Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Designer Michele Varian opened her first store in SoHo very shortly after 9/11 when she had money burning in her pocket from the sale of her gorgeous pillows to big name stores like Barneys and Neiman Marcus. Ultimately, she says, it was because she wanted complete control of the product—“I wanted something I could be proud of.” She can also be proud of the fact that she’s still holding on in this current climate of retail oddness. Originally trained as a fashion designer, she sold only her pillows but as eventually expanded into the jewelry, accent pieces and ceramics that can be found at her current store on Howard Street. It’s still a treat, and an affordable one too, but much of our discussion centered on the strange future of retail in our new digital world and her own involvement with keeping small businesses such as her own alive. She credits her civic activism towards a childhood spent in Detroit, raised by socially conscious parents who put her and her sisters (they are triplets) through the Detroit public school system because, as she puts it, they wanted them “to have a robust social experience.” It seems to have stood her in good stead.
I was reading up on you and someone described your store as a “modern curiosity shop” and I can see here in your own home you have Victorian-influenced objects and photos—what is about that era that appeals to you?
Well I was lucky enough to grow up in a historical home in a landmarked neighborhood in Detroit, called Indian Village. It’s now become a very desirable neighborhood because it is these old, beautiful turn-of-the-century homes where the lumber and auto barons moved to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But it is the inner city, sort of about how far the Financial District is from 14th Street in New York.
That’s not really how people see Detroit now, is it? They think of the broken city and poverty.
Yes, the blight, and it is very real. My sisters and I—I am one of triplets—while we grew up, the city decayed and slowly atrophied. My parents chose to stay. They wanted my sisters and I to have a robust social experience. They didn’t want us to have a homogenized experience. We stayed in the city and we went through the Detroit public school system. By the third grade, we were the only white kids in our school. And within that year, we were the only kids not on welfare.
So how would you say that informed the rest of your life?
Hugely. My Dad grew up in Larchmont in Westchester, so he was part of swim team, the club life and that kind of thing and he felt that it was extremely important for us to have a team experience. We lived near Belle Isle, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park, and they have two private clubs, a yacht club and a boat club. We were members of the boat club and all of the members were white and from the suburbs. So we had access and exposure to radically different social circles. It made us super sensitive to both sides and made us realize how lucky we were relative to the kids we went to school with and again how lucky we were relative to the suburbanites who weren’t as socially sophisticated.
Did you maintain the friendships you made at school?
Absolutely. Very long, strong friendships from both sides.
It is relatively unusual to have life-long friendships across what I can only call a race barrier.
Yes, it’s super-unusual. But that’s what Detroit breeds.
Did you feel any racism directed towards you at school?
Well … yes but it wasn’t an issue until the third grade when all the kids’ home lives were devastated because their parents lost their jobs. It really drove home that circumstances are a more of a driving force than race.
[Sian] Now your store is in SoHo and I have to admit, I never come to SoHo shopping—I’m hoping that plenty of other people come?
Sadly what makes SoHo so charming is rapidly being diminished. So I’ve gotten really involved in trying to advocate for small businesses. In Little Italy there are tons and in NoLita there are plenty. In fact if you include freelancers, there are supposedly 67,000 small businesses below 14th Street.
Yes, according to the city. The law states that businesses should not exceed 10,000 square feet in SoHo but obviously, there are a lot of … “non-conforming” businesses.
[Lesley] When I occasionally walk around SoHo, what I see are tourists who are carrying packages from the usual name brands like Zara and Adidas, which they can buy in their own countries. So what does that say about SoHo retail and small business?
So, part of why I fought so hard to not allow the large retail was that there’s already tons of empty spaces and when I first opened my store, I was paying $30 a square foot. Now, until recently, it’s almost $150 a square foot but I negotiated a massive rent reduction.
How did you get that?
Because there’s so many empty spaces and brick-and-mortar is never going to create the return it once did. There’s too much of it. There’s six times as much retail square footage in the US than in the UK.
And that came from a shopping habit that doesn’t exist anymore?
Exactly. And the internet is only part of the story because as of August last year, internet sales as a percentage of gross retail sales was only 8.9 percent.
And that’s because people aren’t shopping as much?
Yes. I mean do you guys shop as much as you used to? I don’t.
What do you attribute that to?
People don’t leave their homes as much. And soon we’re all just going to be wearing t-shirts and jeans.
