), her future goals for Rebecca Atwood Designs, and some spot-on advice: “Stop worrying so much! It’s going to work out.” It’s true. Thanks for the reminder, Rebecca!
Name: Rebecca Atwood
Current title/company: Creative Director and Founder of Rebecca Atwood Designs
Education: BFA from Rhode Island School of Design
You started your career at Anthropologie as an assistant designer in the Home Department straight out of college. What an amazing dream job! How did you land it? What were your duties and responsibilities? After only two years, you decided to move on. Why did you leave?
It was a great place to start out! I majored in painting at Rhode Island School of Design, and became interested in textiles towards the end of my time there. During an open studio I met a design director for Anthropologie’s print department. We chatted a bit as she had also majored in painting and I was curious about how she got to where she was. She gave me great advice about creating a portfolio for textiles and how I needed to create sketches that put my paintings and patterns into an environment. That was how I got started on creating a textile portfolio and applying for jobs. I ended up interviewing for a few different positions within Anthro along with a few fashion companies in New York and at West Elm. Once I met with the home team at Anthro I knew that was where I wanted to be.
My responsibilities at Anthro were primarily to create new product designs every week and brief them for production. I was thrown right in and started out designing kitchen towels and aprons. From there as I gained more experience, I was given projects in every main category including bedding, tabletop, bath and more. Designing both hard and soft goods was a great experience and gave me flexibility with my future jobs. I was also responsible for pulling together the kitchen concept boards each season and keeping the color standards organized.
I left for a few reasons. One was that my boyfriend (now husband) was going back to law school. The best school he got into was Columbia in New York. We didn’t want to do long distance, and it made sense for my career as well to be moving to New York. My sister also lived there and Steve had family there as well. These personal reasons gave me the push I needed. While, I loved working with the team at Anthro, there was no real growth potential for me there and I would have continued to do the same thing had I stayed.
After working for ny-lon designs in New York City for three years, you left and opened Rebecca Atwood Designs, a textile design company. Tell us about what led to this decision.
Ny-lon was where I gained so much of the experience I needed to start my own line. I was still very early on in my design career when I started and had been working in the ‘Anthro Bubble.’ I left Anthro with a great base for designing and briefing products but I didn’t know much about how other companies worked, hadn’t traveled overseas for production trips, and didn’t get much of a chance to work on the bigger picture of things. The best thing about working at ny-lon was that I worked with a great group of people including a fantastic mentor: Kate Loudoun-Shand. She taught me so much about designing a collection, working on the spot in India to pull things together, sourcing, building a brand, trend consultancy and dreaming bigger. She also gave me room to grow and figure things out. The team in New York as well as London was really amazing and pushed me to become a better designer…and many of them still are good friends and trusted advisors.
I decided to leave ny-lon as I felt I had gotten to a place where I needed more. There were certain limitations with what I could do there and while I had learned so much, I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to create product that I believed in whole heartedly and that was produced responsibly. I was feeling pretty stuck as I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next. I had worked with many retailers here in the US and UK and either I didn’t want to work in house for them, or the positions I would have wanted weren’t available. I actually decided to take a workshop with Jess Lively called Business with Intention, and during that workshop realized I had all the tools I needed to launch my own line and work as a design consultant for retailers on my own. It was a big leap of faith and honestly something I wasn’t completely comfortable with. Speaking with Jess about things like a ‘spaghetti number’ (how much do you need at the bare minimum to get by) helped me realize this didn’t have to be as difficult as I was making it out to be in my head. Realizing I could make enough money on freelance, and start very small with my own line made this achievable. My husband Steve has been a huge support and his faith in me helps me continue on this path. Ultimately it’s a lot of hard work, but I am much happier charting my own course and feel more engaged with all areas of my life since making this change.
From designing your first line, sourcing dyes and fabrics, and finding studio space, a lot of hard work went into starting your business! Give us details of the company launch.
That’s certainly true! There are so many little steps that go into starting a business and launching a product line that it’s hard to get it all in but here’s an overview of the timeline and what I did:
July through January 2013:
- Business with Intention Workshop with Jess Lively
- Dyeing and printed classes at The Textile Art Center to get back to making things again
- Started testing dyes, experimenting with fabrics, etc.
