When Ceci Johnson first started making wedding invitations after work in her NYC apartment, “couture design” was still an unknown concept in the industry. Still, this type of approach felt right to her. When you love and believe in what you do, great work follows. And soon, people take notice and want to be a part of whatever it is you are doing. Ceci is proof of this. In less than a year’s time, she went from creating wedding stationery for friends in the late hours of the night to being singled out as a special talent by the New York design world!
Passion, drive, and commitment to excellence are keys to professional success. Ceci has all of these qualities. Yet, she maintains that it is a personalized approach to business, entrepreneurial spirit, and creative innovation that form the backbone of her lifestyle brand, Ceci New York. Oh, and let’s not forget about her love of paper. Ceci has extended her wedding stationery line to include gorgeous pieces for the every day. Her list of clients includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Vera Wang, Harper’s Bazaar, and Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts among others.
As huge fans of Ceci, we were beyond excited when she agreed to be interviewed for our Bride & Blossom’s Women Paving the Aisle series. Here, she talks about getting her business off the ground, all that goes into creating the signature “Ceci look,” and how she juggles running a design empire while being a wife and mother of two. You can also follow along with Ceci and her team at @cecinewyork and @cecijohnson!
We are huge fans and have followed your exciting evolution into Ceci New York. But you started out designing wedding invitations. Can you tell us a little about your story? How you went from being an independent wedding stationery designer to a leading lifestyle brand synonymous with style and luxury?
Thank you so much for following! I started my business out of my apartment in NYC with nothing but passion and a dream over 15 years ago. I studied graphic design and fine art in college knowing I loved designing and creating for others. I also am one of those crazy people who has that entrepreneurial fire in my belly and has always been busy doing projects on the side in my free time, which is honestly how Ceci New York started. I was designing invitations during my off hours for coworkers and friends when, before I knew it, my name was being passed around and people were suddenly reaching out to me to design for them! It was a reassuring feeling to know that people loved my work enough that they wanted me to design for their life’s biggest occasions. I knew it was what I was meant to be doing because the passion was there for me from the very beginning and still is to this day.
The demand for my work was overwhelming in the best way possible. I kept hearing over and over again that people were really looking for the specialized design that I could offer, so I studied the industry and realized I was offering something no one else was. A personal and exclusive design experience for each client. That confirmation gave me the courage to follow my dreams and take the leap in forming my own design studio!
Less than a year into it, I was awarded the “Top Trendsetter” award and “Expert Invitation Designer” by New York Magazine, which further fueled demand and helped put me on the map. Press started calling and so did celebrities and royalty around the world! Definitely pinch me moments throughout my career.
I try not to take anything for granted as in our business, you’re only as good as your last design. At Ceci we always pour our everything into each piece we create. Our goal is to make each client’s experience the highlight of their event. It’s the same goal for wedding invitations as it is for our lifestyle products, like our new journals. My aim has always been to build a brand that is stronger for the next generation than it is during my lifetime. The Ceci New York brand creates attainable luxury products that are as timeless as they are stylish. Something nice to beautify your world every day!
You take a ‘personalized’ approach to everything you do. This work philosophy requires more time and effort on your part, but must be so rewarding in the end. What made you realize this was how you wanted to establish yourself as an artist and designer and later on, as a business?
To me, design has to be personal or it won’t create an emotional connection to the client in the way it should. I love creating for others and believe in the art of the impossible. Nothing was ever templated for me. In fact, when I started, what was commonly known in the marketplace as “custom design” was not the same as I personally thought custom to be. To me custom wasn’t picking from a book and selecting a motif that everyone else had. Custom was about creating from imagination with no limits. That’s exciting! That’s design! Years ago I coined the term “couture invitations” to help differentiate between the two. Couture is limitless. Couture is innovation and 100% tailored to each individual. The core of the Ceci New York brand is all about the personalized design service.
There is nothing more rewarding to see the smiles on my clients faces when they see their final wedding invitation designs in their hands. That’s the best! The compliments they receive from all their friends and family saying that they’ve never seen anything like this. It’s SO YOU! That’s a great sign that we did our job right. I live for that.
We’ve ogled the wedding collection section on your website and your designs are amazing! We love that you make it easy for visitors to find their ‘Ceci Style’ with categories like ‘Classic,’ ‘New York City,’ and ‘Art Deco.’ While you offer so many uniquely beautiful designs, there is still a sense that Ceci New York is behind all these creations. Why do you think this is? How would you describe your overall brand aesthetic?
The Ceci New York brand is, and always has been about sophisticated, unique artistry and modern creativity paired with artisan printing techniques. I guess we are sticklers on always creating beautiful, innovative design no matter the budget. With each design we approach it the same way. “How can we make this truly special for our clients?” We never settle and continually push ourselves to do better and better. Everything we create goes through my Creative Direction and we always “Ceci-fy” it with a sophisticated, creative, elegant lens. Partnered with the desire to personalize it for our clients, the results have a consistency of excellence.
When working with a client, what is the creative process like? What extra measures do you take to ensure that their vision and personality are successfully translated into a stunning, one-of- a-kind design?
