Elevate Your Bookshelves With These Styling Tips
A few well-placed knick knacks can take your shelves from snoozy to super.
From fashion PR pro to industry disruptor.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
After making a name for herself in both fashion PR and interior design, Nicole Gibbons was ‘feeling antsy.’ “I had always set out with this bigger vision—I wanted to be like Martha Stewart,” says Gibbons, interior designer and founder of Clare, a first-of-its-kind, direct-to-consumer paint brand. But when creating her own eponymous brand of products didn’t have the appeal she anticipated, she turned her sights on the booming DTC market, taking inspiration from brands like Warby Parker and Casper mattresses. “These were massive markets completely overlooked because they weren’t sexy, but yet they found a way to make it cool, approachable, easier, and a little bit more inspiring,” says Gibbons. “I felt like there had to be something in home that I could apply that same concept to.” She was right, and in 2018 Gibbons set off to disrupt a 150-year old, male-dominated paint industry. Read more about her founder story below, plus get her take on the latest interior trends, hottest paint colors, and more.
Kristen Maxwell Cooper: How did you get into the interior design world?
Nicole Gibbons: I grew up with a mom in the business, so I was exposed to the higher end of design from a young age. I knew all the trade-only brands and visited all the showrooms with her when she would drag me along doing her work stuff and so I always had an appreciation for design. And I think probably a taste level that was more sophisticated than where I was in terms of my stage in life. So that cemented my appreciation for design. But I wouldn’t say, as a child, I loved home decor, but I appreciated it. But in high school or when I was younger, I did put a lot of energy into my bedroom. I had a cute little bedroom with wallpaper. I’ve always loved color, so at the time it was like a sea green and pink. Very, very feminine.
So while I did put a lot of energy into my childhood bedroom, it was once I got to college and had my first apartment my sophomore year and started creating my own space when I realized I love this. I loved making it beautiful. I loved obsessing over the details, making it feel cohesive. Most college kids just kind of grab some stuff off Craigslist or get some hand-me-downs, slap it together, and there’s like no rhyme or reason. But, for me, it was super important to really have a place that was pulled together. And I think that’s when I started to get the bug. And in college, even when I was doing something that wasn’t in design, somehow it always found a way to pull me back.
KMC: But you didn’t immediately jump into the interior design business…
NG: I ended up landing a PR job in fashion, working for a big retailer that worked with all of the top supermodels and in that high-fashion hybrid kind of world. And while there, I started decorating a blog. Design just kept pulling me back. This was in 2008, the early days of blogging. But I found that when I wasn’t doing my work stuff, all I was doing was working on my blog. I was going to design events around New York City hobnobbing with interior designers. That’s what I think secretly I wanted to do. But that same year that I started the blog, I set up an LLC to start dabbling on the side with little design projects with clients—and I’m talking like teeny tiny little projects for friends and friends of friends.
I started getting my feet wet and knew immediately that I wanted to pivot, but that was during 2008, during the recession. So I kind of just did my thing on the side for about five years building confidence, building my knowledge, expertise and skills, and continued to immerse myself in the design world.
KMC: When did you decide to make this your full-time job?
NG: At the beginning of 2013, I took the leap to focus on my thing full time. I had always set out with this bigger vision—I wanted to be like Martha Stewart. I was not going to just be a designer. I was going to be a designer that had product lines and that had a brand around it. And as I evolved into my design career, one thing I really wanted to do was television. So pretty much right at the start I started pursuing that. I felt like I had built up enough credibility as an influencer, but before influencer was even a term that was used. I think because of my blog and PR background, I was able to get a decent amount of exposure and recognition, and I had already started to build a name for myself within the more insular design world. I was already in magazines and being quoted as an expert, so I leveraged that to start pitching myself for TV and media opportunities and I started doing morning shows. I landed a role on a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network called Homemade Simple, which I did for three seasons. I was on the Rachael Ray Show pretty regularly, all the way up until starting Claire. I just really built my credibility and expertise.
