We may not look back fondly on 2020, but we will likely remember it as a time of reevaluating "the way it’s always been.” Call it the year of trying new things. Take, for example, the three California-based boutique fabric lines—Brook Perdigon Textiles, Lake August and Rule of Three—who this month are launching a unique partnership called California Collective.
Under the arrangement, the three will remain separate brands and businesses, but will share a dedicated inside sales rep to reach out to designers directly in California. As part of the partnership, the brands are pulling out of showrooms in the Golden State (with one exception—more on that later).
Though the development and launch of the collective coincides with the coronavirus, its roots go deeper. The three brand owners—Paige Cleveland of Rule of Three, Brook Perdigon, and Alexis Hartman of Lake August—are friends, and happen to have the same business management team. Over the years, they’ve exchanged tips and bonded over the highs and lows of running a boutique fabric business.
“We all approach business in a different way [and] have different strengths,” says Hartman. “Paige makes most of her product, which is not something that Brook or I do, so she has a sense of production. Brook has an incredibly organized business mind, and we share the same printer. We share lots of the same showrooms, so we’re constantly comparing notes on how we’re doing.”
What had long been an informal arrangement became more official when all three owners began sharing observations about a rapidly changing market. One was that they enjoyed the experience of meeting and working with designers directly—and tended to have better sales when they did so.
Severely curtailed in-person shopping was another factor, as well as simply the time afforded by stay-at-home orders. “With some showrooms having to shut down for a while, brands like mine had time to think how we could do this differently,” says Hartman. “It’s all about being able to tell our story and market ourselves exactly the way we want and not have that middle person.”
It would have been a financial strain for any of them to hire a dedicated sales rep on their own. However, together, they pooled their resources and hired Katie Arntzen, who has worked on fabric lines for Peter Dunham and Carolina Irving. Going forward, Arntzen will sell the three brands directly to designers in California.
The opportunity for Hartman, Perdigon and Cleveland to sell the way they want to while generating a little buzz with a cool concept seems obvious. The cost—giving up showroom representation in California—is a little more complex.
Each of the brand owners expressed complicated feelings about showroom representation. They’re all repped by multilines in other territories (in New York, Cleveland swears by Alt For Living, and Perdigon and Hartman just signed with Temple Studio), and cite great experiences alongside the frustrations. The three founders acknowledged the importance of showrooms to the overall design industry, and credited showrooms with helping to launch and develop their careers. Leaving them behind, says Perdigon, was a difficult, occasionally emotional, decision. Hartman has even worked out an arrangement to stay represented by Hollywood at Home in Los Angeles.
However, the trio share a mutual frustration with certain aspects of the multiline model that led them to experiment with a more proactive, direct sales strategy. There’s the potential clunkiness of communication routed through a middleman, for one. For another, says Perdigon, there’s the reality that boutique fabric brands can get lost in the shuffle of a crowded multiline—and exclusivity clauses can curtail a brand’s effort to grow.
“Boutique lines are like weeds—they’re popping up everywhere,” says Perdigon. “Especially with digital printing getting so good, showrooms are inundated constantly with new lines that need representation. … If you [only] have 10 designers [coming] into a showroom and only three of them gravitate toward your line, you’re missing out on tons of other designers. If we remove ourselves from exclusivity, we can cast our net much wider.”
The potential to reach a bigger audience also overcame whatever concerns the founders had about teaming up with brands who are, at the end of the day, competitors.
“At first we thought: Is this weird? We’re all targeting the same people,” says Perdigon with a laugh. But, she adds, the transparency of the Instagram age (all boutique fabric line owners now know which designers are using their competitors) makes secrecy and hard-nosed competition feel a little silly. The unique nature of the partnership—only sharing sales—helps, too. Finally, Perdigon reasons, the three brands can reach more designers together than they could apart.
“We can’t look at ourselves with elbows out anymore; we have to lock arms and work together,” she said. “It’s great. When Katie sends through a sale, whoever it is, we all cheer each other on.”
Homepage photo: Lake August, Brook Perdigon and Rule of Three textiles styled together | Andrew Stewart