Small Business Spotlight: KC Washington Shakes Up the Classic Pin-Up
The silhouette of the 1950s pin-up has come to represent the golden era of American sex appeal. Curvaceous models forever frozen in naughty-yet-demure poses have taught generations of women how to find that sweet spot between hot and classy.
K.C. Washington, a San Jose, CA transplant that has called Brooklyn, NY home for 20 years, spotted a void among the pin-up genre’s ivory-skinned images. The beauty of Black women had been erased from history.
Noir A-Go-Go was born in January 2011 to fill that void. The online store offers black pin-up girl-themed gifts and accessories, with grinning models featured on everything from greeting cards to tote bags.
I sat down with Washington to learn how she turned an idea for a cheeky holiday card into a business, and how she juggles her passion project with her two other gigs as a published novelist and bartender.
Madame Noire: What makes your product unique among the many gift products out there?
KC Washington: I am a huge fan of the 1940s and 50s. I love the style and glamour, and I collect a lot of pin-up girl memorabilia. Every time I bought something I would think, “I love this but I wish they made black versions.” The pin-up girl genre is extremely popular and most women I know instinctively gravitate towards the fashion as well as the hot strength of the women of that time period, be it Lana Turner or Dorothy Dandridge. But, unless the woman was a famous actress and you actively sought out old Jets or Ebonys, you never see black pin-up girls.
MN: What impact do you hope your products will have?
KC: Everyone knows about the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle, but rarely is the glamorous side of black life and black women from that time period highlighted. As I was thinking about the design for my 2010 Christmas card it occurred to me that it would be really cool if I started my own line of black pin-up girl greeting cards and postcards. My slogan is “Noir A-Go Go puts the black in the magic that is 50s Americana!”
MN: Was there something specific that pushed you to turn your idea into a business?
KC: There are two things actually. I am a bartender, and two years ago when I turned 40 I was looking for a way to change my life. I wanted to do something creative but that also gave me the autonomy that I was used to. Although I didn’t have any experience in the stationary/gift industry, I love novelty gifts and love to make my own Christmas cards and bookmarks. I’m also big on manners and going that extra mile. I’m that girl who sends thank you cards after a party. So, basically I decided to combine my nerdy love of crafting and nostalgia with a need to change jobs (eventually) and Noir A-Go Go was born.
MN: How did you accommodate for your lack of experience in product development and production?
KC: I learned and continue to learn about it by reading both magazines and books as well as going online. I also attend tradeshows and expos like The New York International Gift Fair, the National Stationery Show, and general Chamber of Commerce meetings. When my novel was released, I did a lot of readings and learned how to put together press releases and information packets which has helped me tremendously with the company.
MN: What challenges did you encounter launching your business?
KC: The biggest challenge/surprise, which in retrospect was more challenge than surprise, is how many hidden costs there are. For example, all of the website companies that say how easy it is to setup a site fail to mention in the bold print that you can set one up for say $9.99 a month, but you can’t sell anything on that site without an SSL certificate which insures that your customer’s credit card information is safe. The certificate can run you over a hundred dollars annually.
It’s super easy to setup a pretty site, but it won’t matter if you don’t invest in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) which helps your ranking on the search engines like Google and Yahoo. Otherwise, your company may not appear in a search until the fifth page, if you’re lucky. So the cost of setting up that “1-2-3” website suddenly goes from $9.99 to $1,000 once you’ve added your shopping cart, domain name, SSL certificates, SEO, etc. Thankfully I’ve never met a budget I didn’t like and always overestimate the cost of things.
MN: What accomplishment are you most proud of since launching?
KC: One, creating a product that I am still in love with two years later; two, getting into several NYC stores my first year; and three, teaching myself design. I had never used PowerPoint or Photoshop until two years ago when I started the company. I am still learning, of course, but I taught myself everything by taking tutorials online, reading books, hunting and pecking, and asking questions. My biggest lesson is always back up and never work from the original, both of which I learned as a writer.
MN: How do you come up with the concepts for your products?
KC: Classic pin-up girls like Betty Grable and Betty Page inspire some of my images. Others come from old movies and magazines. The thing about the pin-up genre is that it is very specific. It’s all about the “Victory Roll,” which is the classic hairstyle with the thick curled bang and long wave in the back, the pencil skirt, and the angora sweater, as well as all things polka dot. One of the aspects I love most about Noir A-Go Go is the homage to black culture. That’s why a lot of my sayings like “Trust Me Sugar, I’ve Overcome” are a play on common black expressions and/or history.