East Village

Pamela Bell

 

Pamela Bell has always worked best as her own boss. Combine that independence with a remarkable ability to predict trends, and you’ve got a powerhouse entrepreneur. Her latest venture, Prinkshop, allows Bell to support causes she believes in, by sharing their messages in new ways.

 
 

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What originally brought you to New York?
I was born in Ohio, and I used to come to New York a lot when I was growing up. My mother loved Broadway shows, so she would bring me with her to see them. Since I first came to visit, I knew that I wanted to live here.

I went to college in Colorado, and studied political science and art history. As soon as I finished college, I moved to New York. I had started an accessories company while I was in university, so my business partner moved here with me, you know, days after graduation. I’ve been in New York for 25 years now.

So fashion has always been a big part of your life?
Yes, it has. But I think it’s more about making and selling things. That is something I’ve always done. I’ve always had to pay for everything, and have worked from a young age. The first job I had was selling flowers on the corner! I would go to the woods and cut them down, and sell them out of a wagon I pulled along. I also sold Girl Scout cookies.

I’ve always sold things. I’ve never been very good at working for other people or having a boss, so getting a job at a bar, store or café wasn’t appealing. I guess I am not keen on being told what to do. [Laughs]

Fair enough! So how did your company fare when you moved to New York?
My business partner was from LA, and she just couldn’t handle it here. It wasn’t her scene, so after the summer she moved home and I kept the business.

 
When I first started, I went to a few venture capitalists who all said, “Graphic tees don’t sell.” But I didn’t see them as graphic tees; I saw them as a way people could say who they were and what they were about.
 

What sort of things were you selling?
I made hair accessories. At the time, scrunchies, bows, and tortoiseshell clips were really popular. I made things that looked a little different; they were made out of wood and I would hand-paint them. They were very visual, very decorative, and they sold really well. After I moved to New York, I met a man who had a company on Varick Street called Plastic Jewel, which made novelty items. I negotiated a deal with him: I would design some products for him, and in exchange he gave me free office space and the ability to produce my own accessories. He was a great “in” to the larger chains at the time, like Claire’s, Wet Seal, Walmart and Kmart. I would create kitschy items that sold really well. I designed a thing called the “love-o-meter,” which was a necklace with a little arrow you could spin. I put a pacifier on the end of a necklace chain.

Those were everywhere for a while!
I'm not sure if I was the first to do that, but we sold millions of them. And I would get a percentage of the sales. We designed a red-white-and-blue line for the Fourth of July, and then the Gulf War broke out and they became instantly political and very popular.

I closed the business after I married my husband. He was a doctor, and had to move around to do his fellowship, which meant I sort of had to start over. We spent three months in Seattle, then San Francisco and then Chicago. During that time, I was plotting my next move for when we would arrive back in New York. Things came together when I met Katy Spade, her husband, and their best friend, Elyce Arons who also was planning to join while we shared a summer house in Amagansett summer of '93. They had started the Kate Spade business with a line samples and some orders, but didn’t know what the next steps should be to really get the business off the ground. After talking to them about my production experience, I joined the company—I didn’t take a salary, but got a quarter share in the business.

What was special about the company?
She just had a really great idea. I could recognize that. I believe this to be one of my strengths, —the ability to recognize when something is going to be big. The first product, the one that started the company, was a simple nylon bag in a few basic colors. It was very structural, square and architectural. I loved how I felt when I carried it, and I really liked Katy, so it was an easy decision.

Kate Spade is a huge company now!
It’s amazing. I was with the company for 15 years before we sold it to Neiman Marcus. Our business model was very rare. We funded everything ourselves, and never borrowed. Harvard Business School actually did a case study on us. Students will ask, “Why didn’t you borrow money? You could have grown so much faster and larger.” But we’re all from the Midwest, so we really don’t like to borrow money. We also didn’t want to be beholden to anybody, or to have an investor be able to sway our decisions and designs. We wanted to be able to sleep at night, you know?

We initially sold 56% of the company to Neiman Marcus,after four years of constant growth then operated with them as a partner. For a few years it was fine, and then for the next few it wasn’t great. We reached a point where we were done. It was grow or die, but we still didn’t want to borrow money, so we made the decision to sell the rest of the company. There’s also so much to think about when your company gets to a certain size—you are responsible for so many staff, and people look to you, both within the company and also externally from a business-management perspective.

People hold you responsible for things that are not always in your control. It was a lot of pressure. At the time, I had three small children, and my other business partners were also having kids. The company had gotten so much bigger than we ever thought possible, so we got out at the perfect time. We were thrilled with the terms and felt comfortable with the legacy we were leaving behind, basically.

 
 

Was it a unanimous decision?
We all had our doubts at certain points, but we all wanted to do it. Amongst the four partners, one of our greatest strengths was that we very rarely couldn’t come to a decision or agreement on something big.

