It's not often that a Milwaukie-based business is featured in Oprah Winfrey's "All American" O List. And it is rare that the owner of this same Clackamas County-based business was also interviewed for an article in The Washington Post. But Rachel Austen, founder and illustrator of Elle Crée can claim both of those honors and more — her business selling paint-by-number kits thrived during the COVID lockdown.
"The pandemic brought a 500 percent increase in sales for us as paint-by-number kits became one of a handful of trending hobbies," she said.
Elle Crée, which means "she creates" in French, offers artist-quality, paint-by-number kits using Austen's original illustrations.
"We work directly with local printers on packaging and product components, our custom paint colors are mixed by hand from non-toxic, USA-made acrylic, and our kits are assembled and shipped with the help of a small staff in Milwaukie," she said.
The kits are produced "in a responsible way that fosters self-care through creativity, while creating good in our community," she said, adding that 5% of Elle Crée's net profit is returned to social-and-eco causes, including Portland's Brown Hope, a 501c3 that works toward racial justice and resilience.
Bestsellers include the "Frida with Flowers," due to a resurgence in interest in Frida Khalo's life, art and aesthetic, and botanical designs like "Poppies in Vase."
Four new Oregon-themed kits have just been released, including "Mt. Hood with Fritillaria," "Haystack Rock," "Crater Lake" and "Oregon Wildflower Bouquet."
Growing the business
Austen was born and raised in Clackamas County, and she and her husband have lived in Milwaukie for the past 12 years.
She started Elle Crée in 2017, thinking it would be a small, home-based business, but by 2019, wholesale accounts had grown, and she was selling to gift shops all over the country.
Austen began selling on Etsy, an online marketplace where independent crafters, artists and collectors can sell vintage, handmade or custom-made products. From there, she developed a small national customer base, while also selling at local maker fairs, which provided an opportunity to study people's reactions to the kits and the packaging and to refine the product.
"About a year into it, I realized that I was going to want to cultivate a customer base that was separate from Etsy's platform, so I launched a website," Austen said.
National sales increased when she started wholesaling the kits in late 2018 and early 2019.
"The more resellers we had, the more the kits were seen around the country which drove traffic back to our website."
By January of 2020, Austen employed two people who worked out of her basement; but then came the pandemic.
National sales grow
"Our retail sales saw a surge first, and then local sales through our website went crazy, after a 'More Good Day Oregon' feature aired during the first week of lockdown," she said.
Then national Etsy sales increased from several kits a day to more than 30, and the business's national website sales took off, too.
In May of 2020 it became clear that the business was too big for her basement, so in August of that year, Austen opened a storefront on Main Street in Milwaukie; it was used mostly for assembly and shipping, while offering curbside pickup and limited in-store shopping.
"From this new larger location, I could safely grow the staff and continue to scale production to meet the increase in demand," Austen said.
As the business continued to grow, Austen decided to close the Main Street storefront and move to a bigger space on International Way so that she can better manage the expansion of Elle Crée.
The storefront will host a closeout, clearance sale from now through July 17, offering artisan-made goods such as bath and body products, jewelry, home décor, ceramics and more.
During the lockdown, interest in paint-by-numbers grew nationally, and in August of 2020, Austen was interviewed by the Washington Post about the therapeutic benefits of the hobby.
"We believe our products can contribute to self-care and wellness. Many of our customers report how our kits have helped them find a sense of calm or get through a particularly difficult time," Austen said. "Paint-by-number kits are intended to cause the customer to slow down, disconnect from media and engage in a creative activity that contributes to a sense of calm."
"The great thing about paint-by-number is that you get to be creative without having to make any decisions. The color palette is all laid out for you. All you have to do is concentrate on your brushstrokes," she added. "When you're focusing on your steady hand and paint application, your mind can't swirl with the busyness and stress of the rest of life. That kind of focus can bring a sense of calm."
Austen said it was a surprise when O, Winfrey's quarterly magazine, contacted her about featuring Elle Crée, along with 16 other USA-made products, in last summer's "All American" list.
"They were looking for a made-in-the-USA brand and found us online," she said, adding that "they especially liked the fact that we offered an inclusive line of history-maker kits featuring inspiring women like Frida Kahlo, Michelle Obama and Amanda Gorman."
Austen believes that paint-by-number kits are the source of nostalgia for many people.
"Everyone remembers doing some kind of painting as a kid so there is very little barrier to entry — everyone knows how to hold a paintbrush," she said.
"The only skill you really need is patience and maybe a steady hand. Regardless of a person's artistic capabilities, paint-by-number allows anyone to tap into their creative side and feel like an artist," Austen said.
She noted that she hears from customers who use the kits to reignite their creativity and to gain confidence before starting to paint on their own.
"Painting-by-number is a great way to learn or refresh your brush skills, and to get a feel for how to create light and shadow. And the best thing about it is it can be done in bite-sized chunks."
Austen added, "Even though our kits can be completed in three to five hours, we encourage people to break their project up into several shorter painting sessions, so it feels manageable."
When she first started Elle Crée, the hobby was dominated by cheap, overly complicated kits, mass produced overseas with artwork that was never intended to translate to paint-by-number, Austen said.
"I've loved being part of the movement to bring back the nostalgia of the original kits designed by Dan Robbins for the Palmer Paint company in the 1950s," she said, adding that her "goal as an illustrator was to create vintage-inspired, highly stylized designs that drew on that history while adding a contemporary twist."
She noted that the company is working to expand the events program for businesses and organizations that would like "to throw their own paint-by-number party — either in person or virtually — to treat their group to a calming, creative activity."
For local organizations, "we can attend your gathering to offer instruction and painting tips. We're really looking forward to getting out into the community to share our love of this therapeutic pastime."
Austen noted that although the Main Street storefront is closing, local pick-up will be available starting June 6 at a new location in Milwaukie; customers can order through the Elle Crée website and select curbside pick-up at check-out or take advantage of the free shipping offer on orders over $59.
She added, "We're also pleased to have a handful of stellar resellers in the tri-county area including White Rabbit Gifts in Oregon City, and Budd + Finn, Collage and Presents of Mind in Portland."
Clearance sale: through July 17 at 10863 S.E. Main St., Milwaukie
Store hours and more information: elle-cree.com/storefront
Curbside pick-up: At the new location beginning June 6 at 4105 S.E. International Way, Suite 503, Milwaukie
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