podcast | Jan 19, 2021 |
John Robshaw on standing out in a crowded field

John Robshaw’s career began, as with so many textile designers, with some light international smuggling. It was the late 1990s, and he was an art student at Pratt in Brooklyn. One of his professors, a fashion designer, gave him an extra-credit assignment: Go to Mumbai and get some runway dresses made at a tailor. Then, stuff them in your suitcase and bring them back to New York. If the customs officials were to ask questions? “I was supposed to tell them that the dresses were my size,” Robshaw tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of the Business of Home podcast.

While exploring India as he waited for the dresses to be made, Robshaw learned and fell in love with a method of block printing on fabric, and began playing with the technique back in New York. At first it was a sideline to painting, but after his fabric experiments were discovered by industry tastemakers like Sara Bengur and Christopher Coleman, he saw a new path ahead. “They started ordering and it was this weird moment of a lightbulb going off, thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t the art world, this is the design world,’ which I knew nothing about.”

He was about to learn a lot. In the years ahead, Robshaw’s fabrics were celebrated by top designers and editors of the era, in the world of interior design and fashion alike. (Among his many high-profile admirers: Anna Wintour, Margaret Russell, Peter Marino and Michael S. Smith.) He eventually got into the world of bedding through a similarly happenstance chain of events.

“The first workshop I worked with in Jaipur, I was putting in mediocre orders and [the man who ran it] was like, ‘I gotta make more money off you,’” he recalls. “He was like, ‘Why don’t you make some quilts and pillows, get some product going?’ I was like, ‘OK, I guess I have to do this—otherwise he’ll drop me.’” That side of Robshaw’s business quickly flourished, too, and he began selling through small retail shops as well as large department stores.

These days, like everyone else, the designer is in the midst of a COVID-era pivot. He downsized his Manhattan showroom and workshop, and is in the process of developing a small, quirky retail location in Connecticut, alongside efforts to streamline his e-commerce. A furniture line is also in the works. Even now, 20 years into a career as the head of a business, Robshaw is approaching all of it from a kind of playful, let’s-give-this-a-shot spirit that has served him well. “My father said, ‘You’re an idiot going to art school’—he’s a lawyer—and I said, ‘Maybe?’ When I started making more money than him, he was like, ‘OK, I guess you’re fine!’”

Listen to the episode and check out some takeaways below. If you like what you hear, subscribe to the podcast here. This episode was sponsored by Chairish and Universal Furniture.

The fabric/furniture connection
Robshaw is in the midst of opening up a new retail shop in Connecticut that will display his fabrics, bedding, and also a collection of upholstered pieces. He’s hoping to sell furniture, of course, but part of the reason to develop a collection is to learn more about his core product line. “As a fabric manufacturer, it’s fun to see the connection. I’m not an interior designer, so I don’t use our fabric on furniture or in curtains all the time like designers—it’s fun for me to be in the loop a little tighter,” he says. “We’ll put certain prints on beds, and those prints will sell if they’re on a certain piece of furniture. Even for me, when I see pieces, I’ll say, ‘Oh, that looks great.’ It’s easy for the consumer.”

Standing out
When Robshaw first got started, his prints were fairly unique in the American market, and their newness made designers go gaga. Over the past two decades, competitors have flooded the market. “Especially with screen printing and digital printing, it’s super easy to make a file and send it off to a great digital printer and print it on some lovely linen and replicate looks that you couldn’t do in screen—so many designers have created their own fabric lines, and so it’s definitely become a tougher business,” he says. His strategy? Do what screen and digital printers can’t do. “We try to do things that are more unique— metallics, gold and silver printing, which you can block-print, but is still very difficult to do in screen or digital printing,” he says. “I’m trying to maneuver into little niches of the market to keep designers interested.”

The showroom shift
Like many other fabric makers, Robshaw has been grappling with an increasingly complex distribution landscape. He’s still largely represented by independent showrooms, but not everywhere (he recently switched over to an independent road rep in Los Angeles). He’s also seeing more traffic online. Ultimately, the designer sees the way forward as a hybrid model, but he’s optimistic about sticking with smaller, more tightly edited showrooms. “I’ve tried to stay with niche-ier showrooms that have smaller collections, the showrooms that make an edit,” he says. “That’s the only way we can survive. We can’t go to these huge showrooms with monster lines and you’re this little dinky 5-foot section in the middle of 100 feet [of fabrics].”

Homepage photo: John Robshaw | Courtesy of John Robshaw

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