Giejo Magazine | July 2022
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October Design Equestrian Décor
Stephanie Reppas, Owner & Design Director, October Design
At October Design, I handcraft equestrian-themed décor from new and vintage leather saddlery.
I started October as a spare-time upcycling venture. I’ve always had affection for abandoned places and things, and I’d travel frequently in search of unusual objects to use in my work, like ostrich eggs, microscope slides, wine barrels, Led Zeppelin records and more. My business is named after my favorite month and time of year. I think the word “October” lends both a rustic and nostalgic feel to my overall brand, and ties in nicely with the weathered, industrial materials and muted hues that I frequently work with. It also evokes a darker, sophisticated aesthetic that appeals to me personally.
The common thread in my work is the use of reclaimed materials. The objects I salvage have weight, history and character. They’re always interesting, but they’ve typically been overlooked and under-loved. In a world overrun with cheap, mass-produced plastic, I think this last-century craftsmanship deserves to be seen and reused, not just tossed and forgotten. So I’m doing my small part to help the environment while hopefully fostering an appreciation for an era gone by.
In 2014, I created my first piece of ‘horsey’ décor: a mirror framed with an old leather bridle I’d found at a barn sale. From that first piece, I developed an entire collection of lighting, furniture and other home goods, all detailed with vintage saddlery, leather harnesses and rustic farm hardware. Equestrian tack is one of the few things still created with quality artisanship and I find some really beautiful discarded leather on my roadtrips to old farms and estate sales around New York.
I come from an equestrian background myself – English riding lessons and horse camps growing up. I enjoy working with equestrians, who are sophisticated, yet down-to-earth, and very passionate about their horses. The equestrian-themed décor line was just a natural fit, and even in pandemic times, it has done really well, I’m happy to say.
I’ve built a business that is very much an extension of me. I only create things that I love, or make me smile, or evoke a particular memory or feeling, and I think these things resonate with my customers as well. There’s a value in creating beautifully functional décor that contributes to a warm and inviting environment. I think that last part is especially important during these times, when our homes have become our refuge from the world.
I started out as “the weird artist kid”, always drawing and repurposing things. I had a pet mouse, and I furnished his cage to look like a cartoon mouse house: thread spool tables and a matchbox bed (which he never used). By high school, I was painting thrift store furniture, and chopping up old clothes and stitching them back together again. Art school followed, and then a move to New York where I fell into a lengthy corporate stint as an art director.
Living in New York City was exciting, but after ten years there, I really missed having space and quiet, and I found the corporate world to be creatively draining. I owned numerous sketchbooks filled with all sorts of design ideas that I wanted to pursue “some day”, but wasn’t actually able to work on any of them. I was creating less and less on my own, usually only in my spare time. As any maker knows, waiting for the weekend to create something really stinks. So I started transitioning into my own design business.
At about that same time, I kept hearing about the Hudson Valley in Upstate NY and how beautiful it was, particularly in the fall. (I am very much a 'boots and sweater' girl!) I hopped a train up for a visit and was pleasantly surprised by the gorgeous ride along the Hudson River that passed through all of these wonderful little towns. Soon I was making frequent trips up to explore the different villages until I finally made the decision to move here and start a new chapter in my life. Hudson Valley just felt like home.
It’s been the perfect environment for both my life and my business. I work primarily with reclaimed materials and there’s an abundance of them here. And there’s a fantastic community of talented artisans in the Hudson Valley, and I wanted very much to be a part of it. It’s great to see the same faces at shows and to be able to talk shop with others who are living the life and experiencing similar challenges. But I’ve also become a part of the even larger community of local business owners who are very gracious and invested in this area as well. They’ve made an effort to be here and are eager to bolster that sense of community by collaborating with other local businesses and regional artists.
It wasn’t easy at first. I was still working a 9-to-5 job while trying to get my company off the ground. I’d work all day, then come home and put in another 6 hours on my own business. I also paid off my car and my credit cards, and started stashing money. When the opportunity finally came, I jumped and went full-time with October Design.
Now, rather than designing for someone else, I’m putting my creative energy into my own ideas, and taking on bigger, more interesting projects. I also went back to school for a degree in Industrial Design, and pursued some new interests like welding, Shou Sugi Ban (the art of scorching wood) and blacksmithing.
I’ve been very fortunate to be able to combine several of my interests into my work and my life:
I love traveling, exploring and the search for unusual industrial and rustic objects. Part of me really relishes finding something the rest of the world has overlooked or discarded.
