Take Note

Like her designer cards and invitations, everything  about Bonnie Marcus  is fun, flirty and fashion-forward. But behind the stylish stationery lies a businesswoman who understands that success is a combination of hard work, creativity … and sparkles.

Welcome to Bonnie World.

It’s tempting to think of Bonnie Marcus as just another exurbanite mom with a business plan. True, she left a prestigious Manhattan career to move to Westport and raise a family. Yes, the ball didn’t really start rolling until she became pregnant with her first child. And sure, the idea behind Bonnie’s Style Press — the stationery company she founded on the premise/tagline: “Where fashion meets paper” — began at her kitchen table. But that concept didn’t begin as an ad hoc, “Gee, I need something to keep my brain stimulated” afterthought; the fact is, Bonnie Marcus & Co. (as the company is now called) was the plan all along.

And it’s worked. Bonnie’s holiday cards, invitations and birth and wedding announcements can be found in over 1,000 retailers around the world, including Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Barney’s New York and Kate’s Paperie. Last year she won the prestigious “Make Mine a $Million Business” contest from American Express, and major licensing deals are already in the works. Her stuff’s so new, so innovative and so popular, it’s like the sudoku of stationery.

“Driven” is perhaps the best word to describe Bonnie. See also: creative, stylish, energetic, dynamic — in short, everything that makes you want to hate her. Overflowing with a sense of purpose, she’s one of those people who not only gets things going but gets them done. And, apparently, she was always this way: In high school she was homecoming queen; in college she was president of her sorority. A year after graduation she landed a job with Diane von Furstenberg — not just the company, Diane herself.

Welcome to Bonnie World — a place where hard work, imagination and perseverance pays off. In spades.

“I did all of Diane’s marketing and public relations work,” Bonnie says matter-of-factly. Then, as if this too were no big deal: “I also helped plan her son’s wedding.”

Hmmm … fashion design meets event planning. Beginning to get the picture? From there Bonnie went to work for Liz Claiborne “because I really wanted to see what a big fashion house was like. I always had an entrepreneurial bug, and I looked at everything as a learning experience. I didn’t know where exactly I wanted to be, but my goal was to be a designer of some sort.”

Still, without a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology — Manhattan’s Mecca for fashionistas — and with her no-nonsense business acumen, Bonnie found herself pushed into marketing positions. “So I decided I really wanted to proceed with the event-planning part of the business,” she says. “I went to the 92nd Street Y, which is a fabulous cultural institution in the city, and I began planning their benefits. It was out of the fashion world, but I was coordinating events for Martha Stewart one night, Clint Eastwood the next.”

And so the seeds of a business were planted. In addition to her duties at the Y, Bonnie did some private wedding planning on her own. “I had all the big invitation books, and I found that these New York City brides I was working with weren’t content with the traditional invitations at the time,” Bonnie explains. “Most of them just had images on them, you know, of toasting glasses or wedding cakes. And these brides were spending an enormous amount of money and they wanted something more representative of themselves. So I went back to friends I had in fashion and I had them do some illustrations of the bride and groom or the venue they were having their event at. And I sort of became known in the city as this wedding planner who did these custom invitations. I knew then that I had something unique.”

If, up to this point, Bonnie’s life story reads like an overly scripted Danielle Steel heroine — hang on. It gets better. For five years Bonnie toasted the town at parties with Al Gore, the Clintons, Calvin Klein … but meanwhile she was working twelve hours a day. “My husband would say to me, ‘What are you doing? You’re working for someone else!’” Bonnie laughs. “‘Why don’t you put all that energy into your own business?’”

That opportunity came in 2002 when her husband Andrew, a dentist in Stratford, decided he no longer wanted to commute every day. The couple found an apartment in Westport, and, perhaps ironically, it was the move out of the chaos and hustle of Manhattan that gave Bonnie the freedom to pursue her goal. “I was finally able to be creative,” she recalls. “When I was in the city, my company was in the works in my mind — but you see everyone else going to work and you feel the pressure to go to work, too. So the turning point was really when we came here to Westport and I was finally able to work for myself and get this business going.”

See, we told you she had a plan all along. “I still had that love of fashion,” she continues. “So I wanted to bring fashion to paper. And I considered my cards more of a fashion accessory than stationery, which I think has really contributed to our success. I knew this was lacking in terms of the invitation market. Most wedding-invitation manufacturers don’t know their customers because they usually just work with the retail stores. But I got to sit with the brides and hear what they wanted, and it became obvious there was a void in the market. There just wasn’t anything stylish and hip and fashion-forward.”

There was also another little motivation in the works: In the summer of 2002, Bonnie was pregnant with her first baby. After the move to Westport, she had been taking the train to the city a few days a week to work for an invitations website called Chelsea Paper. “It was hot, and I was tired of commuting and I didn’t want to do it come the winter. I remember sitting in Starbucks, looking at the water and thinking, ‘I wish there was a way I could just stay here full-time.’”

With a computer, a printer and her connections with fashion illustrators, Bonnie began sketching out some designs of her own. But as usual, it was more than a pastime whim for her: she constantly researched paper options, trying her designs on different stocks to see how they would look. “I’ve always had that dichotomy of being creative and studious at the same time,” Bonnie says. “Every job I’ve gotten, it wasn’t because I had so much experience. It was because they saw that I was eager and excited and they trusted that I was able to take it on. And I brought that same enthusiasm to my own project.

