Our Entrepreneurial Journey
After moving to Paris to study Fashion Design, then Fashion Merchandising in Long Beach, our Founder Annabel St. John, was hooked in the fashion business. She then gained valuable experience honing her skills working in the high end retail business, in the front end with clients and in the backend, buying, importing and managing. After ten years of experience, Annabel decided it was time to spread her wings, take the plunge and be her own boss (just like her grade 12 year book write up said she would do). So, in 1995, with a seven month old baby in tow, she purchased a niche printing business called Thistle Calligraphy. The business mainly offered calligraphy services using an automated printer, called a lettering bed, hooked up to a computer. Each piece of stationery was individually printed (a very slow process, with a lovely outcome). This service, paired with several beautiful lines of stationery and invitations options was the perfect combination to offer to brides and socialites for their stationery needs. As well, to many Universities and Associations to print their calligraphy needs for their graduating students diplomas.
The day Annabel called to register her new business with the city, the person on the other end of the phone kept thinking she was saying "Whistle" Calligraphy. Uh oh.... Thinking this was going to be a common problem, she re-named the business, right there on the telephone, to Hunter Calligraphy, the name of her baby boy. A new business was born, and set up the basement of her little house in West Vancouver, BC.
Got got pregnant with her second child, tore down her house in West Vancouver to build a new, bigger house, while continuing to run her business from the basement suite she was renting, while the new build was happening.
Gave birth to her second son, Hamish, and moved into her brand new house. She had "moved up" in the world, literally, from her windowless, basement office into her main floor, 10' x 10' office with big bright windows. (It's amazing what you can do in 100 sqr feet)!
1998 | PaperQueen brand is born
The evolution of printers and scanners was changing fast. Prices were finally beginning to drop, so people could actually afford to buy their own scanners and printers and start printing for themselves at home. It was only a matter of time before Universities and businesses would start in-house printing themselves. This was the first technology interference Hunter Calligraphy would notice.
Custom stationery was becoming a big part of Hunter Calligraphy's business. Annabel drew an illustration, had a stamp made of it (before her scanner acquisition), then stamped each one onto blank cards, then hand coloured, hand glittered and individually printed each card with the clients name in calligraphy using her lettering bed. They were beautiful but a very slow and labour intensive to create. No one was getting rich with this business model.
One day, a client asked Annabel to draw her a custom illustration and print 100 of them for her. The thought of doing all the above by hand, 100 times did not thrill her. She felt that that was a good time to invest in a scanner.
With her new scanner unboxed and installed, whe drew and coloured a quick illustration and watched the scanner do it's magic. Out printed this darling, coloured illustration directly onto the stationery card stock. She could not believe how seamless and easy it was! This was her "ah, ha" moment. The printing world had just expanded a hundred fold in her mind. The options were endless, and the volume printing options were endless. (Game changer #1) PaperQueen was born (a nickname that many friends had started calling her since she bought her business). She officially changed the business name from Hunter Calligraphy to PaperQueen in 1999.
After shipping samples to them to consider, the famous stationery chain Kate's Paperie, of New York, called to say they wanted to carry PaperQueen greeting cards in all five of their Manhatten locations. Their opening order was for 2,500 cards, our biggest order at the time (plus the US $ was at an all time hight and we were invoicing in US currency).
We were now on the map, and in New York! (Game changer #2)
After shipping samples to all of the Editors listed in InStyle magazine, the hottest magazine on the market at the time, PaperQueen received back a "thanks, but no thanks" letter saying they had just printed about stationery and they would keep us in mind, blah blah blah. Then, exactly one week later, PaperQueen received another letter. This one saying they had reconsidered and they were going to be printing a third of a page spread on PaperQueen's hand glittered stationery, along with pictures and ordering details. It was a thrill and a panic all at the same time. We didn't have a website! We were going to be in a major magazine publication and we were working out of a 10' x 10' office with toddlers crawling around the floor and a single telephone line.
So what do you do when you have a critical deadline with hardly any time? You get shit done, that's what you do. PaperQueen hired their first website designers and had first website designed in three weeks. (There would be three more websites to follow over the years.) It was not e-commerce but it was an online ordering system, that world could order online. We would call them individually for their payment details, which worked out brilliantly because we got to speak to each and every customer. We did over $10,000 in online sales the month the InStyle publication came out. It was a thrilling, incredible time.
We now had a worldwide, online presence. (Game changer #3)
On a whim they shipped some stationery samples to the buyers of Neiman Marcus, at the time, the God's of the stationery world. They wrote back, (yes, they mailed a letter back), asking for a meeting in New York. Annabel hopped on a plane and met with five Neimans buyers at the National Stationery Show. After the meeting, they to chose PaperQueen as their first Canadian greeting card company to be showcased and sold online. They also showcased seven different PaperQueen products on seven different pages in their stationery catalogue. And to top it all off, they put a picture of a PaperQueen hand glittered card ON THE FRONT COVER of their stationery catalogue. (Massive game changer #3)
PaperQueen was picked up by a major distributor in Toronto, Paper E. Clips, which put the greeting cards on the map throughout the USA.
Business was booming and PaperQueen continued to create beautiful invitations and personalized social stationery. However, towards the end of the decade they began to notice a slight decline in sales, due to the internet. Feeling this they decided they needed to take the leap and go to market themselves with their greeting card line.
PaperQueen made their debut appearance at the National Stationery Show in New York, attracting many new vendors, being nominated for Best New Stationery Line and landing a key new vendor, Papyrus, who to this day ,operates 450 locations throughout Canada and the United States.
Even though sales were strong, we couldn't ignore the fact that the internet was directly impacting the stationery and invitation business worldwide and it was only going to get worse. Why would people continue to write and mail when they could simply text or email for free?
While on a holiday in Arizona visiting a friend, Annabel noticed her wearing a necklace that she fell in love with. (Annabel is and always has been a major jewelry person.) She sourced where it was from, flew to New York and bought several beautiful necklaces and bracelets to bring to offer to her clients. PaperQueen was now in the beginning stages of morphing into the fashion jewelry business. A effortless and perfect fit for Annabel and her fashion background.
Annabel's husband got a six month contract to work in Shanghai, China. Annabel went and joined him for two months and quickly learned to master the art of Expat living. She lucked out meeting several exceptional Expat women, who introduced her to Shanghai and all that it had to offer.
Worrying that she would lose clients while she was away, she began writing a weekly blog sharing her Shanghai experiences. On week 2/7 she signed up for a "cashmere tour" and subsequently blogged about it and the "cute cashmere poncho's" she had discovered. On week 3/7, one of her clients that had read the blog emailed back asking her "Can I buy one?". To make a long story short, because of that email, with those four little words, a cashmere business was born. (Game changer #4)
The "Ultimate Clutch" was designed while she lived in Shanghai, selling out all 200 sleek, cross body handbags within four weeks.
On her first day back at work, after returning from her time in Shanghai, she received an email from Hallmark asking if she would be interested in a licensing agreement to design a line of greeting cards for their Hallmark Signature locations across Canada and the United States. She said yes, of course. The PaperQueen brand was expanding.
2017 | The Queen & Grace brand is born
The cashmere brand had to have it's own name, and PaperQueen was not going to be it. After much consideration the name Queen & Grace was decided.
"Queen" = the common denominator of the words PaperQueen and Queen & Grace.
"Grace", the name Annabel would have named her daughter, had she given birth to one.
A Queen "Bee" was chosen to be the emblem for the brand. Bee's symbolize community, brightness and personal power, all three nouns than precisely describe Annabel and what she believes in, and hopes to inspire all those who know her and her brand.