Sixteen years. That’s how long Emily Morrison worked in the high-stakes finance world that is Wall Street before she left it all to pursue a career in the fashion and lifestyle space, creating her own artisanal brand Elysian by Emily Morrison. Yes, in a fateful Eat Pray Love moment, a spontaneous 2019 trip to Turkey ignited a new fire in the numbers-driven mother of three. “She was drawn in by the lure of the Silk Road and the bustling stalls of the Grand Bazaar, and found herself transfixed with the intricate patterns, the playful use of color and the multitude of ways a tulip or pomegranate was depicted,” reads her story on Elysian’s site.
Unable to shake the colors, craftsmanship, and vibrancy of the Turkish people, Morrison returned to her home in New Orleans with a new purpose, and a new idea. “Elysian was started as a passion project,” Morrison tells TZR. “I fell in love with the Turkish culture, the history, the people, the designs, the fabrics, the industriousness. I felt it calling me from afar and I wanted to bring it to my friends and family in the US I believed the color and patterns would resonant in the states and were under-appreciated.”
An avid collector of travel treasures, Morrison’s home has always told the stories of her expeditions and global escapades. “I believe in collecting pieces from my travels to decorate my home, accessorize my life, and add something unique to my style,” she explains. “I layer and consistently make changes around my house. I enjoy pairing different pieces together in my wardrobe as well as my home. That drove me to bring these timeless, transitional pieces for the home and wardrobe to others, so they could feel like their lifestyles were transformed in that same way.”
As such, Elysian was born in early 2020, bringing colorful, vibrant, handcrafted “livable luxury” to the home and closet. The offerings include hand-loomed throw accent pillow covers, tablecloths, and pestamel towels set against candy-colored stripes and tableware including hand-painted ceramics featuring intricate dahlia designs and silk ikat napkin sets. Apparel and accessories are also apart of the brand’s ethos, with silk velvet slides in sumptuous colors and traditional Turkish prints and luxe faux fur embellished coats. Somehow, Morrison has been able to tie together Elysian’s vast product roster, so each item feels authentic and identifiable to the brand, a feat for any business, let alone a fledgling.
Ahead, TZR sat down with the entrepreneur and discussed her experience with leaving a lucrative career in finance for the uncharted fashion world, launching said business venture in the midst of a global pandemic, and how she manages to juggle motherhood and entrepreneurship.
How has your finance background been helpful in starting your own brand? Do you think there are certain new business growing pains you likely avoided because of your professional background?
Absolutely. My finance background and JD/MBA has been incredibly helpful because I am able to run my own balance sheets, profit and loss statements, and make my own internal projections. I have taken extensive courses in accounting and I have a law degree that I think helps me analyze from a bigger picture perspective.
My background is in financial sales. I am also able to reach out to people and make cold calls without feeling intimidated and I do not allow myself to be discouraged by the response, so I continue trying no matter what. I had no previous background in fashion or retail, but I have been able to navigate this world without feeling overwhelmed by it because I understand that you have to keep trying. It’s a numbers game: The more you put the product out there, the more responses you will get.
With New Orleans being such a hub for unique vintage treasures as well as a design epicenter, how has the city inspired you creatively?
New Orleans inspires me every day in so many ways. The incredible architecture — which is a mixture of French, Spanish, European, and African influences — is one of my favorite parts of NOLA.
I see how different styles meld together and how to play off of historical traditions and make them current. I also see how important it is to build quality pieces that last. We have so many beautiful antique stores and auctions that hold treasures found around the world. I have learned so much about timeless pieces and curating an eclectic mix of items.
The colorful painted houses [around the city] are also a constant reminder to be bold and to have fun with design in your life and style. I love what other cultures teach us and New Orleans is such a beautiful representation of that in the architecture and vintage treasures.
In starting Elysian, did any local established business owners help you or mentor you through those initial months or even now?
wow! I have had so many helping friends that I could not have done without. In particular, there were so many female business owners that were helpful. I did my first pop up at the women’s store, Em’s and they were instrumental in launching me. There were multiple retail owners that I did not know well or even at all (Judy’s At The Rink for example) that held pop-ups when I was just beginning. Jane Scott Hodges of Leontine Linens came to a pop-up at my house when I had only been in business for a month, supporting me as a small business owner and I had never met her before. Since then, she has given me invaluable advice on wholesaling and the business, and she has connected me to so many contacts.
We have gotten so much help from friends, artists, restaurant owners, and retail owners in New Orleans and across the country. People have hosted us, reached out to me, given me so much advice, it is unbelievable the generosity I have received. We have hosted numerous small local artists and other small local businesses in pop-ups at our store and I have watched them thrive at the pop-ups at our store in an effort to encourage other small businesses to thrive.