Our Ceci Couture process is really special. It begins with a design consultation where it’s all about asking a lot of questions and listening carefully to what excites and connects to the individual. Then doing a deep dive into who my clients are and what makes them tick. We like to think of it as our “first date.” We consider what kind of person or company they are, maybe what their home looks like, what they wear what they love individually and together as a couple. Creating a combined “brand” for the couple together as opposed to by themselves. Once we define the style, we start brainstorming ideas for their unique invitations. It’s the ultimate luxury to turn yourself over to a talented designer’s hands and let them do what they do best. The results are always something you could have never dreamed of yourself. For me, it’s easy and fun and exciting to design. I work to eliminate the stress of the client having to know exactly what they want their design to be before starting the process. I believe that’s our job! So it becomes a very fun experience for our clients to be presented with exclusive ideas to select from. The results are always a beautiful, artful collaboration. We like to say our clients walk in with “I wonder” and walk out with “I love!”
Thankfully, it’s very fun and enjoyable to work with our clients no matter where they are located in the world. With technology today, we can FaceTime or Skype to go over designs just like we’re sitting in the same room! Each client gets a dedicated expert Account Manager who, we joke, becomes your new BFF, because we work so closely every step of the way on all the details together. We have no challenges working with those who are not local. Over half our clients aren’t from the NY area! As long as you have a computer and are able to receive packages and email, we make the process work perfectly and easily. Beautiful proofs arrive via email and printed samples of ink colors and paper swatches are FedExed so there is no detail left unturned or unresolved. We make sure you understand exactly what it’s going to look like so there is no worries or surprises. We stand behind all our work and all our clients trust us to ensure it’s just perfect.
Each piece we create is something we are extremely proud of as well. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Your personal nature carries over to your work as an entrepreneur. In addition to giving talks and consulting, you seem really driven to help women in business visualize and reach their goals. Why do you think it is so important to foster a supportive community for women to share their ideas, personal experiences, and knowledge?
Yes, I love to help other entrepreneurs, especially women in business. Personally, I never allow anything to stand in the way, and I don’t believe in excuses; but I do believe we, as women, have it a little harder at times in the work force. The expectations and responsibilities of all we have to juggle (especially working mothers) can be daunting and sometimes get the best of us. Additionally, I have found that we put a lot of the pressure and guilt on ourselves, we tend to be very self-critical and extremely hard on ourselves.
From the experience gained from 15 years of running a business in New York City serving high expectation, discerning clients all over the world, I can tell you I have learned a lot! It is extremely gratifying to help others who may be just starting out or have been in business for a while and need someone to guide them and help them get out of rut and see the clarity beyond the weeds of the day-to-day. That’s why I offer the private business consultations for anyone looking to better their business. It’s a joy to sit down and hash it all out. We do it in person or via Skype/Facetime so you don’t have to be in NYC. Works out really well!
What advice would you give to Ceci Johnson of fifteen years ago when you were just starting out?
Oh! So much advice. So so much. The biggest ones that rise to the top is to have patience. Success doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a wild roller coaster full of ups and downs and twists and turns beyond what you could ever imagine. But the most important thing is to not give up and keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your passion – the WHY you started this business in the first place. Keep feeding into that and great things will happen.
The last is from my dad who I got the best business advice from. He would always tell me, “Your hardest day only lasts 24 hours.” To this day, I think of this quote every time I’m having a challenging day and it helps.
Can we talk about your Instagram? It really gives a glimpse into your life as an artist, businesswoman, wife, and mother. We all know that social media comes across as inauthentic and ‘fake’ at times. But you always seem so passionate and honest about what you have to say. Did this just come naturally for you?
Thank you! I’m so relieved you feel this way. I believe that you should always put your best, most authentic and honest, foot forward and social media is a great way to get a sense of who people are. But it can also be very surface level. I try to always share the many different facets of who the Ceci New York brand is as well as who I am. We design so many different types of projects at Ceci, so it’s fun to take people behind the scenes so they can see first-hand what goes into the artistry and craftsmanship of the product we make. I want people to know that what they see is created by us, not clip art that you can get anywhere else. I recently started @cecijohnson to do a deeper dive into my days. Highlighting the many facets of my multi-tasking life from being an Entrepreneur, Mom, Wife, Artist and Designer. I love to share my fashion, travels, favorite products and inspirations there. Anything that has helped me better my life, which in turn can help you live your life better too inspires me to share.
On those rare occasions that you have downtime, what is your favorite way to unwind? Any guilty pleasures?
You’re right, those moments are very rare, especially with an extremely curious two year old in tow! My ultimate favorite way to unwind is lying on a beautiful beach with a good book and no interruptions (ha!) somewhere far away from it all. But since I live nowhere near that paradise, I would say going out to a lovely dinner with my husband, sharing a really nice bottle of red wine together is relaxing. Just being able to not have to worry about doing the dishes or picking up food off the floor from my kids is a luxury in itself!
As for guilty pleasures, fancy mac and cheese may be my weakness… 😉
We absolutely love the breathtaking Oscar de la Renta dress you wore for your wedding! New York Fashion Week Bridal Fall 2018 recently took place. What were your favorite looks of the season?
Of course, I love Oscar! Their dresses are always so beautifully elegant with a dash of sexy mixed in. I’m also loving Christos Costarellos and Reem Acra and the ethereal/sheer looks from Galia Lahav!
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I’m always inspired by fashion, travel, culture and the world around me. Sometimes, just walking down the streets of NYC can be inspiring. But my ultimate inspiration are my clients. I love being inspired by them – what excites them, excites me and from there I combine that with my own visions and dreams and that’s where the magic happens. It may sound kind of funny, but I’m always tucking away in my memory inspiring things I see. When I meet those clients that I think those ideas would be perfect for, they surface and come out even better than I originally imagined. I truly believe inspiration is everywhere. You just have to open your mind to see it.
Brides and Grooms can schedule a consultation with Ceci Johnson by emailing email@example.com.