Fledgling lighting and home décor manufacturer Emporium Home will receive the sole distinction of Rising Star for its ingenuity at the 25th annual ARTS Awards this month.
Entrepreneur Ashley Childers is living her dream. “I knew I wanted to own a home furnishings company a long time ago,” she confesses. However, the road to making that happen took a few curves along the way.
Childers, the founder of Emporium Home, based in Little Rock, Ark., grew up in a home that she describes as super-creative. “My mom was an interior designer and I always loved the field,” she says. “I made my first lamp at 15 years old as a gift for my mother. I made it from scratch, using wooden pieces that I found and gold-leafed. Then I made a black shade with hand-sewn beads on it,” Childers recalls. She also remembers accompanying her mother to the Dallas Market when she was a teenager.
Another shared passion in her family was dance. “My middle sister is the director of a professional dance company in Arkansas and my baby sister is in college on a dance scholarship,” she states. In fact, Childers’ first business venture was operating a dance studio while she was in college, studying art.
Owning a studio and teaching dance classes was an ideal solution for staying creative while having the flexibility to spend a lot of time with her children when they were growing up. Later on, several of her students were contestants in the Miss America pageant circuit, which piqued the curiosity of her daughter, Brighton. In 2013, Brighton began competing in pageants, winning the title of Miss Arkansas’ Outstanding Teen (performing a dance routine choreographed by her mother for the talent portion) this past summer.
“It’s such a great opportunity for her. We never thought she’d win in her first year of competing,” Childers admits. It is the first time a 14-year-old has taken the state title; historically the top honor goes to a student who is at least 16- or 17-year-old.
Driving her daughter to official pageant appearances and duties (which includes a lot of community service) has Childers balancing the responsibilities that come with running a growing business with the whirlwind schedule of the pageant world.
Fortunately, Childers has the invaluable support of her husband, Garrett, who joined the company full-time this year. Junior high school sweethearts – Garrett likes to joke that he’s been in love with Ashley since he was nine, but that it took her several years to catch up – the Childers make a formidable team. “I’ve known him forever; my father was his orthodontist,” she laughs.
Working side-by-side has been a positive experience. This summer saw the addition of another family member: Garrett’s mother, who had originally planned to retire after selling her business, was delighted to help out. “She’s taken on a lot of the daily operations work,” Childers says. “She’s been a huge asset for us — and she’s loving every minute of it! I know that people say, ‘Don’t ever work with family!’ but it’s worked out great for us.” There are now seven full-time employees at the company.
As her children became teenagers, Childers felt the time was right to explore the idea of creating her own product line. “I love designing; it’s a passion,” she confesses. “The jumping off point was natural stones and minerals. I had a rock tumbler as a kid, and I’d dig up quartz and put it on my dresser.” She decided to revisit that medium, concentrating on agates, minerals such as selenite, and natural crystals that she’d make into jewelry as gifts for family and later to sell to the public. “That’s where it all started for me, and why we have such jewelry-like quality to our products,” she explains.
As the jewelry line took off, Childers expanded on the idea by illuminating the beauty of stones through light. She envisioned the idea of using agates in a chandelier. “That is what I had in my mind as something that would look beautiful, but I just didn’t see it in the marketplace,” she recalls. “I am such a research junkie. I will go in-depth on every little aspect on how to make something. We didn’t have any connections in the industry to help us.”
Before she took the plunge as a manufacturer, she and Garrett walked the New York International Gift Fair (now known as NY Now) in 2011 to see if there was anything similar. Satisfied that her design vision was unique, Childers made her decision. “Creating the fixture and having it manufactured is a leap of faith. You don’t know if someone else will like it; all you know is that you like it,” she says. And it was more than just manufacturing one style — Childers knew that if she went ahead with manufacturing the lighting, she was going to go full boar and create a full line of lighting fixtures, lamps, accent furniture, mirrors, and wall art.
Naming her company came easily. “I love the word ‘Emporium’ because it’s so nostalgic and literally means a marketplace that sells a wide variety of goods,” she explains. “Knowing from the very beginning that I wanted my line to encompass just about every category in the home furnishings industry, ‘Emporium Home’ just seemed to be the perfect fit!”
Ready, Set, Go
The launch of Emporium Home occurred during the New York International Gift Fair in January 2012 at the Pier, a location renowned for offering boutique lines. “We chose that show because it’s a fashion-forward market and we wanted to get feedback from that type of buyer; that was our target customer.
We showed 15 SKUs, and they were so well-received it was amazing — and scary,” Childers notes.
Emporium Home next appeared at the July edition of the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market® in the Temporaries, where it was chosen as Best of Show in the High Design section.
“Everything started happening so fast. There were a lot of things we had to research and learn. Garrett and I did everything in the beginning, which made us really aware of all the steps involved,” she remarks.
They began making trips overseas to source factories to handle specific duties. “I have learned what we can and can’t do here. We produce all of our upholstery domestically, however, designs that involve intricate inlays in bone, horn, or stone are done overseas,” she explains. Upon meeting the artisans at the Vietnam factories, Childers says, “There is a lot of care taken in making our product. Some aspects – like the brass inlays – can take weeks to make.” The agates and stones used in Emporium Home’s designs are often shipped directly from mines in three different parts of the world.
The Big Break
A chance encounter with a Luxe magazine editor attending the New York Gift Fair led to an unexpected boost in business. “Apparently our agate chandelier was shown in an editorial mention in Luxe magazine. It was only our second month in business, and we weren’t even aware that it appeared in the magazine,” Childers explains. “Someone at the design firm that was in charge of renovating the JW Marriott hotel in Austin, Texas saw our agate chandelier in Luxe and ended up ordering our agate sconces for every guest bathroom.” That one hotel project put Emporium Home on the map in hospitality circles. “We got a huge amount of business from that — including international clients,” she adds.
Word about the company also reached the executive board at the Accessories Resource Team (ART: The Creative Home Furnishings Network). After performing due diligence, the organization has bestowed its annual Rising Star award to Emporium Home.
“We’ve grown so much in just one year,” Childers states. “Along the way, we’ve made friends in the industry and have learned a lot. We know that this business is not an exact science. Projecting sales can be difficult, but we are transparent with our lead times. We have a rep group handling our business in the Northeast, but that’s it so far. We wanted to make sure we had all of our ducks in a row before signing up rep firms.”
Emporium Home has exhibited in a temporary space last spring and fall at Interhall during the High Point Market. Childers says she loves the challenge of creating a booth each market. “I have a vision of how I want our products to be seen — and that’s hard to do in a temporary space,” she admits. “However, it’s a creative person’s dream to do a new space every market. It fuels your creativity and helps you focus on moving forward in your design.”