So many women I didn’t even know have opened up to me and offered me their advice. All of my friends have been huge supporters in ways I could not have imagined, promoting Elysian and hosting events and teaching me their own skill sets that I could use.
I know you employ a number of artisans all over the world, which can be tricky, especially in this present time. How do you ensure they are being compensated and sufficiently supported? Do you get assistance in managing these artisans around the world?
Because of the nature of the high end product being so unique and rare, I pay a lot for the products to ensure that my artisans are well paid. Most of the raw material comes out of Uzbekistan, it has been a declining craft that has recently resurfaced with high demand so the artists are incentivized to spread their trade by being well compensated. I don’t get trade discounts for volume, the artisans are compensated the same for each product. I also do not negotiate with the artisans, they set the terms and we work together on every part of the process.
I have contacts that I work with in Turkey and Mexico that are on the ground that help me manage the artisans, but I also talk with my artisan partners via What’s App and on the phone and I visit both countries regularly.
I am headed to Turkey today for the third time in six months now and will be in Mexico in April. So much of this is about the personal relationships I have built with my partners. We have established deep friendships while designing, collaborating, and enjoying one another’s time and are communicating on a day to day basis.
Talk to me about some of the home items: What product has been the most challenging to manufacture? Also, what’s the best-selling item to date?
The linens have been difficult to manufacture because we manufacture them on small looms in Uzbekistan and the dye lots do not always match the original fabric we order. Ordering larger amounts of fabric can mean waiting for months — we are still waiting for fabric orders placed in August of 2021.
Initially, the ceramics were a challenge because our artisan worked with traditional designs and I wanted to pull in a more modern aesthetic so it took time to come up with the right designs. Also, Turkish ceramics are generally found in deeper and richer colors and I wanted this first collection to be lighter and more year-round, so we had to work to find the correct color palettes.
Our first product, the pillow cover, remains our best-selling one as we also sell to designers. Most of our pillows sell to customers who are looking for beautiful color and a new look in their homes. We get a lot of people coming in who fall in love at first sight with the pillows and walk out with a totally different color scheme than they came in thinking about.
As a mom of three, I imagine your days are packed. How do you find balance and time for yourself?
Yes, I am busy! I’m working harder now than I ever did in my finance job, but I’m so incredibly passionate about it that I don’t feel like I’m working. I am lucky to have a husband who shares many of the childcare duties and does all of the cooking. He’s an excellent cook and we take a lot of trips with the kids and spend quality time with them on all these trips. The beauty of owning your own business is you do have the flexibility to do carpools and attend sports because you set the schedule.
I am a huge multi-tasker but I am trying to learn to do one thing at a time. (I love to jog and work on the phone or catch up with friends at the same time.) I go to yoga twice a week and I try to run 3 to 4 times a week.
Traveling is so relaxing to me and I get to reenergize on all of my trips. I really socialize with my customers and the people I meet on the road and the artisans I work with so I don’t do as much socially in New Orleans to make time for myself and my family.
I meditate with the Calm App several days a week and I love to write morning notes, which is a form of journaling where you put down your thoughts on paper and it allows your head to clear for the day.
I am also publishing a poetry book later this year, which is very inspiring to me. Writing is another passion of mine and I love to write late at night. It is a form of self-care to be able to publish this book, I love seeing it come to fruition and can’t wait to share more
How did you navigate the last two years?
These last two years have been a whirlwind. I am fortunate to have started Elysian before COVID started because I already had customer feedback that the product was working; it just accelerated for me the process of figuring out multiple channels to promote and introduce the business to different markets. Because I had no background in retail, marketing, fashion, or design, it was in some ways a gift; I had no preconceived notions. I used [the last two years] to build out my website. I went on the road and held trunk shows with my family in a borrowed van and all of my merchandise in tow. We went to the East Coast and then out West where people were shopping on the streets. When we returned to New Orleans, I decided to do a temporary pop-up over the holidays, it was so successful we made it permanent.
What have you entered into this business taught you about yourself?
After 16 years in a career where everything I was doing, I did well, the learning curve here was steep. I have learned to trust my gut and that anything is possible, but you have to decide what you want. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand how others were doing things but now I am really listening to myself as a guide to trust what makes sense for Elysian and myself and my family, and not necessarily follow the paths that others have taken.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for new business owners stepping into the fashion industry?
Focus on having something unique. Fashion is an incredibly tough business and it is constantly changing. Stick to the identity of your brand and make sure you know what you stand for. Focus on products that stand the test of time.
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