In our July/August 2012 issue, we profiled a cross-section of women working in the design field from architects to curatorial theorists and a handful of professions between. One prominent figure in design today is Sandy Chilewich, co-owner (with husband Joe Sultan) of Chilewich | Sultan LLC. For over thirty years, Chilewich has found herself at the head of successful business ventures. If you've shopped for tabletop accessories, floor coverings, or legwear, chances are you've come across her work. A product innovator, Chilewich co-founded hosiery company HUE in 1978, developed the popular Ray Tray in 1997, and established her namesake company in 2000. We chatted with Chilewich about her background, design philosophy, and challenges and advantages of being a female entrepreneur.
The two companies you established, Chilewich and Hue, are both textile-driven. Can you tell the story behind the connection?
I began those two businesses from scratch. I started Hue in 1978 when I was in my twenties. I owned it for 16 years and by the end of my time there, we were doing $40 million in sales. I started Hue just like I started Chilewich. Both of those came from a creative place. I wanted to take an idea for a product, figure out how to make it, and then sell it.
After I sold Hue—which is hosiery, a textile about stretch and Lycra, and natural and synthetic fibers—I knew I didn't want to be in the fashion world. I had this idea inspired by the Butterfly chair. I kept imagining that it would be amazing as a tabletop concept: a textile container for fruit and vegetables [the Ray bowl].
In my search for new textiles that I could introduce into the line, I found a resource in Alabama. They had this woven vinyl—"Plynyl"—that was always used in the ugliest furniture. I got some samples and fell in love with the material and its potential. It was absolutely durable and it was beautiful. I took the material and began making bowls from it. It was a concept to recast these materials. I started designing with them, making my own colors, but eventually lost interest in the bowls. I didn't want to enlarge the concept and dilute it.
What's your design philosophy?
I'm artistic, but I'm not an artist. I like selling a product to a large audience and having a dialog with them. Doing something that has design integrity at an accessible price is important to me.
My passion is to find underutilized textiles and manufacturing processes—that's what I like to do. Just do make something because it's beautiful doesn't inspire me. It has to be original and it has to be easy to maintain. The idea that you have to take something to the dry cleaner doesn't turn me on as a designer.
Did you experience any challenges or advantages being a woman in the design field?
With Hue, we were so many women. CNN featured us as a model of how women run businesses, collaborate, and share ideas. Now, in my old age, I think it's much healthier to have both sexes involved. We are very different, men and women. But the combination is a winning one as long as you're not fighting. When we went to all the big textile mills down south [for Hue] being women worked in our favor; we knew how to be charming. I will say that being a woman and being smart is a winning combination.
Have you had many ideas that turned out to be failures?
Everyday! I have a project that I've tabled five times times in the last five years and I'm resurrecting it again. Maybe this time we can find a solution to the problems. We have also have problems where I like something but I can't make it. I'm a big preacher that you have to be very, vey open. There are ideas I love but if I get feedback and people don't love it, I have to think twice about it. Sometimes when newcomers arrive in the industry they fall in love with their product. Get feedback from everyone—customers, ad agencies, a store, and listen to the feedback. I've been rejected many times, been worn down, and moved onward.