Making It: Sara Selepouchin of Girls Can Tell

Sara Selepouchin, 30
Designs housewares and useful gifts that are printed with her diagram-style illustrations.

In the last year, Sara Selepouchin achieved two significant benchmarks on her path to success as a small, creative business owner. In April she moved into her own roomy studio off East Passyunk Avenue, and last month, she exhibited at the gigantic, influential New York International Gift Fair. Her booth was one aisle over from home design mogul Jonathan Adler.

But Selepouchin's most significant accomplishment is less tangible. She has become so strongly identified with her aesthetic – annotated line drawings of everyday objects like pots and pans, sushi rolls, microscopes, Holga cameras, and Tastykakes – that any diagram-style work not made by her is bound to evoke a flurry of e-mails from friends in the handmade community, outraged on her behalf. After six years, Selepouchin has branded the nerdy, charming diagram a Girls Can Tell product.

Forging a niche is important in an Etsy-flooded world. This is why Selepouchin tells new artists and designers, “Make sure what you're doing is really you. If it genuinely is, you'll create a body of work that's consistent and tight.” There's no question her style is emphatically hers.

As a kid growing up in Toms River, Selepouchin collected the Asbury Park Press' “house plans of the week” in a binder and critiqued them. In high school, she was the only girl in her mechanical drawing class. “I competed in a lot of regional drafting competitions in New Jersey,” she says. “I kicked ass.”

After earning a degree in architecture from the University of Virginia, she started doing little drawings for friends and on cards. She was inspired by the instruction manuals that came with her Holga and her grandmother's Singer sewing machine. She begged a friend to teach her how to screen print and started Girls Can Tell as a side business while working at several firms. Girls Can Tell was one of the first shops on Etsy, and Selepouchin fell for the company so completely that she changed careers to work for it. In a year and a half she built up the Etsy Teams Program (a street marketing initiative) from 1,000 to 25,000 users. In 2009 she went full time with Girls Can Tell. Since then her business has matured from selling exclusively online to selling wholesale to boutiques around the country.

Selepouchin's confidence also has evolved. At the beginning she only printed her illustrations onto housewares. “I didn't think my drawings were good enough on their own,” she says. “So I put them on things I thought people needed.” Recently, in addition to all those useful things, she has started working on series of her prints on crisp white paper. She says, “It took me six years to realize that people are buying this stuff because they like my illustrations.”

The space:

Selepouchin's studio in the East Passyunk neighborhood is a former tailor's shop. “An old Italian guy's,” says Selepouchin. “People still stop in and ask when he's coming back.” She plans to dedicate half the space to a small boutique – Girls Can Tell's flagship – opening in April.

The name:

Girls Can Tell is the name of the Spoon album Selepouchin listened to most when she first started printing. “I had no idea it would become my full-time job or that I'd end up saying it more than my own name,” she says.

Early blunders:

“The first things I printed were oven mitts,” says Selepouchin. “I misprinted as many as I printed right. That's not a great business model – a smarter person would've printed the fabric flat, then made it into an oven mitt.”

New diagrams:

When Selepouchin first went full time, she planned to do one new diagram every week for a year. That lasted six months, but her most popular diagrams date back to that period when she was regularly pushing herself to do something new. Now she does four to six new illustrations per year. “New designs make me smile,” she says. “I get really tired of looking at my work. I've probably printed the pig 7,000 times. I'm so tired of the pig.”

(This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 3.16.12.)


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