Dabney Lee on Licensing, Target, Triplets + Tennis

Dabney Lee at work
Designer Dabney Lee at work, wallpaper print by Dabney Lee

Meet Dabney Lee Woglom, brand licensing client of mine, lover of lucite, creator of colorful patterns and mom of triplets.  Dabney Lee and I met after she gave birth to her three babies (at once!) and I had my second one on the way.  I fell in love with her beach-y Shelter Island vibe, the way she effortlessly mixed her prints, her wit and authenticity (not to mention her name is pretty  catchy). Together, we dreamed up a plan to take her line of specialty stationery and gifts to the major US retailers. Ironically, the first big opportunity that came our way was with Blue Sky Planners, a manufacturer of agendas and calendars for multi-tasking moms like us.  Five years later, Dabney, the Dabney Lee brand has expanded to journals, fashion accessories, tech gear, pet accessories, gardening tools, gifts and even spa products, available at Target, Home Goods, Staples, Macy’s and other retail stores.

Although we work together daily, we never take the time to talk about the brand licensing journey, her passions and why licensing has become the core focus of her business.  So we put an interview on our Dabney Lee for Blue Sky planners, and here you go:

JT: Your brand building journey began with a line of stationery – tell me what sparked your idea?

DL: I have always loved anything personalized. Growing up with a name like Dabney, I could never walk into a shop and buy a pencil or notepad with my name on it so my Grandmother would special order me stationery and gifts from the Lilian Vernon catalog with my name and it would make me feel so special, which started my early obsession with all things paper and personalized! When living in Atlanta I worked as an assistant and would doodle in my free time. Our clients would ask me to draw their families or dogs and print them on notecards – I did it for fun and made a little money on the side. I couldn’t believe that people wanted to pay me to design for them, it was thrilling! It wasn’t long until that became a reality when I officially launched Dabney Lee in 2004.

JT: When you had the idea to create your line, where did you start?  Did you have contacts in manufacturing?  A marketing plan?

DL: When I moved to New York in 2004, I told my husband “Hey, what if I give this stationery thing a go?”. He didn’t bat an eyelash and told me to “go for it”, he has always been my biggest supporter! But here’s the thing, I knew NOTHING about the industry. I knew I loved paper, I knew I loved bright colors and bold patterns. That next morning I bought my first iMac, turned my guest bedroom into an office, registered to exhibit at the The National Stationery Show and convinced my neighbor to teach me how to use Illustrator by bribing him with tacos. What came next was 6 months of planning, googling suppliers and developing my first line of stationery that I launched at The National Stationery Show in May 2015.

JT: After having your triplets, you were approached by me about expanding your brand and designs to new products.  Was that something you thought about doing when you started your line?  

DL: By 2007 my line had become known for the bright, fun patterns that we used on our papers and home items. We had so many clients say “It would be so great to have your patterns on a cocktail napkin, or wrapping paper or bedding or bags”. The list would go on.  I would think to myself, how amazing that all sounded but I knew nothing about how to make a cocktail napkin. Then I met you and it all came together. I could make all of the products that clients wanted and not have to be the one to manufacture it. It was truly a win win. I will never ever forget the feeling I had when I saw my first products at Target. It was a very “pinch me” moment. How did this girl from California get so lucky to have her designs in a major retailer? 

JT: When we met, your customized stationery business was your business, but you decided to license your stationery line to The Boatman Group.  How did you know they were the right partner for you?

DL: After having triplets, my time became more and more valuable with each year they got older. I had to decide what was best for my family and my company and that was what lead me to do more licensing. When thinking of licensing I wanted to find a partner who would let me still be a part of the the creative process. It was my name after all and should continue to be my vision. I have known the great group of people at The Boatman Group for years. I knew they had an excellent reputation and could make my line more streamlined for our clients. It’s been a really great relationship!

JT: Your first big collaboration was with Blue Sky for a line of planners at Target.  The partnership has lasted for 5 years now.  What do you think has given both your designs and that partnership longevity?

DL: I was so incredibly lucky to have my first licensing partner be Blue Sky. They are a wonderful group of people  who are all so nice and lovely to work with. We have had so much fun over the years creating new designs for our retail partners and continue to grow our business together.

JT: You also have since expanded to so many products including tech accessories, pet accessories, cosmetic bags, gifts, spa items and most recently lunch bags.  You have your own shop within shop in Macy’s.  What is it like seeing your brand and designs in so many places?

DL: I will never find the right words to describe the feeling I get when I see my designs in a store. I feel incredibly blessed and so grateful to those who have helped me get where I am today. I am so thankful for all of our loyal customers, we would be nothing without them.

JT: Working with partners has its challenges.  How do you deal with the partnership challenges and satisfy the demands of the market, while staying true to yourself?

DL: This can be a tricky one. You go into a new partnership and sometimes you don’t sync right away. That’s not always a bad thing. I have learned over the years that our partners always have our best interest in mind and the expertise to produce fabulous products that sell well.

JT: You are constantly having to create new designs – where do you get your inspiration and how has your look evolved since you started Dabney Lee?

DL: Inspiration comes in so many forms for me. It could come from a book I am reading, a fabric sample, a paint color, the beach,  ice cream, really so much gives me inspiration. 

DL How has licensing made you grow and expand as a designer and a business person?  How has collaborating with licensees expanded your horizons creatively?

JT: Licensing has really helped me open my mind to new things. It has shown me how my patterns can look different from one product to the next giving us more options. Now that we have multiple partners I love coordinating our designs so they are cohesive when in the retailer at the same time. It’s so fun to see a journal, cell case and cosmetic bag all with the same design. Licensing has also made me so much more organized with my collateral. I have a design deck I share with our partners and we have brand guidelines. This allows me more time to focus on creating new designs for our partners. 

JT: Over the years since we started working together you’ve had a wholesale business, retail stores, licensed products and you have considered bringing in outside investors.  What made you decide to maintain ownership of your own brand and focus on licensing? 

DL: Ha, we’ve all been there, right?!? We want to do it all and we want it to happen yesterday. I have learned that patience is the best thing in my business and to be open about what direction it will take. Just because I thought I wanted a Dabney Lee on every corner, doesn’t mean that was the right path for me. I listened to what was calling me and licensing has been the opportunity that has turned my little business into a lifestyle brand. It has given me the flexibility I needed to be with my children, to have a summer shop on Shelter Island and still give me the ability to be creative, which is what I love.

JT:  What brands/artists/designers do you admire most?

DL: Oh gosh, so many!!! I mean I could name all kinds of big designers, but mostly, I am so inspired by the women in my life that have their own businesses (Rock Paper Scissors, Susan Petrie, Bottle Blonde, The Laundress, the list goes on). They are all incredibly talented and make it look so easy, but I know they are busting their buns to make it happen and that’s what really inspires me. The nitty gritty, the roll up your sleeves, paint your own walls, stock your own shops, hang your own wallpaper, do your own sales calls and pitches  kind of blood sweat and tears that go into their businesses to make them successful. I LOVE IT!

JT: What’s your dream collaboration?

DL: I am obsessed with tennis right now, I think it would be beyond to do a tennis themed collaboration with a celebrity tennis player (A girl has to dream, right!). Dabney Lee tennis bags and printed tennis balls would make me squeal! I am also dying to do wallpaper and fabric.