Town and Country

Survivor Stories: Pulp Lab

Welcome to the first interview in a new series of retail survivor stories

April 7, 2009

Maybe you’ve noticed it, too: When the going gets tough for area retailers, the tough get going with outside-the-box thinking and creative maneuvering. I’m seeing great examples all over town, so to inspire more survival tactics, spur more clever marketing moves, and encourage innovative repositioning in this everythings-gone-sideways marketplace, I give you Wear What When’s Survivor Stories.

Kicking off these Hell-No-We-Won’t-Go retail tales is an interview with Pulp Lab’s Kate Pawlicki.

WWW: You just recently moved your non-traditional retail space/art lab from a relatively obscure location on Dock Street to a skinny, pizza slice-shaped storefront smack-dab in the middle of Ballard’s old world/new world shopping hub. How’d you manage to move up while so many around you are downsizing or calling it quits?

KP: I was very fortunate that the ideal location became available at just the right time for us and that the building owners were willing to have a creative enterprise in the space. Given the state of the economy, I feel that the most important thing for us to do is remain visible. The move is not just about keeping our brand out there, but also for all of the designers, artists, and other people that we have been working with. It really was a case of move up or move on.

Because your former out-of-the-way digs made you a destination, rather than a lucky beneficiary of foot traffic, you’re used to thinking outside the box in order to lure folks in—or even show up on their radar. An example might be ‘Ghosts in the Garden,’ the collaboration you did with the visual artist Sage Vaughn and his fashion designer wife Sweet P. To preview the show, shoppers had to randomly encounter paintings and pieces of clothing that you had scattered here and there around the city, in hotel lobbies and public areas. Where does your maverick sense of marketing and visual merchandising come from? What feeds and informs it and what inspires you to continually recreate and reimagine what a retail space could and should be?

For the ‘Ghosts’ installations I had to come up with a way to showcase the show outside of our Dock Street location – which I felt simply wouldn’t provide enough visibility for the collection – so we found partners in town who were wiling to feature the pieces. It was a lot of fun and also created some excitement around the launch event that we held for Sweet P & Sage at Havana. We try to be nimble and flexible and we don’t have deep pockets – we’re bootstrappers – so all of our ideas stem from needing cost-effective alternatives for marketing and promotion. As for what feeds me — I think it’s a high-low mix of my art history background, years of corporate marketing work, and an affinity for pop culture.

To some degree, the main downstairs area at Pulp Lab is handled as if it’s more like an art gallery than a boutique. You bring in thoughtfully produced, brainy-but-gorgeous clothing and accessory collections by art-world designers who focus on textiles, concept, and/or message, and the ‘shows’ are up for about a month at a time. How does buying and selling limited numbers of limited run pieces contribute to the personality and the viability of Pulp Lab?

I’ve found that the designers who resonate with me are those who are choosing to make small collections or one-offs. It is more about a creative exchange than traditional retail I suppose – it also has made it easier to manage inventory and costs when we “commission” pieces the way you would with an artist, or offer smaller collections or collaborations with other brands, as we do with the Pulp Lab t-shirts. It’s a model that I’m comfortable with and will continue to explore until we know what people want and what works best for us. The installations do take time to conceive and produce, and we hope to develop long-term relationships with everyone we work with. We will continue to have pieces from all of our shows available in our store or online even after the installation changes.

And then there’s the upstairs loft, where you offer discounted clothing and lifestyle pieces from past installations and shows at Pulp Lab as well as past season merchandise from stores like Tulip, the First Ave boutique that recently closed due to this depressing economic climate. How does offering this service – to the retail/fashion community as well as to consumers looking for a bargain – fit into your vision of what Pulp Lab is?

I think that what makes us different is that not only do we offer a unique shopping experience, we also offer others an opportunity to participate in the space. Our Pulp Loft area is currently showcasing vintage clothing and overstock inventory from other stores. The vintage pieces have already withstood the test of time, so they fit into our mission of offering one-off pieces with longevity; the overstock service seems like the right thing right now – both as a way to collaborate with other stores and also to give customers an edited discount rack.

Describe the Pulp Lab shopper in six words or less.

Not an age but an attitude.

If you could pick two well-known entities to guest curate the month of May at Pulp Lab, who would you pick?

Andy Warhol and Peggy Guggenheim.

What do you do on days when it really does seem as if everyone in America has stopped spending money?

I’m very thankful to have other consulting work to get me through. It also doesn’t leave me much downtime to speculate on things that are out of my control. I can only do the best that I can do.

Your current installations include gorgeous, worldly-feeling hand-painted silk dresses and tunics by Jesse Kamm, and Elizabeth Yarborough’s pottery-teacher-meets-urban-hipster fiber-wrapped bangles. (All pictured on this post.) What’s up next?

Our next featured collaboration is with local designer Kimberly Baker, where we’re installing a Kimberly Baker Jewelry store-within-a-store in the front windows at Pulp – beginning May 9th and running through July (12 week store). Artist Ana Laura Perez’s fashion-inspired illustrations will also be on view, and we’ll bring out new Spring/Summer from emerging designer Asli Filinta. Plus, our version of the ‘boyfriend jean short’ in our vintage loft area.

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