- Worked on brand mood board and concept
- Researched running your own business and read The E-Myth, archives from Design*Sponge’s Biz Ladies Series, and other online entrepreneurial information I could find
- Registered for a DBA
- Found a graphic designer and web developer to create logo and website
- Found a photographer
- Began making swatches and testing colors
- Worked on branding + website with Erika Brechtel and Zoe Rooney
- Left my fulltime job
- Launched my website to start telling the story and giving previews on instagram, twitter, Facebook, etc.
- Pulled together my first collection of hand dyed, printed, and painted pillows
- Pillows off for sewing in the garment district
- Photographed my first collection
- Prepped the online shop from the back end with product images, descriptions, etc.
- Launched my first collection
- Worked on emailing bloggers and getting the word out
- Sold out of almost all styles in online shop and started making more
- Started researching printers and local production sources
- Met with Calypso St. Barth to talk about an exclusive collection
- Met with printers in Rhode Island I decided to work with for production printing
- Opened up my fall collection to wholesale
- Added zip pouches for the holidays
- Put designs into the works for fabric by the yard collection
- Shipped first exclusive collection to Calypso
- Moved into new studio space
- Expanded wholesale business by doubling stores
- Reviewed first strike offs for fabric by the yard collection
- Launched Fabric by the Yard
- First collection with production printing up and running!
- First trade show (NY Now)
- Added additional items to line including baskets, sachets, candles, zip pouches, and lingerie bags
We’d love to know more! Please walk us through the process of designing, producing, and marketing a new collection.
There are a lot of different steps that go into getting a new collection out into the world. I’m still working towards a timeline of starting a collection about a year ahead which is very typical for the retail world.
Here’s a sample timeline of dates and steps for a fall delivery. Often things don’t work out quite as you want them to…and with the fall you always have to contend with the holidays! Sometimes samples don’t come out as expected, and colors don’t quite sing the way they should so I like to pad my timelines if possible.
- August 1st: Begin concept work. This involves pulling inspiration images, sketchbook pages, colors, objects, and writing down ideas for what I want the collection to be about and feel like. I also work on a line plan detailing how many designs I’ll need for each category.
- August 15th: Begin design work for patterns. This involves creating new patterns, pulling out prints from previous seasons I want to re-color, and putting together the color palette.
- September 1st – 15th: Initial dye tests for color and technique. This also will influence the color palette and what I brief with the printers.
- September 15th: Briefs out for screen-printed designs. Our screen-printed patterns take longer to develop as they usually involve 1-3 rounds of strike offs.
- October 15th: Briefs out for digital-printed designs. These designs are a faster turn around and I can always add in more designs in this printing technique closer to a season finalization as needed.
- November 1st: First sample review.
- November 15th: Amendments out to printers, and start new dyeing tests as needed.
- November 15th-December 1st: Development for new shapes, constructions, and sewing techniques.
- December 15th: Second sample review and amendments out a.s.a.p. due to holidays.
- January 15th-30th: Final fabrics arrive.
- February 1st: Samples off to sewers.
- March 1st: Photo samples finished.
- March 15th: Photo shoot.
- April 1st: Press and wholesale information out.
- May 1st: Production Fabric ordered.
- June 15th: Fabric to sewers.
- July 15th: First production run finished.
- August 1st: Begin shipping to stores.
- August 15th: Online launch date – send out personal emails to press contacts where applicable about the new product.
Your business is very eco-friendly and the majority of your collections are produced with natural dyes. Can you tell us more about the production process? How is it different than had you not gone the eco-friendly route?
We do our best to produce products responsibly as that is very important to me. I’m a bit weary of the words ‘eco-friendly’ as it’s hard to know what that actually means. A lot of the time that word is thrown around but not an explanation of why it can be labeled that way. We are living in a world where we need to be thinking about where and how the products we buy are being made. Since I’m making the choices myself about this I want them to all be ones I feel very comfortable with. That being said, this is never an easy process and the choices aren’t always clear-cut.
While we have produced some of our hand dyed pillows with natural dyes, the majority of our dyeing is done with low-impact fiber reactive dyes. It’s actually debatable which has less impact on the environment, as the natural dyes require growing of the dyestuff, which requires a lot of water, land, and energy. They also require mordants which are often toxic chemicals. The collection of naturally dyed pillows we produced were in partnership with a local dyer who sources fair trade or local dyestuff, recycles the water back into a garden and never disposes of the mordants. She’s really doing everything the right way. The low impact dyes we use are synthetic but don’t require as much energy to make them, and take less water for rinsing.