I love the stories behind the objects: a leather harness from a 200-year-old Amish settlement. Antique hand-carved sewing bobbins I salvaged from an abandoned textile mill in Maine. Or 19th century glass photo negatives given to me by a high school friend; they feature a much-loved (and much-photographed) baby named Evelyn.
I love the challenge of working with different materials. My goal is to transform each object, and toss in a bit of whimsy with function.
And I love seeing people react to my designs, watching them light up and smile when they realize what a particular chandelier or piece of furniture is made of. That’s how I know I’ve done my job.
I mention all of these things because for any entrepreneur, it’s a lot more enjoyable when your chosen business is an extension of you. It should incorporate your loves, or connect you with a higher purpose that has meaning for you. Because there will be days when running your business will be less than fun – tedious or downright frustrating. Staying connected to something larger will get you through those days.
The challenges the business is facing
Inflation has been my biggest challenge lately. It affects everything: materials, shipping, increased Etsy and Shopify seller expenses and credit card processing fees, even gas for trips to UPS or to pick up supplies.
To balance this, I modified my production process, creating most orders as they come in rather than keeping a full running inventory on hand, which keeps my overhead minimal. It does increase my production time, but I’ve made that a unique value benefit. “This piece is crafted by hand just for you” resonates well with my customers. They know they’re going to receive a quality, one-of-a-kind work of artisanship that is well worth the wait.
The opportunities the business/market is facing
The pandemic has been tough on many people, but in my case, it was a bit serendipitous. Before 2020, I was already living a fairly socially-distant lifestyle, working mostly from home (except for the occasional show on the road), consuming lots of tea and music while I created things. My business is Internet-based, so many of my customers are on the other side of the country, and I consult with them via email or phone. And thanks to my power tools, I’ve been wearing masks forever.
My established routine was working well, and, after lots of research and some trial-and-error, my income was a decently balanced mix of sales channels: Internet, custom orders, craft shows, boutiques, plus online retailers like Amazon and Wayfair.
At the beginning of 2020, I planned my sales and marketing for the year like I typically do. But 2020 soon proved itself to be very untypical. By spring, many of my revenue streams had started to trickle off, as boutiques closed and shows were cancelled. By early summer, it was clear that the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon, and I was going to have to come up with a Plan B.
Using the time and money I was planning to spend on my now-cancelled summer venues, I instead did a lot of research, and decided to shift my marketing focus solely to Internet sales. I revamped my online shops. I created new product lines, while also offering more size and color options on my existing products. I rewrote my listings with more effective language and added prompts to the copy (“you may also like…” product suggestions, hashtags, and custom options). I created higher quality photography and added more lifestyle images. I stepped up my advertising strategy, refreshing my Google Adwords campaigns and investing heavily in ads on Etsy and in several equestrian lifestyle magazines.
By October 2020 (which was the ten-year anniversary of my business’s initial launch), the changes I had made started to pay off with increased sales, improved productivity and a few magazine features, including Architectural Digest. By the beginning of 2021, I felt confident about continuing on this new path, to the point where I’m not even considering going back to a few of my old sales channels.
Advice to others about business:
Keep a close eye on your business and track everything: sales, expenses, pricing, marketing efforts, SEO stats, your challenges and successes. Stay on top of market trends and know your target demographic so you can move on opportunities to grow (or, if you’re thrown a curveball – like a global pandemic – you can better navigate your way around it). In other words, note what’s working and what’s not, and be willing and ready to adjust accordingly.
When running your own business, you’ll discover just how capable you are, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised. As a one-woman business, I wear a lot of hats. As it turns out, my old life and career that I thought I’d left behind, have been extremely useful in my new life and career:
- I create my own designs and products, which entails concepting, digital fabrication, sourcing materials, cost analysis, prototyping, testing and evaluating new designs.
- I sell, via ecommerce and trade shows (setting up and manning the booth, smiling at hundreds of people for lengthy stretches of time). I manage all retail sales, inventory and fulfillment, and work with boutique owners to get my designs out there.
- I market, which includes promotion, advertising, merchandising, branding, social media and charity collaborations. I also do my own graphic design, photography, copywriting and web design.
- I’m a production manager. Every one of my products is handcrafted by me, utilizing woodworking, leatherworking, welding, and lighting/electrical work.
- I consult, working frequently with interior designers, boutique owners and client inquiries. I develop mock-ups, concept drawings, spec sheets and job quotes.
- Side note, though, know your limits. I don’t deal with numbers. I hate Excel and it hates me. So I hire an accountant to deal with that side of my business, and he’s worth every penny!
Create a healthy mix of products and product options, and offer them through different sales channels. Multiple income streams are a smart way to maintain a steady, balanced income, especially in small business.