Thinking creatively


POSTED: Monday, June 22, 2009

Stephanie Lake loves her job as a visual consultant to shopping malls and other businesses, though it's not a job she ever imagined she would have.

“;It's such a niche business,”; she said last week of her firm Creative Solutions, which she started seven years ago with partner Debbie Hedrick. “;And when I got out of school, if you had told me I would have a business like this, it's not anything that you can study for and have, like, a career path; it's just something we created.”;

Lake said she started in retailing when she was 16, while still a student at Pahoa High School on the Big Island. She also attended University of Hawaii at Manoa for about two years, and soon after left for the mainland to work for Polo Ralph Lauren.

The former Stephanie Canda, 38, is married to Josh “;Iwi”; Lake, with whom she lives in Makiki, along with their cat, Olive, aka “;fuzzy baby.”;

Mark Coleman: As a visual consultant, what kinds of clients do you serve?

Stephanie Lake: The clients that we have are two-fold: We work with mall management - the marketing people, as well as the general managers.

Q: Like who?

A: Right now we're in the middle of the “;giant insect”; promotion for Pearlridge Center. We've also worked very closely with Kahala Mall, Ala Moana Center, Windward Mall, and off-island, Whaler's Village (on Maui). We've also worked with Hawaii Kai Towne Center on a few projects.

On the level of mall management, we work with them on seasonal decor, which is Christmas and Easter. So we'll help “;concept”; with them for a theme, and then take it all the way through to sourcing it, purchasing, and installing it.

On the off-seasons, we work with them on special events, mall promotions. ... We also do seminars for their tenants in the mall, and then we also do window displays for empty stores.

Q: Empty stores?

A: Empty stores. (Laughter) Which I know sounds a little bizarre, but that's actually how our company came to fruition; our first job was doing a window display at Aloha Tower Marketplace.

Q: In an empty store?

A: Yeah. See, what happens is, if there's no one to lease the space, the mall management does not want to leave it empty, so what we can do is highlight and advertise other stores in the mall; we bring the windows to life as an advertisement for other tenants. That's how we started, right there, doing window displays.

But to backtrack about our two-fold clients; we not only work with mall management, we also work with individual stores, small business owners, and with them, it's still on a visual level. We help them with merchandising, traffic flow, window displays, and with some businesses, we've done catalog stylings and helped with their marketing campaigns. So it's really grown from store windows to much more.

Q: Who's “;we”;?

A: Me and my business partner, Debbie Hedrick. We created our company, Creative Solutions, and, actually, we just made our seventh-year anniversary.

Q: How did you get that first job?

A: We actually knew the general manager at Aloha Tower Marketplace, and he contacted Debbie. He needed somebody to do a window display, and she said we could do that. Debbie and I had worked together in the past, so she knew she could call on me.

Q: What were you doing before you became a visual consultant?

A: I was working for a corporate retail company, Polo Ralph Lauren, that had me based in San Francisco. I've pretty much been to every mall in Northern California.

Q: So what's up with this insect display at Pearlridge Center?

A: It's a summer program that they're going to be having here for six weeks. It entails having interactive displays for the kids to play with - large animitronic giant insects - and they also are having the train, so that's a great thing.

Q: Who builds the displays?

A: We work with various vendors on the mainland that have traveling shows, and so Pearlridge worked with a vendor on the mainland to bring in the insects, and then they hired us to bring it to life.

Q: Are there companies locally from whom you buy the supplies you need?

A: Actually, if there's anything on a large scale, we usually can rent it. If it's in our power to build it, our team will actually build it. We have a bunch of great team members.

Q: Freelancers?

A: Two freelancers, and one full-timer.

Q: Carpenters or what?

A: They are men-of-all-trades. “;Uncle Bob”; was the academy dean and art department chairman at Punahou; he retired. That would Bob Badham. And then we have Dave Porter, who is an ex-chef and a stay-at-home dad. And then we have Mario Costales, whom I've known and Debbie has known from our Liberty House days. Debbie was a sales rep for Polo Ralph Lauren that sold to Liberty House; that's how we met.

Q: Where did the artistic side of you come from?

A: I think I've always had a creative side, since I was a young child. I loved doing creative writing, and drawing, and I also loved fashion. Then when I went into retail as a career, I had a better understanding of merchandising and visual displays; it's like putting a puzzle together.

Q: How has the recent downturn in retail activity affected demand for your business?

A: In the beginning of the year around January, it was quiet. We were waiting to see what was happening with our clients. Then February rolled around, which is the Pro Bowl, and we worked with the NFL on the Pro Bowl. But after February we started getting calls again from our clients, because they see the necessity to market themselves, and they really wanted to do it right when they bring in these expensive promotions. So they call us.

We're very lucky. We have so much fun. When we started the company, Deb and I told each other that one of the prerequisites is that we have to fun. I have never laughed so much in my life. It doesn't even feel like work. We are very, very fortunate.