After eight years working in textile studios in London and New York, artist Helen Dealtry had put in her time — she was ready to design for more than the fashion market. She also knew she wanted to create a line she could pin her own name to.
Enter Woking Girl Designs, the creative textile design studio based in Brooklyn, NY that Helen founded in 2008. At Woking Girl, Helen splits her time between creating art (her Instagram account is a color shot of inspiration!) and managing the tasks with the stresses of being a small business owner. Her hard work has paid off in the form of compelling design collaborations with clients like Loeffler Randall, Bain, J. Crew, Anthropologie and more. And, of course, there’s the pleasure of seeing her artwork on everything from scarves and shoes to wallpaper.
“I’ve cried from sheer frustration many, many times over the years as I struggled to earn my stripes,” she says. “There are so many great artists out there, so I really believe that the best way to find your own unique spot is practice.”
“You have to know the ‘why’ behind what you do. If you ever sell your own line, this is about the most important thing you should keep in mind.”
When did you realize you were ready to launch your own label? What was the most trying part of this process? And, what was the most rewarding or inspiring?
As a textile designer, I was producing 10 to 13 designs a week for others — including potential clients — and there were always one or two in the weekly batch I’d love. I’d imagine it on a dress or a shoe or as great wallpaper and put it in my ‘archive’ drawer. One day, I realized that drawer had about 20 designs in it. It was time to put them to use.
I decided to launch with scarves because I wanted a format that could showcase my artwork and an accessory that was easy for people to keep in their wardrobes for years. I also liked the idea that a scarf could work as an accent in the home. However, the scarf market is very competitive. Establishing your own line and making it stand out is pretty tough. I didn't have any experience in self-promotion on this level, so that’s been a steep learning curve. It’s made me question every decision I make through the process; from where to produce to how the scarves should be marketed. I’m constantly inspired by the other small business owners working in and around Brooklyn — their support has been invaluable to growing my own brand. Listening to their experiences and learning from them along the way has been a huge help.
How do you organize your day?
That’s a work in progress! My day has changed a lot in the past four years due to the company’s growth. There are many moving parts at the moment, and accordingly, I’m learning how to adjust the way I work.
Typically, Monday is reserved for talking with the team, setting up the week ahead, following up on emails, market research, press and outreach. Throughout the week, I try to keep meetings to lunch times or later in the afternoon so I don’t split up the day too much. I’m a morning person, so I’ve found that I do my best painting first thing when I have the most energy.
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
I value that I’m able to be creative in my daily work. I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember, and when I’m in the ‘zone’ I completely tune out everything else. That isn’t really by choice; it’s just kind of a wonderful vacuum. I can’t think of any other way to describe it, but it’s something I love.
I’ve always wanted to collaborate directly with designers whom I admire, and now that I am, I’m finding it just as fulfilling as I’d hoped. There’s nothing like melding skill sets to come up with something totally fresh. When you reach that point in the project where everyone says, ‘Yeah, this is great!’ it’s incredibly rewarding.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
Everything concerning money: spending it in the hope of making it, cash flow, etc. I’m always wondering, ‘Am I working hard enough on the right projects?’ Fear and self-doubt tend to crop up at the wee hours of the early morning. More often than not, I go to bed with too many tabs open in my head. I’m trying to make changes to turn off from work at a reasonable time of night. Right now, no Instagram or email checking after 8 p.m. is my new rule. One day, I hope I get to a place where I can just leave the phone in another room so I’m not tempted to check it when I wake up in the middle of the night.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Yes, there have been challenging times, particularly in the past year as business has increased. It’s like a baby you feel you need to constantly feed and check on — and I’m a totally overbearing parent! But it takes its toll on other parts of your life if you don’t get a handle on it. Scheduling and time management is key.
Thankfully, I have a very supportive boyfriend who points out when my obsession is peaking. I also have a dog that has demanding needs of his own. Walking him, taking trips upstate and seeing friends helps to keep me in check and give me a chance to reset. When all else fails, I do love a long bath!
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
For many years, I worked as a textile designer doing spec work for textile studio collections. That meant that I often didn’t even know who bought my artwork unless I saw it in a store or magazine. However, I did see one of my prints going down the catwalk in Paris on a couture gown, which was super exciting as a young designer.
It’s been so gratifying to have designed for and collaborated with brands like Urban Outfitters, Ralph Lauren and GAP. That said, it’s easy to get lost in the process of designing and deadlines and forget what an honor it is to work with these names that have global reach and that people wear on the street every day.
More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of work with Loeffler Randall, a label I’ve always admired. I collaborated with them to design the prints for their bags and shoes. I think sitting in their NYC office with creative director Jessie Randall and her team was my moment of ‘Wow, this is the job I always dreamt of—I’m actually doing this!’
Tell us about your more about your wallpaper collaboration, expected to launch next year. How do you anticipate balancing the two brands?
I’m really excited about the wallpaper line I’ll be launching with my partner Warren Corbitt. We’d designed together in the past on a few projects and felt our skill sets worked really well together. Recently, we collaborated on branding for a real estate development, which included custom wallpaper. The response to the design was so great, we thought, ‘Hey, maybe we’re onto something here!’
This is a business that will have to run alongside our current jobs, so we’re approaching things in a very considered, grassroots kind of way. I’m planning to delegate most of the sales and marketing responsibilities that I still have at the studio, which will free up more room for design and product development. I’m finding that handing over parts of your business to somebody more specialized is the best way to keep things manageable.
What are some of the rules you live by?
Try to be kind. If there’s something you can do to help someone else out in a way you yourself were helped, do it. Strive to listen and give honest answers without putting yourself first. Share your talent and encourage others who look up to you. Work hard, always try your best, but also know when enough is enough.
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?
Self-motivation is key. When you work in a typical textile studio, the normal expectation is that you complete two designs a day. Inspiration can run pretty thin when you’re trying to produce at those numbers. You have to find ways to keep yourself excited by what you’re designing, because I think that always shows through in the work. Get out to museums, see plays, meet other artists, go dancing and travel when you can. Inspiration can come from the most unusual source.
Determination is also crucial. I’ve cried from sheer frustration many, many times over the years as I struggled to earn my stripes. There are so many great artists out there, so I really believe that the best way to find your own unique spot is practice. Through practice, you will find your own style and voice. Keep at it!
Finally, you have to know the ‘why’ behind what you do. If you ever sell your own line, this is about the most important thing you should keep in mind.
What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?
I look back and give myself credit for taking a risk and moving across the world to try something new at age 20. I’m not naturally an adventurous person and I remember being pretty freaked out by the pace of work and city life. I think I’d say, ‘Trust in your talent, be patient and don’t sweat the small stuff so much, Dealtry!’