“I always try to think in the mind of my customer,” she says. “I don’t necessarily want what’s pretty, I want what’s going to sell and what retailers are going to like. A lot of designers are so talented, but their designs aren’t sellable. And sometimes you see things in stores that are beautiful but overpriced. So you have to be business-oriented as well as creative if you want to succeed.”

With a plan in place, a baby on the way and the time to gestate both, Bonnie began producing samples of her work to show to local stores. Unlike other prototypes, the only tools she needed were a computer, paper … and her brain. Samples in-hand, Bonnie brought her ideas to eight area retailers including Printemps in Westport, Letter Perfect in Greenwich and the Write Approach in New Haven.

“I talked to store owners and asked them if they thought it would sell,” Bonnie says. “I asked them about price points, how many cards should be in a box. And they were more than generous to give me their input. They saw that I was serious.”

Ordinarily, a young entrepreneur pitching a new spin on an age-old product would be lucky if even one person paid attention, yet every one of the eight stores she pitched to agreed to sell her cards. “I came home and said to my husband, ‘We have holiday orders we need to fill.’ And not only did every store buy it, they all reordered before the holidays, like two weeks later.”

And that was only the beginning. Feeling bolstered by the local response to her cards, Bonnie decided to send some samples out to the press. Now, understand, usually a struggling company — or any manufacturer — will send out hundreds of samples with a press release attached, and pray that someone responds with coverage. Bonnie figured she’d tighten that figure up a bit: she sent out exactly two, one to New York magazine and one to Daily Candy.

“I put together this pretty package, and the next week New York calls me and says they’d like to feature the cards, but only if they’re available in Manhattan. I didn’t know anyone at the magazine, but I told them sure, I’d get them a location. Then I called the only store I could think of — the Hallmark near where I used to live — and they said they would sell my cards if they were going to be in the magazine. So I dropped off some boxes just as the issue was going to print.”

A write-up in a major magazine and a Manhattan retailer in the same week: remember, we told you this story gets better. And it doesn’t end there. Once the magazine hit the newsstands, orders began coming in from all over the world. Bonnie’s entire family, including in-laws, pitched in to answer the phones and box up the cards. The company was now officially launched.

One would think that, with a new business and a baby on the way, things might slow down a little. Not in Bonnie World. After her first son, Benjamin, was born in March 2003, Bonnie (“ambitiously,” is how she puts it) decided she needed to attend the National Stationery Show at the Javits Center in Manhattan in May. The problem was, she had a newborn — and couldn’t be too far from a restroom for any length of time.

Obstacle, meet opportunity. “I called the people running the show and asked if they would give me space near a bathroom because I’d have my two-month-old with me. And I’d been there a number of times, so I knew that all the mom-and-pop companies were on the basement level. All the well-known, established companies are on the main floor. But that also happens to be where the bathrooms are. So they gave me the front, center of the whole show. And now I’m selling baby-shower invitations and birth announcements, and I have my newborn with me, and all the customers loved it!”

And whether she planned it or not (we’re guessing she did), Bonnie gave birth to a second son, Joshua, exactly thirteen months later — just in time for another prime location. Now her company is grandfathered in (after, one could say, being “mothered” in).

But look, we could go on and on about Bonnie World. The bottom line is that Ms. Marcus is every bit the embodiment of the products she sells — stylish, fun and fashion-forward. The images adorning her stationery may come from the pens of professional illustrators, but the concepts come from Bonnie’s brain: a chorus line of shoes anchored by a thigh-high boot suggests a modern Menorah on a Happy Hanukkah card; a pair of legs extending from a miniskirt and an armful of packages invites the recipient to “Have a Fashionable Holiday”; a happy couple — she in a cocktail dress, he in Santa pants —  embrace on a “Merry Kiss-Mas” card.    »

They’re beautiful, sure. And what’s more, they’re all hand-sparkled. (You knew we’d get around to that. Bonnie used to do the sparkling herself — with her husband’s dental instruments. Now she has a full-time staff of sparklers.) But most of all, they’re unique. “When I was pregnant,” Bonnie says, “I saw that everything was baby booties and pink this and blue that. And there were no really fashionable women — nothing fun. I always try to fill a niche in the market wherever I see a void.”

So what’s the next niche? Last fall, Bonnie created a line of flip-flops for various occasions: everything from brides-to-be to expectant moms to spa excursions. (You’ll find them at Canyon Ranch.) Next spring she’ll introduce a line of tote bags, and by Christmas 2008 we’ll be seeing Bonnie Marcus ornaments for the tree.

And is it all beyond her wildest dreams? Actually, it comes as no surprise. “I’ve always wanted to work in fashion,” she says. “So this is kind of like my entrée into that world. And I’m not doing it the way everyone else is doing it; I’m doing it my way. I’m juggling, but I want to juggle successfully, to make sure every one of these opportunities that come to us is successful. I’m a perfectionist. I don’t want to just say yes to everything. I want to make sure it’s done the right way.”

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