It’s a complicated choice but I do feel good about working with both options. Natural dyes are more unpredictable with the results, and low impact fiber reactive dyes offer us more color choices and consistency. We use each process where it feels right for the final product.
The printers we work with we chose because they produce the highest quality product locally, and have responsible disposal practices. It took me a lot of time and research to find the right partners for production but this would have been the case no matter what route I decided to take since I had decided to produce in the United States and all of my prior sourcing experience was overseas. To me it makes sense to spend the time upfront to make responsible choices, and it will always be an ongoing process.
We will always be looking at our choices and seeing if there’s a way we can improve. For example finding out the specifics of how fabrics are made is often very difficult and was something I wanted to find out more about. We’ve recently changed almost all of our fabrics over to Libeco linen because they are so open about how their fabrics are made. They return the water to the river 10 times cleaner than they take it. You really can’t find better quality or more ethically made linen.
As we grow it may mean that it sometimes takes us longer to launch a new product category as we need to find an ethical way to produce that product. It also means that are costs of goods are higher.
How did you initially market Rebecca Atwood Designs to gain exposure? How have you spread the word since you started?
My first collection was all about building the brand and starting to gain exposure. I contacted bloggers personally and told them about my line and shared a folder of dropbox images. My sister Grace, who is the director of social media for Bauble Bar and runs a very successful blog Stripes & Sequins, was a huge help. She wrote about my line and also shared it with her blogging friends. I have to say for the most part this aspect of launching a business was much easier than I thought it would be. So many people have written about the line and I am so thankful for all of their support! The Internet and social media have certainly changed how easy it is to get the word out.
Your designs are in stores all over the United States! How did that happen? Did you approach stores to carry your products, attend trade shows, or did word of mouth lead them to you?
I always planned to wholesale as my previous experience was working with retailers, but I did not do this my first season as I wanted to gain some brand recognition first. During my first season I was approached by a few stores and saved their contact information. I then was very strategic about contacting the best stores I could find in each city. It can be tricky as without really knowing a city you don’t always know what a store is really like, but there is a lot of information available online with city guides, blogs, store websites, etc. Since I was, for the most part, contacting stores where my product would be a good fit aesthetically and price point wise this was a very successful tactic. I still have a good amount of inquiries from stores that see my line somewhere else, in the press, etc. who would like to carry it.
As for working with larger retailers like Calypso, I relied on my previous experience pitching collections to retailers. I knew someone that had worked with the buyer there and got her direct email. I sent over an email introducing my line and myself and told them a bit about my background. Then I had a meeting at their offices where I showed them my line and discussed how we could work together. I created an exclusive collection for them based off of designs they loved but in colors that went with their internal concepts.
For the most part though I’ve waited to work with larger retailers until I had grown my brand and gotten production up and running. This has only recently happened so I’m still really focused on that. My first few seasons there was a limit to how much I could make, and you never want to over promise what you can deliver.
The past August we participated in our first trade show – NY Now. We shared a booth and in many ways this was a great experience as wholesale customers were able to come and see our product in person and place orders on the spot. We had strong sales and connected in person with many stores we had been in touch with but hadn’t pulled the trigger. It’s very expensive to participate in a show like this though and at this point in time we decided not to do the next show in January and then we’ll see about doing the show in August again. This January instead of doing the show we plan to have an open studio and take meetings in the city.
Do you have anyone working for or with you? PR reps? Assistants? Accounting? Other designers? Is everything produced in house? Etc. If not, what would the first person you hire be doing? Do you work from home or a studio/office space?
If there’s one thing I know it’s that you can’t do it alone! Our office is in Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It’s a sun filled space that’s always a bit disorganized and bursting with fabric.
I have one an amazing employee Nellie who works three days per week as a general studio and wholesale manager. She helps me with wholesale follow up, inventory, newsletters, graphic design, packing and shipping, product development – really a little bit of everything. Her support allows me to have the time to work on bigger picture business planning and designing new collections. We usually also have one intern who works on a mix of small business tasks and more creative ones.
The financial aspect of the business is definitely the hardest for me as it’s not my area of expertise. My husband is a constant advisor and always is helping me out on financial aspects of the business. I have a great accountant who I work with quarterly, and sometimes monthly. She also advises me on things like insurance, payroll, etc.