Because everyone is doing this [mimics going on her phone] and people get all their ya-ya-s out without any actual social interaction, no physical interaction. We have fundamentally changed our habits. It used to be you met a friend for brunch and then you went shopping afterwards. It’s not really talked about because let’s face it, we get our information from the internet and it’s not in the interests of the internet to inform us of this.
Who shops in your shop? Sorry, I say “shop” because I’m British.
I didn’t even think of it as a British thing, but I hate it when people say “boutique.” We get a fair number of tourists and one of the things that’s an issue with tourists is that now that there is such a restriction on the amount of baggage you can travel with, they can’t really shop! One of the things I suggested to the city is that sponsor a program for hotels to partner with airlines and let guests submit receipts—if they spend a $1000 they get an allowance for a free bag to check in.
Isn’t the orthodoxy now that people spend on experiences rather than stuff, particularly younger people?
That’s interesting to me because when people say that, I think, well, I must have been a pre-millennial [laughs] because me and my friends fell into that category and always were that. If you lived in New York, wasn’t that the way you lived? Didn’t we all go out, all of the time?
Apart from tourists, who else comes in to your store?
When I opened my store [in 2001], the people who came were people who lived in SoHo. There were architecture firms, design firms and branding companies—they’ve all been pushed out. In the beginning, like Roman and Williams were early clients. Believe it or not, it was more male shoppers than female shoppers in the beginning. My shop is not overtly feminine, which at that time for a home goods store to not just be thinking of a woman as the kind of person who shops for home goods was kind of unusual.
How do you go about making a store not overtly feminine?
Well my own personal taste is not overtly feminine. I always had a lot of Victorian industrial things, which goes back to things that have historical integrity and a story. We had a neighbor in the building who was an art critic and he said “… I’ve been having such a difficult time trying to define what your aesthetic is but it’s that you like to see the hand that has made something.” I was like, “Boom! You did it. That is absolutely right.”
And you also make things, right?
Yes—it goes back to when we lived in Detroit. Our house was not in great shape so I grew up building things. We re-did the electrical, we re-did the plumbing and I hung dry wall with my mom and we laid floorboards and stripped gobs and gobs of paint. My respiratory system is probably a mess. That’s a Detroit thing, being resourceful and being scrappy.
Can you tell us how you started making the pillows that launched you, so to speak?
My background was fashion design and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day for other companies—I loved designing and I had been doing a collection in Japan for a number of years—and I was traveling all the time to Europe and the Far East to fabric shows. That was great in my twenties. To be completely honest, my parents would probably have been happier if I had chosen to become a fine artist but early on I recognized that I like applied design and I like problem solving. I like those boundaries. I’m more creative with those boundaries. So I started with the pillows because I had a textile background. I was starting with the resources I had. I cashed in my 401k and later on I borrowed $20,000 from my dad.
What was it that all the big names like Barneys and ABC Carpet liked about your pillows as opposed to all the other millions of pillows?
At that time there weren’t millions of different pillows. [Now] things like digital printing has allowed so many designs to come on to the market but at that time in 1998, they hadn’t seen pillows like mine. I was also determined to be self-financed—all the fashion businesses I knew had imploded because of bad backer relationships. I also wanted to control the aesthetic decisions completely. My quality was like 100 percent. I wanted something that I was proud of. One of my early innovations was because new fabrics were prohibitively expensive to acquire, I ended up using fabrics like felt and ultra suede which were stock fabrics and because I had all these relationships I had built up, they would let me have six yards. Also I felt the construction of the pillows should be a design detail—also there’s no hard element, like a button.
And your colors are so strong.
I’m not afraid of color—which is very un-American. An extension of being an American is that it is an immigrant community—everyone wants to fit in. Nobody wants to step out.
So give us a rundown of your favorite stores.
Good question—I hardly ever shop. I like Rachel Comey for clothing over on Crosby Street … um … Anthropologie still does a good job.
You know for someone who sells pillows and little bits of gorgeous design, I didn’t think we would spend most of the interview talking about the future of retail.
I’ve gotten really involved in things! I came from a family that was very socially conscious. It’s like you make choices. You choose to pay attention or you choose not to.
And what’s it like being married to a rock star?
[Laughs] … Well, it’s great actually. I was a big fan before I met Brad but I didn’t know who he was because I had never had cable television and I did not know what he looked like. He and I had been talking for quite some time, at a Bulgarian bar that like everything else is gone, before my friend told me who he was.
I think you have to go wake him up.
He’ll come out when he comes out. We’ll make him tea and he’ll slowly wake up. [Alas, he does not come out]