Throwback Thursday’s Insider Report on Ellice Lovelady by Rebecca Chrysler
Spicing Up the Kitchen With Artsy Fun
When she quit her vegetarian diet 14 years ago, former greeting card creative director Ellice Lovelady had no idea she would get the inspiration for an entirely new and successful business concept—funny aprons. After “falling off the wagon and finding herself in the gutter with Whopper wrappers,” Lovelady was compelled to make an apron that confessed, “Recovering Vegetarian” with a bloody butcher knife on he front. Irony comes naturally to Lovelady, whose second apron design featured a fat grandmother and read, “Honorary Poster-Child for the American Cholesterol Association.” Now Lovelady produces a full line of aprons with themes ranging from cooking and wine to sports, through her business The Imagination Association/The Funny Apron Company.
Lovelady admits that she is not an artist, but that her specialty is in conceptual work. Her background in the greeting card industry and in T-shirt design was as creative director. Unsure of where to go with her avant-garde apron ideas, Lovelady formed a focus group of former colleagues and friends, asking point-blank—If I put one of these designs on an apron, would you buy it? She then needed to test out her product, which required her to invest her own savings and take a financial risk. She found a T-shirt rep to man a booth featuring her aprons at a local show, but this still was much too small a venue with too few designs for Lovelady to determine if she was heading in the right direction.
This was when she had to really put her money where her mouth was. She began asking former artists she’d worked with in greeting cards if they would be willing to illustrate any of her designs. By word of mouth, her concept branched out to other artists who were interested in her aprons. She paid for all the materials up front, had no money to pay the artists but they agreed to do the work on spec earning any future royalties. “This was literally a grassroots organization,” she admits. “And it took perseverance.”
Now 14 years later, Lovelady laughs about the stacks of rejection letters she received from every mail order catalog that turned her down. Whether I was clairvoyance or her acute sense of irony, she kept every last “thank you, but no thank you” letter and now finds herself working with every single one of those catalogs today.
Having worked on both the artistic and manufacturing sides of the business, Lovelady has a unique perspective on how artists should approach today’s market and effective suggestions on how to make it in an industry that she knows can be brutal. In addition to the age-old advice that artists must be willing to accept multiple rejections and that they are not alone in having stacks of disappointing letters, Lovelady also has worked with a slew of different artists, some whom she would call again in a heartbeat and others whom she has chosen not to work with again.
“I adore artists who not only have great talent, but who have professionalism. In order to work with me, you need to be quick and upfront when communicating about when you can reasonably meet deadlines. For long term projects, I need a timeline and artists need to deliver accordingly.” Unfortunately, Lovelady has found many artists whose designs she loves but who she will not do business with because they fail to work in a timely manner.
Another problem she has faced with many talented artists is their lack of technical skills. Today’s industry has changed drastically in the past 10 years, according to Lovelady, and the demands on artists are even higher. Computer-literacy just won’t cut it today, she insists. “Adobe Photoshop works great for greeting cards, but it won’t get you anywhere if you branch out to other print mediums.” Knowledge and fluency in Vector-based artwork for screen-printing is now a minimum that Lovelady require from artists who work with her. “It makes me so sad to think about the number of artists I’ve had to stop working with whose designs were exquisite, but they were costing me too much money because they hadn’t educated themselves on the latest technology.”
Companies, particularly smaller ones like The Funny Apron Company, no longer have an in house art department that will take your art in any form and cut it up so that it will work across different mediums. “It is no longer cost effective,” insists Lovelady. “Chopping up a design to make it work in the correct format is just too expensive.” Lovelady remembers several artists who resisted technology kicking and screaming, and she herself felt this way until she realized the transition wasn’t an option. Luckily, Lovelady has been able to continue to work with many of the same artists over the years because they have made this necessary transition and adjusted to the changing industry.
Another change Lovelady has noticed within her apron/culinary niche is the tendency of buyers to prefer more text and less design. As an art-lover, this devastates her. But as a businesswoman who doesn’t just want The Funny Apron Company to be a hobby, she has redirected her line to be more text-driven with less intricate designs. Fourteen years ago, her audience went crazy over the beautiful artwork, but sales are showing that today people are looking for the joke.
If interested in sending her work, Lovelady prefers artists send a portfolio, though she occasionally receives work on spec. Given the number of portfolios she sees, she strongly recommends that for their own protection artists always document who they are sending work to and where they are sending. “Don’t expect confidentiality agreements,” advises Lovelady. “You don’t know what’s already in the pipeline and the manufacturers do, so they rarely agree to them. It is a matter of trust which is why it is so important to document.”
Lovelady also advises artists to recognize that when a manufacturer invests time and money in promoting their work and making brochures, they are making a commitment. “I am humbled thinking back to when I would try and insist on big checks up front from a company as a sign of dedication to my work. Being on the other side of the business, I see how much money is spent promoting an artist’s work and that in itself is a commitment.”
In terms of licensing, Lovelady tends to accept artists on a work-for-hire basis and typically buys all rights. She prefers this over licensing, because then she and the artist can work together during every step of the process. “Most artists tend to prefer it too because they don’t know if their design will be very lucrative or pay pennies in royalty checks. This way they know in advance how much money they will make for a project.” Although she can’t speak for other companies, Lovelady does a little licensing now and when she does license, she typically asks only for the right of first refusal if the artist were to try to sell the design to work on a mug, magnet, or any other subsidiary that her company may branch into in the future.
Currently, The Funny Apron Company is sticking to aprons, “but I am always looking,” Lovelady admits. “There is just such a wide market out there.” Never imagining that her apron idea would take off so successfully, Lovelady can’t help but envision the endless possibilities that exist for someone who loves art and is willing to learn the business.
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