Life & Business

Life & Business: Dee Clements of Herron

by Sabrina Smelko

Dee_Life&Biz

Finding your own style and voice doesn’t come easy, but what it does come with is time. Doing something over and over again, tweaking and learning as you go, trusting your instincts and gaining confidence — it’s more of a 10,000-hours process. For Dee Clements, it took a decade for her to discover her true calling and hone her signature style. Launched in 2011, Dee’s company, Herron, offers woven textiles and fibers for the home, and installations using responsibly sourced fibers and methods. Each year, Herron produces two limited-edition collections and collaborates with clients to create exclusive collections and installations. Most recently, she launched an impressive line of painterly handwoven rugs for CB2 and The Land of Nod that are almost too beautiful to lay a foot on. Today, Dee is joining us to share an in-depth look at her background and how her business came to be, the importance of trusting your instincts, and how she squeezes every ounce of time out of her days to draw and meditate. –Sabrina

Portrait of Dee: Photography by Paul Elledge

 Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

Well, it is certainly a lot easier to work for someone else, collect a paycheck, leave your worries at work and go on with your life, but the truth is, that is not the life I want. I want to contribute something meaningful to the world that I am passionate about. I want to leave a legacy behind me. With a strong interest in sustainability issues and ethical practices, the fast fashion landscape disheartens and outrages me. It contributes to a system that values people and land as a commodity. I don’t believe in that. I want a choice that represents my values. Regarding textiles, I didn’t see one, so I decided to create it. Drawing on my education and background in Fiber and Material Studies, I started my business to produce well-designed, beautifully-woven goods that would employ traditional hand-weaving methodologies.Using responsibly farmed and milled fibers with special attention toward sourcing organic fibers and materials with a bio-regional designation when possible, I aim to re-establish integrity and artistry to textile production through slow design.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do? 

When I was an undergraduate at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, I took an Intro to Fibers class one semester and there was a unit on weaving. I wasn’t that compelled to try it. When it was my turn to weave on the loom, I remember vividly: I went into the weaving room by myself, the lights were off and the room was dark. I flipped the switch and the lights buzzed on one-by-one over each row of looms. I sat down at our class loom with only a vague idea of how to operate it, and I began pressing pedals, sliding the shuttle through the warp, beating the weft into the cloth, repeat, over and over, until my yardage was woven. I remember feeling a deep, electrical connection as I wove the cloth. The weaver’s hands touch every inch of the thread before it is even woven into cloth. As an avid maker of things from scratch at the time, I really connected with that. Weaving imbues the hand in the cloth. I wanted to know everything about this new-to-me craft. I wanted weaving to be my boyfriend and to spend all of my time with it.

So I essentially did just that. I switched my major to Fiber and Material Studies with a focus in weaving. I had been studying painting and sculpture, and upon my introduction to the loom, I knew I wanted to merge weaving and painting, but did not have any scope as to how. That would come a decade later. After graduating, I tried working in the textile industry in New York. The environment I found myself in was really cutthroat and not where I envisioned myself as an artist and designer. So, I moved back to Chicago and bought a loom and started teaching myself what I did not yet know but wanted to know. I voraciously studied The Handweaver’s Pattern Book, making tons of sampler weavings. I studied paintings and color and I drew and sketched constantly. I made tons of weaving mistakes and really, really ugly work with no direction for nearly 10 years. I immersed myself and experimented with other forms of art and materials. I was so hungry to know the craft and be good at it. Practicing is how I found my style, my artistic voice and ultimately, my direction.
Dee_Clements_007-1

Image above: Woven Tapestries, The Winchester Restaurant, Chicago. Photography by Clare Britt

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

I really did not have any business advice from anyone when I was starting off. I took a free small business start-up class and I literally wrote down every single word the teacher said. I studied businesses I respected and the careers of artists that I admired. I really believed in my art and my vision for it. I wrote and re-wrote a vision plan. I talked to anyone who would listen to me tout my ideas. Talking about it with peers and putting it out into the world helped me figure out how I wanted to move forward and what path I wanted to go down. I just followed my own instincts.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Not having any seed money made things very difficult. I had this idea to start a sustainable textile business and no way to get it off the ground. I decided I was going to do it and it would have to be done the long, slow way. I would make it happen on my own. I worked a day job; I saved money, and built my business at night and on weekends. I did craft shows and design markets. I made a website, I started a blog and I worked all the time, putting every extra dollar and every free moment I had into Herron.