KMC: What made you want to pivot again?
NG: Once I started feeling antsy, I was like, ‘all right, now it’s time to move on to what’s next. What about a product line?’ The traditional way that most designers parlayed into physical products was licensing. So I started doing some research and had a couple of conversations in the works, but I felt like the economics of licensing wasn’t that interesting to me. I just always had this go big or go home kind of attitude about it all.
This was in the early days of DTC (direct to consumer)—I always call Warby Parker the granddaddy of DTC. So when the Warby’s of the world started popping up, I was so intrigued by that business model and particularly the unsexy categories. I was less excited by the beauty and fashion because, sure, there’s opportunities to build better brands, but those are not fundamentally broken shopping experiences like with glasses—I felt like that was genius. I got my first glasses in my twenties and I went to LensCrafters. It was just like such a weird experience and there was nothing sexy about that. There was nothing sexy about buying a mattress. I had to buy a mattress in college and one when I graduated and I just thought ‘they’re on to something.’ These were massive markets completely overlooked because they weren’t sexy, but yet they found a way to make it cool, approachable, easier, and a little bit more inspiring. I felt like there had to be something in home that I could apply that same concept to.
KMC: How did you settle on paint?
NG: I kept exploring different categories, thinking about what I could do. But then when I thought about paint, it was just like this light bulb moment. I saw just how awful the shopping experience was. Maybe not for me as a designer—I didn’t have a difficult time picking paint colors, right? I knew I had my own kind of palette of tried and true colors, and I had the opportunity to really understand the nuance of color. But what I saw was that the average person didn’t have that. The average person really struggled to choose colors, and was overwhelmed by it. And then when you looked at the in-store environment, there was a huge opportunity to reimagine what that looks like. Then when I looked at the incumbents in the space, there were these 150 year old companies that were super masculine and not really speaking to women especially when you look at the DIY segment of the market. There’s a whole professional segment, but when you look at the DIY segment, women are driving the household purchasing decisions. Yet all the brands were marketing to men and had this really masculine appeal. So I felt like that was a way to shift the marketing and the perception, and turn paint into something that is less relegated to the hardware store and Home Depot next to the electrical and plumbing, and more into something that’s actually inspiring and treated with the same level of importance and kind of sexiness, for lack of a better word, as furniture or all the things that are more outward in a space when it comes to home decor. So the idea for Clare was born. I sat on it for a year, just kind of like thinking about it all the time. But I was really busy on the other side of my business so I couldn’t devote the energy it truly required to explore a business opportunity.
KMC: When did you decide to take the leap and go all-in with Clare?
NG: In 2017, I was like, okay, new year, new you, what am I to do with my life this year? I was in a lull where I was wrapping up a big client project, and was just about to sign or did actually sign a contract with a new client, and kind of told that client I had to back out.
I was like, it’s now or never. If I don’t explore this now, I feel like I’m never going to do it. I could afford to take a quarter off and just see what I could do and see what this opportunity could be. I started diving really deep into market research and talking to folks. Ater a couple of weeks, I was pretty much all in and decided to commit the rest of however many years of my life to building this business. So I spent most of 2017 working on our supply chain, trying to figure out how to go to market and how to get money, because this isn’t the kind of product you can cook up in your kitchen. Figuring out just the best way to manufacture. No one’s really selling paint online, why? What are the complexities around shipping paint? How do we solve that? And I did a lot of that work solo and then got to the point where I had enough of a foundation. And there were people in the mix like advisors, and we had manufacturing partners lined up, but really we just needed the money to kind of put it all in motion and we raised $2 million in 2017.
Then we launched in 2018. It’s been a crazy journey. A lot of ups and downs, a lot to learn.
KMC: What do you hope that your customers get from Clare?
NG: Initially, we started out with this really simple idea to simplify the process. Buying paint the traditional way requires many trips back and forth to the store. It’s a hassle. Like, our whole goal is to make it not a hassle. One of our early copy lines was ‘Shopping for paint sucks. We’re here to fix that.’ And, the underlying energy behind that was also helping people create beautiful homes.
