The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. A printed version comes with Keap subscription candles each month.
Brooklyn-based entrepreneur Ellen Van Dusen admittedly didn’t know much about fashion. That didn’t stop her from her designing her own fashion and home goods line, and turning it in the space of just a few years into one of the most loved brands in NYC.
Here, she shares with our founder Harry Doull her surprising and unique path with her company, Dusen Dusen, and gives us a behind-the-scenes of her brightly colored world; from parents to children’s museums, via informercials and accidentally winning a film festival award.
Ellen Van Dusen.
"I don't want to run a giant company. I just want to make things that I feel proud of that hopefully people like."
Harry (HD): Could you start by telling us in your own words what Dusen Dusen is, and who you are?
Ellen (EvD): So, I'm Ellen Van Dusen, and Dusen Dusen I now think of as a textile and print design studio. I had a clothing line for five years starting in the spring of 2010, and in 2015 we launched a home goods line. What brings everything together is the prints line.
HD: Do you see it taking another form beyond those two at some point?
EvD: Maybe. A long term goal I have is to do more environmental work, designing spaces; not just things in the spaces. I’ve done some wallpaper work which was fun; I don’t want to necessarily do more wallpaper work, but transforming a space like that is fun for me. I don't have any concrete plans of doing that but I've done a couple projects that are a little larger scale and that's really fun.
HD: Can you tell me more about how it all started? What were you doing before Dusen Dusen?
EvD: I graduated from college in 2008, and pretty much immediately moved to New York and started working for another designer. I worked for that designer for about a year and I kind of just went off and did it on my own.
HD: How do you feel about that decision, looking back?
EvD: Well, yeah, it was pretty nuts. I didn't know much about what I was doing and I didn't go to fashion school, so I didn’t have a background in any of the technical stuff. But I knew how to sew. When I first started my line I was hand-sewing everything, so it was pretty nuts to just jump into running a business. But I always knew I wanted to do that and I also had nothing to lose: my job was part time so it’s not like I was actually making money.
Ellen's dog Snips.
HD: So what were the first steps of this new project? How did you start?
EvD: To start, I had a couple different fabric shops in Chinatown and the Garment District that I liked where I could find closeout fabrics from the 80s, which was super fun.
HD: Do they still exist?
EvD: Yeah they still exist, but stock has dwindled. But there are still a lot of great fabric stores In Chinatown and in the Garment District. There's one that I really liked called the Jem Fabric Warehouse. I don't know if that one still exists but that's where I got all the hot hits. So I would buy fabrics and—at first—I was making clothes for myself and people would say: "where did you get that??". So that's when I decided “Oh, I should try to make more”. And then I would sew stuff in my apartment, and then started bringing it around to stores and seeing if they wanted it.
HD: So what would you say was the thread (wink wink, nudge nudge) behind your first, and perhaps subsequent, collections?
EvD: I guess it was my perspective on design in general. In college I studied ‘color’ essentially, from many different perspectives but mostly neuroscience and art history. So since I don't have any formal design training at all—zero—all my ideas about design came from those two academic worlds. I'm not, like, "Oh if I put this red next to a yellow... let's do some crazy shit”. I do think about it in some way, but it's not at the forefront of my mind all the time.
HD: In the years since those early days, what would you say are the big things you’ve learned?
EvD: I've learned what I like. I can tell when a collection is “more me”. Or “less me”. And each collection kind of signifies a moment in my life. But the grand takeaways would be: I like big patterns. That's a constant. I just... tend to like the ones... that are bigger. Every time. Which is weird. It's such a basic thing but it's just true. And I like brighter colors.
A recent collection by Ellen showcasing her characteristic style.
HD: Would you say that you’ve become better at putting out more work that has more “Ellen-ness” to it?
EvD: Yeah. Because for a while I felt like I was designing for a certain customer that I thought I had. And then I thought: “why would I do that? I should just make whatever I want to make. Because why not?”
HD: What do you think prompted that change?
EvD: Well, if you want to sell a shit ton of product, you have to cater to the mass market. I decided that's not my thing. I don't want to run a giant company. I just want to make things that I feel proud of that hopefully people like. It's more about that than selling—although, I do really enjoy the business end of the job too. But the creative fun stuff is why you do it, so why not focus on that.
HD: Did you feel any social pressure to sell “a shit ton of product”? Like, that it is “the correct thing” to do?
EvD: Yeah, I felt like success meant selling a lot of product. But I don't think that's the case anymore. I still think it's great to sell a lot of product, and I am selling a product. But I guess I define success differently.
HD: [in corporate voice] Speaking of defining Success....
EvD:Nooo! [in very real horror]
HD: Just kidding! So, when you took this big entrepreneurial step, who were some people you looked up to as role models?
EvD: I never had a role model in the strict sense, until now. Now I would like to be like Marimekko. I've always loved Marimekko; they're this iconic 60s textile brand who also do home textiles. As far as people I looked up to: my parents, because they also ran their own businesses. My dad is an architect and my mom is a property manager essentially. She’s also an architect but my dad has his own firm. And so I watched him do his own thing growing up.
A Marimekko print from 1949, and printing by hand in Helsinki. Credit Marimekko.
HD: What were the things that impressed you about your parents that made them role models for you?
EvD: I guess just getting it done. Taking care of shit! I learned basically that if you're the one that's running the thing, if something goes wrong you have to handle it.
HD: That is quite a big thing. Not everyone grows up seeing that.
EvD: Yeah, I mean it's not that things went wrong ever, but I just got the sense they were responsible. Or something, haha.
HD: Changing gears a bit, how do you unplug from work?
EvD: I'm always a little bit working. I'm always checking my emails. It's always on my mind, but I am able to relax. When I really need to chill, I watch television. That shuts my brain down.
HD: Like “television” television?
EvD: Well, not like flipping the channels. But whatever Netflix show's new or HBO. I love TV. I’m watching The Bachelor tonight. I watch The Bachelor religiously. I have a crew of six people that are always there to watch.
HD: These are your roommates?
EvD: No. They’ll just pop over every week. And we’ll make dinner. It's a scheduled thing. Oh, it’s really fun.
HD: And when things get really hard, as they inevitably do when you run a business, do you have any rituals?
EvD: When I feel really stressed and messed up from work, I'll just leave. [laughs] Leave the studio. I like to run when I'm stressed. Or walk around with the dog.
"...just so you know we're going to have this guy who is a real character—you're going to love him. And he's going to do the thing dressed as a woman."
HD: Let’s talk a little bit about smell now: if you had to describe the smell of Dusen Dusen, what would that smell be?
EvD: Oh my god. Candy. I never really thought about it.
HD: Maybe a watermelon candy?
EvD: Yeah. Except I don't like watermelon candy. I don't like artificial watermelon. Only the real ass thing. I like skittles. But I don't know if those have a smell.
HD: Coming back to the work world, what is your dream, thinking five or ten years down the road?
EvD: Oh I already know exactly. So, I want a children's museum to ask me to design an exhibit on color. That's my long term goal. It's super specific. Color is just very fascinating to me, as are illusions.
People have said to me: “That looks awesome... for a kid”. And I think it's awesome for a kid, but it's also awesome for you. When I was in high school, I worked in a children's museum in D.C. and I had so much fun. I worked in the animation department making little stop motion animation videos, and teaching kids how to do it. And I had one friend who also worked there, but we would always be there at different times,so we would always make like little videos for each other—of each other's... demise. We would make little videos of the other person dying in a funny way—very funny. And then one of our higher-ups like found our folder of all these videos and they said: “Oh my God, this is kind of good... you should do something with this”. We were, like, “shut up, we're just having fun”. But they put it together into like a little five-minute video and submitted it to a film festival…. And we won! I mean, it was in D.C. just a little a student film festival.
Snips is Chief Smile Officer at the studio.
Bedding for the bold.
A plethora of patterns at Ellen's studio.
Ellen's Mural for WantedDesign Brooklyn 2015. Photo: Sight Unseen.
Anyway, I also did an installation in a children’s museum here recently that was fun. I've always been interested in that primacy of vision, the way we see things. And it seems that people think that that's more relevant to a child’s brain, but I think that it's for everyone. But that kind of show would only exist in a children's museum: there's no other space for it. I'm interested in the scientific part of it and how that manifests itself in the visual sense. I don't think an art museum would want to do this thing, it’s too educational.
HD: That’s a really cool idea, I hope you do it soon! So before I leave you and your dog Snips… what’s happening that’s new and exciting with Dusen Dusen?
EvD: Well, I just went down to Florida to shoot what was essentially an infomercial, with one of my favorite comedians.
HD: Wow. What?
EvD: John Early, do you know who that is? He has been in so many great things recently: Search party, Broad City, High Maintenance … the list goes on. OK so it's like it's an actual TV show: this is going on TV. In fact it's actually airing right now (editor’s note: the interview was recorded in August 2017). But no one in our world would ever see it because it’s on a low-budget regional home shopping channel. But, yes it's a real interview show host who asks about the product and then John Early shows up for the product. John has this character he does a lot in standup: her name is Vicky, and she's this Southern woman who… well, she’s got an attitude. So he did that. He did the whole thing in character as “Vicky”.
John Early for Dusen Dusen as Vicky.
HD: And no one is acknowledging this… it’s totally serious?
EvD: Well, I told the host in advance: “just so you know we're going to have this guy who is a real character—you're going to love him. And he's going to do the thing dressed as a woman. So just be prepared.”
HD: How did they invite you in the first place? How did they even find out about you?
EvD: I don't know. It seems like such a weird fit. The other people that do it are people like Tootsie Roll and Christmas ornament companies, like Bed Bath and Beyond. They just asked me if I was interested in participating in this shopping TV show. And my initial reaction was “why the fuck would I do that?”. And then I was like “Ding ding ding!” [pointing at her brain] There’s a way to make this work for me. And it's so funny. John killed it. He really committed and did great work. He was wearing such an amazing wig… such a great outfit… it just looks insane.
HD: OK, I’ll let you go so you can make it to The Bachelor viewing party in time. Thank you!