By Allison Zisko
Sheer will and determination have earned tabletop newcomer Darbie Angell a high-profile spot at retail, a situation many big-time brands would covet.
Angell is the founder and president of Cru Dinnerware, a three-year-old company based in Georgetown, Texas, whose upscale-yet-affordable products are sold at Macy's, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Dillard's, among others. Just a few years ago, however, she was a lawyer daydreaming about a design career.
Forced bedrest during a pregnancy made her reconsider her life's work. She had studied interior design as an undergraduate but did not want to open an interior design company. She liked "niche" items better, she said, and so started out designing a coffee press that she shopped around to small boutiques. Most of those stores were more interested in tabletop, however, and so she shifted her focus to dinnerware design.
Designing dinnerware appealed to her. Weddings are one of the few businesses that keep people buying, she reasoned, and that boded well for tabletop sales. She began to educate herself on the industry in a hurry, using Google as her guide. She funded her efforts by getting into the diamond trade; she bought diamonds in Israel and sold them in China.
Within five months she had found a factory in China (she has since moved her operations to Bangladesh) and started drawing. Lacking proper computer design tools, she created patterns in PowerPoint and used its line tools to indicate to the factory when she wanted to move something. Among her first patterns were Monaco, which has a very wide band of painted 24-karat gold, and Athena, a gold scroll design on white. The dinnerware is made of either bone or porcelain, and the metallic embellishments and use of rich color (as in the turquoise-hued Lauderdale) convey a sense of luxury, though a five-piece place setting retails for between $49.99 and $79.99. The goal, Angell said, is to give consumers something they can be proud of "without breaking the bank."
She named the company Cru Dinnerware because cru means "great strength," had a design student create a logo that included the umlat over the "u", and designed silk-lined, black-box packaging for "maximum impact."
Then came the hard part: selling the line to retailers.
"We had no contacts in this industry," Angell said. "We have great friends now, but in the beginning we were on our own."
Setting her sights on Macy's, Angell found the name of one of its home buyers online and made a cold call. Repeatedly rejected, she kept changing the last four digits of the telephone number until she eventually connected with Diane Narwid, Macy's buyer of fine china, Christmas china and ornaments. Macy's minority business office has transferred her to Narwid.
"We're from Texas," Angell said, referring to her two assistants and her brother, Aaron Wilson, who serves as chief operating officer, "and not a part of this industry at all. I didn't know how to present myself, but I think we were perceived well because we're different and we are who we are."
Norwid agreed to meet Angell during the fall tabletop market in New York, where Angell was showing products at the Carlton Hotel. Narwid walked her through the new-vendor process and gave her a primer on the tabletop industry. She explained Macy's routing guide, logistics and its style-out and assortment process, as well as gave her advice on industry standards, like what makes up a standard five-piece place setting, how bridal impacts the business, and what accessories are most important.
Bed Bath & Beyond picked up part of the line first, in 2009, initially offering the dinnerware online and then in various doors. Macy's followed suit in the spring of 2010. Three patterns are available on macys.com and in the retailer's top 10 A doors.
"Our selections were based primarily on design and trying to fill in a niche or void that we didn't have covered on our floor," Narwid said. "We review each pattern individually, not by vendor. We take into account the design, brand and price point. We think Darbie is a great personality, and in a very static industry thought the designs were good enough to throw into the mix and see what happened."
So far, there has been a fairly strong initial bridal read, according to Narwid, "especially in that this is an arena that is so dominated by powerhouse name brands. Our stores for the most part have been excited to have a fresh new brand and the press reaction has certainly been great, so time will tell."
The negotiating process with Macy's was worth it, according to Wilson. "Macy's is a perfect fit for our product," he said. "It strikes a sophisticated palate, but on an affordable scale."
Dillard's, meanwhile, carries some of Cru's recently introduced recycled glassware, a category another upscale department store is also considering, according to Angell. Cru is also considering branching into stemware, through a partnership with another vendor, and is considering additional categories, "possibly textiles."
Cru is developing several new dinnerware patterns for next month's tabletop market, including Madison's April in New York, a pattern inspired by a 14-year-old girl Angell met who wanted to be part of the tabletop industry, but who died from cancer before she had the chance. Angell is in the process of arranging a partnership in which the sale of Madison's April in New York which will help fund pediatric cancer research.
Angell is thri lled about her success with her new venture, but displayed some of the confidence that undoubtedly helped her achieve that success. "Anything can be done if you have passion and drive," she said.