At times, it felt emotional and impossible. Honestly, it sometimes still feels that way. Giving up is not an option to me because I love the work I do and I think it is important. Nearly four years in, my work started getting noticed. I was getting contracts from pretty big companies to design and produce woven tapestries, pillows, rugs and original, one-of-a-kind work for limited edition collection and architectural installation. I could no longer work my day job full-time and maintain Herron, so one of them had to go. I had saved a little money to invest into my business and live off of comfortably for about six months and chose to quit my day job to focus on Herron full-time. The combination of work coming in and my savings gave Herron the initial push off the ground. It was difficult and scary but I am so glad I chose it.
Rug_Desert_Mural_Cotton_LL (3)

Image above: Desert Mural Rug. Photo Credit: The Land of Nod

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Being at the helm of a business, I represent my company and myself. Not everyone has the same goals and values as I do. I am not out to make everyone in the world think like me or care about what I care about. Sustainability costs more and not every company or consumer wants to spend extra. I understand this and I’ve learned to not take it personally, but try to work with it as best I can. I can’t appeal to everyone and that is not my goal. So I keep on doing what I believe in and trying my best to produce something with integrity and of quality.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?

Failure to me is success in disguise. I try to not see it as a failure when something doesn’t work out how I had planned, but rather as a challenge to approach it creatively or from a new angle. I launched a Kickstarter campaign in June to raise funds to produce Herron’s first collection of woven goods for the home. After designing and producing big collections of hand woven pillows, rugs and wall hangings for large retailers, hotels and restaurants, I knew what it would take budget, material and labor wise. I wanted to move in the direction of creating a line of wovens for my own label. The Kickstarter was not successfully funded in the 30-day time frame and a small business loan is not an option at this time. I was disappointed, I felt like a failure. My ego crept in and had me questioning myself. I realized it wasn’t a failure, but an opportunity to move forward differently. I still believe the collection will be a success, the samples are finished and they are beautiful. I am working toward launching the collection in September, 2015 with my own personal funds. It will be available from my website shop as made-to-order and also available through select stockists.

If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Three hours a day is a luxurious amount of time. My sweetheart, Dan, and I started a ritual as a New Years resolution, to wake up early and spend 30 minutes to an hour drawing quietly every morning. Drawing is a huge part of my design process and often not something I can actually fit into early mornings. So, it tends to happen late at night after a very long workday. It takes me a while to loosen up, let go of my day and all of the “I shoulds” and feel free creatively; sometimes I can’t find the creative energy at all after 8 or 9 pm. Having 3 extra hours every morning to get my creative juices flowing and really focus on designing would be such an enormous gift. Maybe I can work towards at least one magical hour per day for now.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

When I quit my day job and went full-time with Herron, my take-home income shrank significantly and so did my free time. Running a business is a ’round-the-clock job with so many levels of responsibility when you are in the emerging stages and doing much of the work solo. I’m 35 years old and I have put all of my energy into Herron over the last five years. In doing so, things like starting a family, buying a home, and going on vacations have all taken a backseat. Even little things like going out to dinner with a pal are a stretch. I live on a tight budget for now. I see my peers around me having children, getting married, making families and homes, and I sometimes feel behind, as I am not doing those things right now. I certainly want to. However, what I am doing is building a business and pursuing an artistic career I believe in. I have 100% chosen this path for myself, and it’s where I am right now in my life. I think what I am doing is important. So while some things feel like a sacrifice, they are also my choice and I plan to keep on keeping on.

 

Rug_Graphics_LL
Image above: Graphics Rug. Photo Credit: The Land of Nod

Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

2014 was an incredible year for Herron, I learned a lot and I’m incredibly grateful for all of the growth. I designed and produced a limited edition collection of hand woven pillows for CB2 using 100% US organically farmed wool from Meadowcroft Farm in Washington, Maine. The yarns were hand-dyed in custom colors by Casey Ryder, a super talented dyer whom also runs a store in Maine called Port Fiber. Each pillow was woven on floor looms in my Chicago studio by myself and Judith Querciagrossa; a local weaver who works often with Herron and is an absolute master at the craft (she also teaches weaving to the blind!). The pillows launched in January 2015 in 13 CB2 stores and online and completely sold out! Simultaneously, while producing that collection, I was also designing and beginning production for a new project with the acclaimed New York design firm Roman & Williams and hospitality company Sydell Group. The project was called The Freehand Hotel and opened in May of this year in downtown Chicago. Myself, and three local Chicago weavers, hand-wove 163 oversized, stylized pillows and two large, woven wall tapestries using hand dyed, farmed wool from Meadowcroft Farm and Cestari Farm in Churchville, Virginia. I am immensely proud of this work, and grateful for the weavers, dyers and farmers who helped it all come to life.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of his or her own?

Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks. Judy Wicks’ story and mission of starting a farm-to-table restaurant and community in the early 1980s was incredibly relatable and inspiring to me and I still refer to and cite this book often. Recently, My boyfriend’s father sent me this wonderful book called A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building A Great Business by Ari Weinzweig, the founder of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I connected with the chapters on visioning and vision plan writing. And lastly, a few years ago, my friend Emily gave me a book called May Cause Miracles by Gabrielle Bernstein. It is a self-help book that I didn’t feel very interested in at first, but eventually did read and found it to be incredibly motivating and inspiring from both a personal and business position.

Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.

Yes, the job I had before deciding to run Herron full-time was as a set costumer and stylist on a TV show. Shortly after I started the job, I went through some big challenges in my personal life. I was grieving a loss pretty hard, I had no energy, I was very sleep deprived, I’d lost an unhealthy amount of weight. I was kind of functioning at a minimal level. I showed up to work every day, I went through the motions and that was the best I could do. I was miserable and hurting and it was winter. We’d sometimes spend long days shooting outside in the cold and snow. I felt totally unfulfilled, unvalued, and completely alone.

Up until that point, I’d been running Herron for almost four years, working other jobs full-time to support myself. On the TV show, I was working long 80-hour weeks and so running Herron was put on the back burner for a while. In the thick of the darkness I was navigating, with a little help from my friends, I made a plan and a timeline for myself; I would do the job to the best of my ability, even if that ability was bottom of the barrel, I’d give it. I’d save a little seed money to invest in my business and then I would quit and go full-time with Herron.

One day, in a casual conversation with one of the other crew members I said “I am a weaver, this job is temporary for me, I have other plans I’m working on while I do this.” His response was “Oh yeah? I wanted to be a musician, but here I am! You’ll get stuck in the business, too.” His comment was so snarky and incredulous, it made me feel absolutely fierce and determined. I was ready to quit that day, but I didn’t and I couldn’t. I needed to keep working to support myself. But, I was not going to get stuck doing something that wasn’t right for me or life-giving to me. In hindsight, the personal life stuff and the job I hated helped me in really big ways that I can see and understand now, but couldn’t at the time I was in it. And, I totally followed through with my plan.

Herron Pillows CB2-1

Image above: Antiguo Pillow and Ocaso Pillow. Photo Credit: CB2

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

I started my business under the notion that when consumers choose to buy responsibly made products it will become the norm and not the exception. I value that and wanted to be part of making it happen. I believe strongly that sustainable and ethical production practices will build communities and betterment. So for me, my top three things were passion for my craft, positive change, and education. The things I think are valuable for others to consider before starting a small business are to first map out the “What” and then the “how.” I started “what” by envisioning what I wanted to do. Then added benchmarks and goals in a 5-year plan. This became the skeleton of my business plan. Having passion for what you are planning to start a business in is absolutely key, because it will consume all of your time. So if it isn’t something you can see yourself doing 24 hours a day 7 days a week, maybe pursue something else. I’d also say really consider what your mission is, and be honest with yourself about that — there will be a lot of insight there. Lastly, I might suggest asking yourself, whom am I serving? Who is my audience or market? Why? And, what are my goals with this new business venture?

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

Lately, the first app I open in the morning are my text messages. I am thankful for the immediacy that text messages offer because my boyfriend, Dan Price, recently began a 15-month professional sabbatical that will take him all over Europe and North America. He is a sculptor and professor of sculpture developing a new series of works. Technology is helping us fill the distance creatively, remain connected daily and see each other’s work progress during the times we are apart for long 2-4 month stretches.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious? 

This fall, Herron has some exciting, upcoming projects in motion and in the last year I‘ve put out some huge collections of work that totally reflect my style and ethical values — I am really grateful for and proud of these accomplishments. Herron is at a pivotal and crucial growth point and I am managing the whole operation alone, wearing all the hats. It is the hardest thing about being my own boss right now. I contract work out to local Chicago weavers and dyers on a per-project basis to help me with big jobs, but on a daily basis I need about three more me’s that have clear, defined roles. I am really ready to hand off a lot of these roles to other people, but not having the capital I need to hire help really stretches me and causes limitations. I am unwilling to cut corners on the quality of the work to save a buck. The quality of the fibers and the weaving is the heart and soul of Herron. So my challenge right now is to move the business forward as best I can with the resources I have to work with.

Suggested For You

Comments

  • Really refreshing to read about a startup with little-to-no seed money. This is tangible with a service-based business but definitely can put a hold on things in the product world (especially with an unsuccessful Kickstarter). Best of luck and continued success to you, Dee! Herron is a beautiful company with legs to last for generations to come.

  • What an insightful interview. I love your work- it’s incredibly moving. Best of luck to you and your ventures; your strong work ethic and passion for weaving really shows.

  • Thank you so much for giving such an honest interview. As a small business owner, I experience the myriad feelings you talk about almost daily. Feeling doubt and so much drive at the same time is a unique sensation, and I think a lot of us trying to build a new business can relate. Your work is stunning and I look forward to following your rise!

  • What beautiful work. The textiles look so timeless and fresh – I only wish I could reach out and touch them! I would be curious to know where “Herron” comes from (it’s my family name and I don’t see it very often).

  • Thanks for this great interview. Love Dee’s work and will look for it out there. Love the frankness of her choice to become an entrepeneur and the challenges she faces. You go girl!

Leave a Reply

Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.