So what did you do after the sale?
I had a non-compete clause for several years after the sale, which really restricted what I was able to do. It was at that point that I decided to start working with nonprofits and volunteering my time. The first thing I did was start an art class with a friend of mine, which teaches men who have been drug addicts or have just got out of prison. We’ve actually been doing that for seven years now.

That’s amazing. Why that particular branch of volunteer work?
I’m not exactly sure. At the time, I had read a statistic that said something like 60 percent of African American men in New York were unemployed. That really shocked me, so I wanted to do something to help.

That led me to start working with a few different nonprofits, helping them create product lines. That’s where my strength was, and I knew that was a real way I could help. Most nonprofits that have products just slap their logo onto things, but I knew they could get more sales and better results by creating something a little more relevant and thoughtful.

It turned out to be tougher than I thought. A lot of them just couldn’t get their heads around commerce, or selling for profit. It was tough going, so I started making prints myself, selling them and then donating the money back to the nonprofits. That’s how I founded Prinkshop. Sometimes, the organizations are very supportive and help me promote the products, and sometimes they aren’t helpful at all. I just send them the checks anyway. [Laughs]

Why wouldn’t they be supportive?
Often, it’s the style of messaging I will create. It can be seen as controversial. I created a graphic for Michael Bloomberg’s gun-lobby organization, Everytown, and they really disliked it. It was three red words: “Ban! Ban! Ban!” They thought it was too harsh, but my idea was that it had to be extreme to get a reaction, to get that visibility. I still sell those t-shirts and give them the money. Nobody said, “Stop sending us money.” [Laughs]

Now, I’m at the point where companies are actually calling me and wanting to work together, which is really exciting.

What is Prinkshop’s business model?
For each sale, I donate between 30 percent and 50 percent of the earnings to the nonprofit. I’m very lean with my manufacturing and overhead, which is part of what makes it possible.

What was the turning point for the business?
I’ve been doing this for two years, but the real turning point was in October last year when I worked with Cara Delevingne and the United Nations Foundation for the “You See a Girl, I See the Future” campaign. It was my first large-scale collaboration, and I was able to make a really meaningful donation to the GirlUp Campaign as a result. I measure my success by the amount of money I’ve been able to donate.

The reason why I didn't make Prinkshop a not-for-profit is because I want people to see that you can have a profitable business and also do real good at the same time. Giving donations can be a full-time part of what you do. I called it “creative capitalism.”

You can’t give money away unless you’re making money.  
Not unless you're independently wealthy!

 
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How do you come up with your print campaigns?
It’s different for each one. “You're Not the Boss of V” came to me when I remembered this little kid I had seen on the street say to his mom, “You’re not the boss of me!” I thought it was hilarious. That campaign was pretty popular. Other times, the concept will be something super simple—for example, the campaign that simply says “1973” to represent Roe v. Wade, or “77/100” to represent the gender pay gap. I always try to keep the campaigns positive, though. I don’t use any negative or hurtful language. I could have sold a million “Nasty Girl” t-shirts, but I thought that had such a negative connotation. It was an insult to women. Just because you're being tough, are you nasty? Because nasty is negative. It's a pejorative term, no matter what.

Have your prints gained more popularity with the state of politics right now?  
It’s interesting. When I first started, I went to a few venture capitalists who all said, "Graphic tees don't sell.” But I didn’t see them as graphic tees; I saw them as a way people could say who they were and what they were about. To be able to express instantly, “This is what I stand for.” It’s definitely more popular and relevant now, though, and I can’t deny it’s helped the business grow.

I know silkscreening itself has a political history. Can you talk about that?
Silkscreening really gained traction as a political artform when it was used as part of the Paris student uprising, in May 1968. Basically the government wouldn't let the public college dorms be co-ed. It was about sex.  Men and women couldn't be in the dorms together.

Not without an orgy breaking out!
Exactly. [Laughs] So, the students protested against the government. It was about more than co-ed dorms, obviously—they were fighting against being told what to do. They made these silkscreened posters that became a huge part of the uprising. Silkscreening was used because it was cheap, quick and easy to create multiples.

I’m also very inspired by Sister Corita Kent, who was a social activist that created so many iconic graphics in the ‘60s. All her affirmations were positive, and she had her own studio in California. She created a famous silkscreen print based on the Wonder Bread logo. She also made the “Love” logo that is used on stamps all the time. Look her up; she is amazing!

What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Have empathy for others. It’s something I’ve really seen in my 20 year old daughter, Anabel. She always looks you in the eye when she asks, “How are you?” She is genuinely asking and cares about the answer.

What does New York mean to you?
I love the city.  Diversity in population, The Arts, the pace, the beauty. I can not imagine living anywhere else though I do love the serenity of the woods or the beach. New York has my heart and always will.

 
 

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Photography by Stephanie Geddes ©


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