November 11, 2020 • Sarah Schwartz
Instead of building walls, the industry starts setting a bigger table
In response, the GCA hosted a pitch panel event, Noted: A Focus on Diversity, on July 16. During the event, nine Black makers, picked at random, “pitched” their lines to a panel of top retailers, with the participation fee waived. The panel featured Vanessa Raptopoulos, Awesome Brooklyn; Chandra Greer, GREER Chicago; Kristina Burkey, Calliope Paperie; and Kyle Williams, Paper Source — and about 100 retailers and sales reps.
“I found just the acknowledgment that the industry needs to ensure barriers are lowered for Black designers to be a huge first step,” explained Chandra Greer, GREER Chicago. “As a Black person I’ve been ignored or dismissed at trade shows, perhaps because the vendor didn’t think my shops could carry and sell their lines, so I believe there can be restrictive race-based assumptions within the industry. For those who attended, listening to the stories of the Black designers, reviewing their work and understanding that they bring a unique perspective that could broaden the appeal of a retailer’s overall product mix was extremely valuable.”
The event was assembled against a backdrop of industry players urgently seeking Black-owned ranges. I began receiving a lot of queries for recommendations in early June, and realizing that I was part of the problem, I started assembling a list of makers to feature throughout this issue.
Meanwhile, White knew expedience was a must. “We had a successful model with the Noted Pitch Program,” he recalled. “In talking about social justice, and the role our industry and association can play, we all thought action was more important than words. We very quickly got sponsors and a strong panel. The only real challenge was (that) the GCA is a volunteer organization, and we all have businesses to run, but several of us thought this was important enough that we wanted to get it done, and we did. I need to give a shout out to John Smyth of A. Smyth Co; he was the primary driver of this, and would not rest until we made it happen.”
THE PITCHER’S MOUND
All the pitchers unanimously related positive experiences. Andrea Williams of Paisley Paper defines herself as an “awkward Black girl,” a phrase coined by Issa Rae, and her graphic range is inspired by, among other things, 1950s Blue Note Jazz record albums. She sees her audience as “someone who is self aware and willing to talk about their struggles honestly but is also strong and stubborn sometimes.”
For Williams, the highlight was meeting the other pitchers on the practice call. “It was great to place the faces with the amazing work,” she described. “I really wish I could have heard the other pitches, mainly just to see the work and get tips on pitching better. I’ve gotten a few orders (which) I really had no expectation (of). I was just happy to be able to show and promote my line; everything else was a bonus.”
Amy Slaughter of Aims Moon Paperie designs cards, stickers and pens “as tools for self reflection and organization for women who want to stay connected to themselves, become confident in self-expression and organize their responsibilities in a simple, beautiful and empowering way.”
For Slaughter, her identity as a Black woman anchors her work. “It’s behind my creativity. I have so many examples of unapologetic Black women I aspire to be; their ‘Her-Stories’ have been enough to believe that I possess that same greatness simply because I’m a Black woman. My audience is any woman that loves pretty paper goods, to self-reflect and stay organized.”
“I’m still on a high,” Slaughter laughed about the panel. “I’m a big fan of Greer Chicago (so) my A-game (was) on. Having a small amount of time to pitch helped me to keep my spiel short and sweet. Meeting other Black women designers was the best part. I have a meeting set-up with one of the panelists, and I can’t wait to collaborate.”
Another pitch participant, Tiffany McGraw, started Paper Rehab to redefine crucial conversations. “I was inspired by stories and stigmas around unreported abuse, mental health and the ‘superwoman’ narrative in my own community. I found inspiration from the stories I heard as a journalist, observations within my community and (events) in my own life that left me with what felt like a calling to do more.”
“My stationery shows a vulnerability that looks opposite to what I witnessed growing up,” she acknowledged. “I illustrate women who desire to be protected, seen, heard and genuinely understood. My audience is (any) women (wanting) to heal, cultivate and support her important relationships. That same audience desires to normalize seeing more black women reflected in the stationery industry.”
“In a span of five minutes, I somehow managed my nerves, told my story and virtually connected with some amazing retailers,” McGraw remembered. “Sharing my brand story and my why was important. The bonus was some orders. I’m grateful for every retailer and buyer who took the time to listen, and for the thoughtful collaborative efforts and successful execution by GCA, Faire and each sponsor.”
Another participant, Lauren-Ashley Barnes, designs for a large gift company and founded Pineapple Sundays Design Studio on the side. Her brand “became a space for my ideas to flow without boundaries,” she detailed. “My inspiration is cultivated from my experiences growing up surrounded by strong creative Black women. My mother taught me to focus on details and to add personal touches to my art, my Grandmother showed me how to be a confident Black woman. Joy, connection and empowerment is throughout my art, (and) I see my audience as women who are seekers of creating, living and enjoying their best lives.”
Barnes dubbed her experience “the best five minutes of my life. I was aware of a few Black stationery brands, but I had no clue there were so many. Everyone was encouraging and supportive. To present my first greeting card line in such a big way was scary and amazing. Before, I was in three stores, and I’m now in over ten, and I sold out of several cards. I’m forever thankful.”
White dubbed the pitch program “transformative” for the makers, as they received not just orders and rep group representation, but a new confidence in themselves and their work. However, this is only the first step, he added. “Seeing more diverse designs at retail will inspire more Black makers to bring their designs to market, and retailers enjoying sell-through of (these) cards will encourage them to buy more. The cycle will repeat and feed on itself.”
However, the format is popular enough that White said that one of the most prominent questions he gets is: “When is the next one, and will you feature other makers of color to help further encourage diversity?”
Meanwhile, the makers help others as their businesses grow. McGraw donated cards to ForLikeMinds, a mental health organization, while this year Barnes donates a portion of each purchase to The Loveland Foundation, which is committed to supporting communities of color in powerful ways, with a focus on Black women and girls.
Williams is establishing a craft show for makers of color. “Due to COVID-19, I had to postpone it (but) I’m trying to make it happen in the fall of 2021. I think there’s a long overdue shift in a lot of creative industries towards more diversity,” Williams noted. “I hope it continues, and leaders really start to see how diversity is great for industry/company culture but also their bottom line.”
Greer remains discerning about which lines she will incorporate into her mix of about 140 vendors. “We avoid lines that can be purchased everywhere because our customers look to us (for) items they’ve never seen before or that are hard to find. Every line we bring in is run through our aesthetic/conceptual filter, and the most successful lines for us are those that fit, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the maker.”
She remains committed to diversifying the industry. “If you believe representation matters, as I do, and are committed to this idea, actively seeking makers of color is not only the right thing to do, it makes sense because the products you carry reflect your brand’s values.”
Following the pitch program, Greer tried out cards from Tiffany Grimes of Posterity Paper — but they were already acquainted. “A few years ago I sat on one of your panels, Sarah, at the National Stationery Show. Afterwards a young Black woman asked me if I thought a greeting card line that came from her inner truths would resonate with card buyers. I told her that if a card she designed spoke to her, it would speak to others too. A few months ago she sent me samples of cards she had subsequently designed, including probably the greatest Father’s Day card I’ve ever seen, along with a note reminding me of our encounter and expressing that she had found it to be motivating in developing her line.”
Greer closed with a reminder that the entire idea of retailing stationery is to provide shoppers with an understanding and reflection of the human experience. “The more of that experience we capture, stories and experiences from a wide variety of personal backgrounds and perspectives, the more richly satisfying our merchandise mix will be to our customers,” she finished.