This October we were very honored to have awesome writer Sandy Abrams cover Classic Hardware, our 20 years serving up Class and Sass, new store opening, inspirations and influences in business! Check out Karyn’s interview below or here at the original post on the official MAGIC blog.
BEHIND THE BOOTH Classic Hardware Founder: Karyn Cantor
by by Sandy Abrams
It takes a unique sense of creativity and confidence to cobble together items like broken rosary beads and various supplies from hardware and thrift stores and create coveted pieces, but these random combinations are what set Karyn Cantor’s Classic Hardware apart.
She’s been making her own unique pieces since she was kid and launched Classic Hardware in 1995, expanding into to a whole line of unique jewelry and accessories. Karyn also opened a retail store this year. It’s been a passionate journey, not only creatively but as a long time supporter of Made in USA.
She began her business in San Francisco selling to some retailers on Haight St. and then got into American Rag and quickly gained traction with big accounts like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Macys, Nordstrom and custom design work for designers Betsy Johnson and Anna Sui.
Strong Work Ethic
Ever since childhood, Karyn wanted to work, getting her first job at age 13. She continued to work part time jobs through high school. After college, she worked in photography and photo labs, as an account exec., and studio manager. This is where she learned hands-on about running a small business.
Unlike many creative types, Karyn has a strong grasp on both design and business. She enjoys reading business books for both insight and inspiration. After enrolling in a business course and learning about cost analysis and profit margins, she realized that she had to be a bookkeeper whether she wanted to or not. Karyn says, “Numbers don’t lie and it can actually be fun. The smartest thing I did was decide to run my business as if I were a film director. So, the star of the film can act, but she doesn’t know make up and costume design. Those roles have to be filled by other people. When it was possible, I began to fill roles with others who had strong skills where I was weak. Being able to let go of business aspects is tough but critical. We can’t control every aspect of a business that’s growing fast. If you can train someone well, they can do it too.”
Karyn’s grateful that she learned the biz skills and was able to recover from a ‘bad book keeper experience.’ She still does checks and balances herself, keeping a second set of eyes on everything.
Jewelry Capital of USA: Rhode Island
After gaining exposure in big chains like Urban Outfitter and Anthropologie, Karyn experienced cheap overseas imitations invading her space. But her passion for supporting her USA vendors was unwavering. She wasn’t going to change her process. Karyn says, “Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of the USA. I’ve been working with the same vendors from there since I started. Rhode Island is definitely having struggles because of the exodus to China, but I’m determined to continue to support these family run businesses.”
Benefits of MADE in USA
Not only is supporting local businesses important to Karyn, but she sees other benefits to Made in USA. “The quality is better, it’s easier to follow a product through production, I can get things completed in a timely manner, keep inventory tight and there’s rarely a problem with a product, but if there is, it’s easily remedied locally and quickly. With my long term relationships, I know these small businesses truly care about our product.”
One way to continue to grow a business is through innovation. Karyn began to expand into accessories, metal boxes, card cases, t-shirts, towels and one big hit was their tampon cases. Karyn says, “It was something different. Our tagline was ‘It’s neat to be discreet.’ Uncommon Goods loved them and that took things in a new direction for us. Classic Hardware wasn’t just jewelry.”
“I also started working with contemporary and pop culture artists. Now, I work with about 15 artists and utilize their artwork to put on products. It’s a great collaboration for artists; exposing them to another audience, while we bring something unique, affordable and fun to the market. It’s a win-win.”
Karyn also saw an opportunity to innovate with bakelite, an older type of plastic, circa 1920, no longer produced because of it’s high content of formaldehyde. But it’s highly collectible. Karyn says, “ I came up with way to emulate it and coined the name ‘Retrolite.’ That was a big milestone and a signature product element for Classic Hardware.”
This year Karyn took a leap of faith by opening a retail store, in a time when many businesses preach the benefits of closing their brick and mortar in favor of online sales.
Customer Service is Alive & Well!
The storefront location seemed to fit perfectly, located in Burbank’s Magnolia Park in an area called Retro Row. Karyn opened the store in 2014 and is thoroughly enjoying the connection she makes with customers every day. She thrives on offering top notch customer service and customization options.
“Having the store is a great opportunity to play with design flair too. The store has pink and purple striped walls! It’s also a great opportunity to bring in other company’s products, items that I personally love but don’t have to make. The amazing thing about the store is the immediate feedback that I get. Being a wholesaler for 20 yrs., I’ve mostly heard feedback through our reps or at trade shows and it’s not necessarily enough.”
Karyn enjoys interacting with customers and taking requests on the spot. If you like a pendant at the store but want to tweak it, just ask! If someone likes a bracelet but they’d prefer it to be a necklace, she’ll make one. She says, “People feel special, they can get a piece exactly how they want it. We offer personal attention that you just can’t get online. We can also do custom/personalized work for people from one piece to many. People can bring in (or send) a picture of their pet and we can mount it in a necklace, the options are limitless.”
Karyn also notices that being connected directly with her customers lets her see who the end user is and it’s frequently different than she’s imagined. “Maybe the customer likes a piece simply because it’s a little different or unique but they aren’t creating a whole subculture look for themselves, they just want that one piece. I still feel giddy when people buy something and I see that it makes them smile. It can really make my day.”
Karyn started working with Betsey Johnson in the late 90’s, selling her designs to Betsey Johnson’s store and then she started doing different designs just for them. Designer Anna Sui also had a love for Classic Hardware. Karyn has also designed custom pieces for benefits and causes and done licensed work on Disney’s Nightmare Before Christmas and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film, as well as custom pieces for the Sailor Jerry (a tattoo artist) brand and Nancy Drew.
Collaborating has been great for both sides. Karyn says, “The collaborating companies see the benefit of being associated with Classic Hardware’s quality brand and Made in USA is a bonus, especially with original artwork from artists. Making it in the USA helps protect the likelihood of knockoffs being made quickly overseas.” She welcomes other custom collaborations. “Collaborations are an image based business, it’s easy for us to insert those images into our pieces or develop a new piece, if they meet a minimum production requirement.”
MAGIC Offers Community
Karyn says, “I’ve always been a huge fan of fashion and clothing and it’s been great to be part of the alternative section at MAGIC. I’ve been there since the 90’s, in an area that was originally called the Edge. Now, we exhibit in Juniors/Subculture area. It’s high energy being around like minded brands and styles.”
In It For the Long Haul
Karyn’s very candid and open about how business has been rough at times but she loves what she does, so she rolls through changes with innovation, passion and persistence. “Jewelry is a saturated market but we are unique. Opening the store has been wonderful! It’s like having a new baby. I’m really enjoying this stage!”
After 20 yrs. of building Classic Hardware, Karyn still has the excitement of an emerging brand. She doesn’t rest on her laurels, she’s constantly finding new ways to keep things fresh and new. The store adds the personal connection that seems to have been the one missing link.
4 FUN FACTS:
What are you reading? Delivering Happiness Tony Hsieh.
What do you do to de-stress? I love to travel and visiting other stores is inspiring…and the trailer rally is so fun! (Karyn has a vintage trailer)
What is non-negotiable in your daily/weekly schedule? Exercise.
Who inspires you in biz? Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton.