IN IRIS SCHREIER’S HANDS, THE ART OF KNITTING IS ELEVATED TO THE STATUS OF COUTURE. BUT IS HER COMPANY’S BRANDING COMPLEMENTING ITS CREATIONS?
This article was excerpted from OPEN Book: Branding, which provides tips and advice for building a Booming brand. Follow the evolution of Cardmember brands featured in our new web series Project RE:Brand, in which small businesses undergo brand makeovers by design experts.
Iris Schreier has always had a passion for knitting. In part, she attributes this to genetic inheritance; her paternal great-grandmother had a yarn shop and taught the craft of knitting in Israel, while her maternal grandmother was a couturier. But Iris’s single-minded fervor for the art of wool-weaving is all her own. “For me, it’s like breathing,” she enthuses. “That’s how natural it feels.”
For some time, Iris’s passion remained a private one; she spent nearly a decade working for the publisher Scholastic in software and business development. Then, around seven years ago, she stumbled on a way of bringing her private and public realms together. “I had been seeing all these interesting new yarns coming onto the market,” she says. “So a friend and
I proposed a book called Exquisite Little Knits, where I’d take these yarns and design some pieces that people could create with them.” Each chapter of the book would focus on a different yarn type – cashmere, silk, embellished yarns, etc. – but during her research, she began to notice that the pure, luxurious yarns she required to realize her artistic vision weren’t that easy to come by. “For instance, I wanted to use a mohair that didn’t contain nylon, so it would be pure and not itchy,” she says. “And I began to think that the only way I could get the yarns I wanted was to make them myself.”
As Iris began experimenting with unusual and intriguing combinations of fibers from the finest sources around the globe – Italian-spun wool, Australian merino, mohair woven from 60 percent goat hair and 40 percent silk – she found she had something other than knitting needles in her hands. The result was Artyarns, a line of couture fibers that raised the stakes for knitters across the US. While Iris sourced and hand-painted the yarns, her husband, Elliot Schreier – an engineer who’d previously worked on the Hubble Space Telescope – assumed the management of the company, and designed the machines on which the yarns were interwoven or embellished with beads and sequins. Today, Artyarns works out of a studio in White Plains, 30 miles north of New York City, with a staff of ten. The yarns that Iris and her team produce can be found in discerning stores nationwide. “We have a unique part of the market,” says Elliot. “We focus on the high-end niche.”
“Our goal in life is to get the knitter who experiences our yarns for the first time to come back for more,” adds Iris. “We want them to love the feel of them, and the outcome when they use them. We want to spoil them for other yarns. So we need to create a cachet around our yarns through our brand, our packaging and our advertising.” This cachet, they acknowledge, is something that Artyarns had previously been lacking. “Our problem is that we’ve had no cohesion or clarity or unifying message,” says Elliot. “It’s something we’ve never really addressed. We’ve just muddled along with a hodgepodge of things, put together on an ad hoc basis.” “I’ve always felt that the product itself is so good,” says Iris, “but to get someone to make that first purchase, when they don’t know us and haven’t tried us, was the challenge. The brand needed a face-lift.”
Artyarns was paired with Officelab, courtesy of American Express OPEN’s Project RE:Brand initiative. Through the New York–based boutique branding agency, they received a new brand positioning statement and logo, as well as a new style guide, advertising templates and packaging system. The goal was to emphasize Artyarns’ passion for knitting and ability to set trends in fiber, while conveying uniqueness, luxury and value.
“Why is branding necessary?” asks Dominic Sinesio of Officelab. “At its best, it’s a process by which a company can internally work to articulate their core values and culture, and tell their compelling and authentic story. That can sometimes get lost in the fray of the day-to-day running of a company, as was the case with Iris and Elliot. At its most basic, branding is a way to express what you do, why you do it, and why others should be interested in it.” “We felt we could give Iris and Elliot the
opportunity to articulate better who they were to themselves,” adds Officelab’s co-Creative Director, Lesley Horowitz. “There was a lot of clutter to their practice – their logo was in one typeface, their ads were in another, their products were photographed in a way that didn’t emphasize their unique qualities. We thought we might be able to bring them some order and clarity.” Sinesio and Horowitz accompanied the Schreiers to a yarn trade show in Columbus, Ohio, and immediately saw what differentiated Artyarns from its nearest rivals. “What stood out was the rarefied quality of what they sell, which hadn’t been coming through in their imagery,” says Sinesio.
“We had to strip back all the preconceived ideas of what yarn is,” says Horowitz. “You know, that dusty, fuzzy, sheep-y feeling. That’s not where Iris and Elliot were at all. While the general feel of the trade show was quite bohemian, they felt like they belonged on the Neiman Marcus side of the mall, next to Chanel. What we needed to do was bring out the opulence and romance of their products, as well as Iris’s personal passion for her art. This was more about fashion, design and aspiration than cozy comfort. We look at every rebranding project from a poetic and scientific point of view, and we decided that we needed to flesh out the essence of those two factors in Artyarns’ case.”
Officelab defined Artyarns’ core values – touch, color, form, artisanship, couture – and devised the rebranding scheme around them. They shot a selection of print ads, featuring close-ups of both raw and finished yarns alongside a new tagline – “Elevate your art” – and a quote from Iris: “The yarn I really wanted to knit with simply didn’t exist. So, I made it myself.” They also came up with a new, sinuous logo for the brand, in which the Y of Artyarns was graphically tweaked to suggest both a pair of knitting needles and a paintbrush. “It was very important for us to zero in and emphasize the tactile qualities and lusciousness of the product,” says Horowitz. “Previously, Iris and Elliot had just photographed them as finished garments, catalogue-style, so we wanted to open up the perception of the yarn. ‘Elevate your art’ also came out of that desire to show that this was far from run-of-the-mill yarn,” says Sinesio. “Particularly with their embellished fibers, and the way that they can put together multiple fibers in customized ways, we wanted to emphasize that Iris and Elliot were operating in a different league.”
As for the logo, Sinesio says that Officelab came up with four variations that expressed different aspects of the business – classic, opulent, romantic, understated – and the Schreiers eventually chose the most understated one. “I think they recognize that their products speak for themselves in many ways,” he says. “So the understated graphic identity can act as a counterpoint to that, and allow them flexibility as they grow and add more lines.” He pauses, and adds. “I think Iris and Elliot were consistently surprised and excited at the things we were showing them. Just pointing out the fact to them that Iris is her own ideal customer – it’s an obvious point, and they knew it intuitively, but they didn’t stop to ask how they could use that in getting their message across.” In fact, he adds, this way of emphasizing those innate qualities of a business that are hiding in plain sight might well be the essence of branding: “It’s about drawing out the thing that’s always been there, and seducing your customer with that.”
And if the Schreiers are their own best customers, then they consider themselves thoroughly seduced by Officelab’s makeover. Elliot describes the new logo, only half-jokingly, as “the Nike swoosh of the yarn business,” while Iris, after admitting early in the process that “we’re not really clear what we want out of this,” now professes herself “blown away” by its outcome. “The level of talent and creativity, the ads, the graphics, the language…” She shakes her head. “I had no idea that something like this was even possible. What they’ve done is brought a very narrow, niche business into a league where we can theoretically compete with the biggest brands at the highest end of the market. It’s like nothing we’ve seen in this business before. They’ve upped the ante for everyone.”
She adds that the project has also served, for her, as a crash course in the art of branding. “I was very oblivious before,” she says. “I thought of it as smoke and mirrors. Now I see how it all fits together. I’m alert to the nuances. I feel like my eyes are open to the possibilities.” So much so that Iris is working with her publisher on her fifth book: an Artyarns book of accessories, in which she’ll curate a selection of garments woven from the company’s yarns by various designers: “The project’s given me the confidence to explore the potential of our products in the fashion world, which is
really exciting for me.”
And, while the cost of such a rebranding exercise would ordinarily put it beyond Artyarns’ reach (it may affect just how much of Officelab’s vision they can implement, though Dominic Sinesio says that “we want to help them see their way to the next step, and be a resource for them”), the Schreiers say that, whatever happens next, the exercise has changed their perception of their company – and themselves – forever. “It’s been an incredible ride,” says Elliot. “It’s had a huge impact on us. If other companies could experience what Officelab has done for us, they’d have a blueprint to be light-years ahead of their competition.”
“The most important thing to come out of the project?” ponders Iris. “I think that Officelab enabled us to see, with clarity, the why of our company – why we’re here, and what we can offer. We knew it before, but we were never able to articulate it. Now it’s all over our ads and it’s the center of our identity, from our yarn labels to our irisknits.com microsite, and it’s an entry point for people to become as passionate about our brand as we are.” Iris’s zeal for her products and their capabilities is now woven into the very fabric of her business. “We always felt we had a brand that people could form an emotional attachment to,” she says. “Now we have the means to communicate that.”