But, you know, we’re still sort of shifting our brand narrative. We’re only three years in. We’re a very young company. But I think what I’ve learned over the past couple of years and what I’ve observed is that our customers are really shopping with their values. We also have this value proposition that is our paint is better for you, better for the environment. We really focus on sustainability. We genuinely care. We’re not a corporate entity where everybody is so far removed from those efforts or where they’re literally like an $80 billion market cap company, so throwing $1,000,000 at a sustainability initiative is like lunch money. It’s relatively disingenuous, you know, but sounds good, right? But we genuinely care and that really matters to our customers—maybe we underestimated how much that mattered to our customers. It is also a highly regulated environment around the VOCs and green claims in the paint industry, mostly because traditional paint brands have been very misleading to consumers. Therefore they’re now on the FTC watch list. So we’re just really conservative about the claims we make and what we can say. But I think there’s a huge opportunity to lean a little bit more into that.
I also think people really identify with the business because we’re female founded, and person of color founded. Not only is the paint industry ridiculously male dominated, but without doing the research, I’m 100% positive there’s never been a female CEO of a paint company. And definitely no one Black running the show. And I think that is something, too, that our customers really, identify with, believe in, and feel good about. So in everything we do, we sort of exist to be the polar opposite of what the traditional paint industry represents. And that’s something that we’re going to start probably leaning more into in our brand narrative in the future.
KMC: Where did the name Clare come from?
NG: Clare comes from a Latin word, Claris that means bright and brilliant. I chose it because I wanted a name that was intentionally feminine, because all the other paint brands are hyper masculine and these first and last names—Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, Dunn Edwards, Dutch Boy, you get it. I wanted it short. I wanted a name that was personified so that we could build more of a personality and speak directly to the customer like a friend. And then the origin kind of ties back to this double entendre—bright as in color, so that more literal connotation, and brilliant as in innovative and forward thinking.
KMC: What’s next for Claire?
NG: A lot. We just closed our series A. So 8 million bucks, which sounds insane. Hopefully that will help us fuel the next chapter of our growth—that’s the intent. I’ve finally been able to start really building out the team because before that we were really small and scrappy. We’re still small and scrappy, but at least with a few more people. We’re experimenting with new marketing channels, and launching some new products. We had a lot of supply chain challenges last year, so we had to put some things on hold. We never intended to be launching like three or four things at once, but here we are and this summer we’re launching a handful of new products, exterior paint, different size offerings that our customers have been asking for, new colors, some other little things. So gearing up for those and trying to keep growing.
I don’t think people realize how much natural light can impact how that color looks. This same color in my space could look ten times different in your space. I think a lot of people might see a color in someone else’s space or on Instagram or on a website or whatever, and think it’s going to look that way in their home. Really understanding your lighting and how to optimize the color that you choose for the lighting that you have is key—and then making sure it coordinates with everything else that you have in your space.
Some people want to bypass that step. Most people sample because, frankly, most people don’t want to get that color wrong. It’s not like nail polish where you can wipe it right off and do a new one. It’s a lot more work than that. And so I think whenever people are unhappy with the color that they’ve chosen, it’s because they didn’t sample. It’s the best way to make sure that you’ll love the color before you get it in your space.
I always advise people not to buy into trends because generally when things are trendy, you’re not going to be so into it in a year or two. I’m more about buying the things that make you feel something emotionally and that speak to you. And things you’ll want to live with for the next ten years regardless of if you change it out sooner. You want to make sure that when you’re investing your home, you’re making choices that can have some longevity in your space.
There are no rules when it comes to color. When people choose colors that genuinely make them happy, they’re going to be happier with their space. But I would say that if you’re not normally adventurous with color, focus bolder colors on spaces that get a lot of natural light or in a small space that you intentionally want to feel cozy and cocoon-like.
A few well-placed knick knacks can take your shelves from snoozy to super.