Last spring I began working with a PR company – Chloette Public Relations. Megan is wonderful and actually contacted me. I think whenever you choose to bring on PR it’s essential they believe in your line and love it themselves.
Currently I am the only designer and I don’t really plan to change that any time soon. I design a lot less than I used to as we produce a lot fewer designs than I did when I was working at a company like Anthropologie. Our designs are now printed in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, while all of the dyeing is done in Brooklyn. I have partnered with a natural dyer for our fall collection, but generally we are keeping the dyeing in house and this is an area I’ll likely hire help down the line. Our sewing is done locally, but not in our studio. Working with good vendors is key to success. One of my vendors can provide many services for me including pillow inserts, sewing, and packing and shipping our larger orders. There are things I can and can’t outsource and it’s important to find that balance.
Where do you see Rebecca Atwood Designs in five years?
The most important thing for me is to continue to make beautiful, responsibly produced product. I also am working on a book that will help people learn how to use pattern in their home (stay tuned!).
I do believe in dreaming big, and have lots of plans! In five years I hope to have expanded our assortment of home products to include wallpaper, rugs bedding, table top, and more special gifts. This may all take a bit more time than that…but better to aim high!
What was the biggest challenge you have faced as a new entrepreneur? How were you able to overcome it?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced, and think I always will, is the financial aspect of running a business. I have learned so much since I started. I’ve learned how to use QuickBooks, work on spreadsheets to plan 3-6+ months out, etc. but this is not my main strength. My husband and I have also self-funded the business which means we’ve had to be creative to keep up with growth. For example, that’s meant getting a line of credit and that I’ve continued to take on consultant design work to make things balance out. I think now I have a lot more faith that everything will work out and a better understanding of how to manage the money flowing in and out.
What advice can you give women seeking careers in textile design?
I think it’s really important to put together a professional portfolio that shows you can think through how a pattern could be used. You’re never really designing without thinking about end use in the real world. How a customer will use a pattern and what it would work best on are really important parts of the design process for me. It’s not always the first thought, but it informs scale, color, base fabrics, etc. If you can show a potential employer that you have the skills to think things through to the next stage you’ll make it easier for them to see you working for them. To build your portfolio take classes, learn how to create repeats, intern, and just get as much initial work experience as you can.
What is a typical workday like for you?
Most days are different as my responsibilities are so varied. If we’re in the middle of getting production off to sewing I might be spending most of my day dyeing fabrics, or right now I’m trying to finish up our fall 15 collection and so I need to create a few more prints to fill a hole I’m feeling in the assortment. Other days I’m focusing on accounting, a marketing plan, planning an event, etc. I try to get in by 8:30, as I’m most productive in the morning. I also try and devout the morning to projects requiring more of my energy such as working on a new collection, or working on strategy. The afternoons I’ll work on other projects that already have momentum going, and I’ll take calls, meetings, answer emails, etc. It doesn’t always work out that way but I try to focus the morning on the most important things that need to get done that day. I usually leave work around 5 or 6 and go home and take a break, sometimes a yoga class, and then will do a few more hours of work from home. The work I do in the evenings is usually just catch up work like emails, scheduling social media, catching up on relevant articles, or even drawing in my sketchbook to work out ideas etc. For me leaving on the earlier side and finishing up a few things from home feels more relaxing. My husband also works really long hours so on nights he is home early I try not to work.
Best moment of your career so far?
Getting my own studio – it was pretty life changing and felt like I had really accomplished something. There’s still so much to do, but that was a big one.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
It’s probably the same advice I’d give myself now – stop worrying so much! It’s going to work out.
Rebecca Atwood is The Everygirl…
Favorite part about living in Brooklyn?
That’s a hard one! There are a lot of things I love about where I live…I think most of all I love that there is a community of talented designers, makers, photographers, business owners, etc.
I wish I knew how to…
Build a house.
Dream vacation destination?
We live in a busy city and my husband and I both work long hours, so I want the opposite in a dream vacation…I want a quiet beach, fresh seafood, a good book, and a little town to walk around. Writing this down it sounds a lot like my hometown on Cape Cod.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I would have lunch with Clare Vivier as I absolutely love her bags and really admire how she’s grown her business and kept the integrity of the designs. (Seriously I can not get enough of her line!) Since we’re not worrying about reality we’d go to her favorite restaurant in Paris and eat lots of cheese.