IN CONVERSATION WITH CAROLINE DIANI – FOUNDER OF DIANI
WHY AND WHEN DID YOU START DIANI?
My father died of cancer at age 51, when I was in my early 20’s and had just graduated with a degree in clothing design. My mother had also recently died suddenly turning my whole world upside down. My biggest motivation in moving forward was making my parents proud. With the education they had given me, all the experiences and adventures helped guide me to a place where I could draw strength, knowing that I had the tools to move through life on my own and make good choices, and when needed, bold ones too. How I got to California is a longer story but in short, I had interned at Patagonia in Ventura whilst I was studying for my degree. I fell in love with someone there but we went our separate ways when I returned to England to finish my degree. We reconnected as my father’s health was declining and he invited me to visit him in CA after he passed away. Our whirlwind romance progressed to marriage and I moved to CA to start a new life and ultimately discovered my desire to start my own retail business in 2002. My business succeeded with a lot of blood, sweat and tears but ultimately my first marriage did not.
I am constantly amazed at how fast things have changed during the period I've been in business. When I started with one store, it was just me and a good friend who would help me a few hours a week. I didn’t pay myself for the first several years and was so grateful that anyone came in and bought from me. It would light me up when I sold a t-shirt. I think the first week I was open I maybe sold a handful of tee shirts and a couple of candles that I’m convinced were pity purchases from passersby who were hoping to do their part to keep me in business. And over time, the word got out that I was committed and hungry to build something meaningful. When I started, there was no online shopping, we didn’t send emails or texts and there was no social media. So the only way to connect with a customer was through physical connection. With my experience working retail jobs as a teen and living in different countries, I find it easy to connect with people and am always curious to learn what makes people tick. I would scribble down every customer’s name and address when I helped them and I would send them a thank you letter for shopping on letterhead stationery that I had made. It was beautifully simple and very, very small. I know at the time, the store's growth felt agonizingly slow, but I’m very determined by nature and knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to give up on the dream. Fast forward to today with my wonderful husband, Jeffrey who I married in 2013, three stores and an online business, plus social media channels and a highly accomplished and competent team, and it’s a totally different experience. The pace is exponentially faster and the days are longer. From updating social media with fresh content daily to getting all our new goodies online, to creating weekly blog posts to stay connected to customers (even when I’m traveling or spending time on the East coast), it’s an added layer of the day to day of running retail stores. And one of the biggest parts of my job has always been, and still is, buying. What started out as buying clothes for DIANI, has evolved into buying shoes, bags and accessories for DIANI Shoes and now home and wellness goodies for DIANI Living. So, I’m constantly searching for new brands and elements that add to the storytelling of DIANI.
WHAT MAKES DIANI UNIQUE?
For as long as I can remember, my passion has been exploring the why behind that feeling you get when you’re surrounded by things that move you and make your soul sing. I find so much joy in bringing to life this idea through clothing, home decor and wellness essentials. It’s the DNA of my company: inspiration, community, experience. We are all inspired by art and design, we share the desire to feel connected, and the DIANI experience offers that. I've also been exploring the question, what does the soul of small business mean to me? And, I believe it means knowing and understanding the intention behind the ethos of my company, the experience, the people, the merchandise, the storytelling and the symbiotic relationship between what I buy, from whom and why I buy it. What I’ve also learned to understand through my own experiences shopping, especially in America is that bigger isn’t always better. What I genuinely love is walking up to a cluster of local shops knowing that I will be greeted with a familiar face. They will know my name and I’ll be welcomed in and taken care of as if walking into their home. That lights me up and feeds my soul, especially in a time where so many feel so disconnected, and the world looks and feels so unfamiliar. We need connection. To people, to our community, to humanity and to ourselves. I want to really examine what feeds us, nourishes us - mind, body and spirit, and what feels right for the planet.
WE HAVE TO ASK – WEST COAST OR EAST COAST?
I get asked this question a lot and the great thing is, Jeffrey and I have worked towards having the best of both over the last decade. We were able to buy our place in Upstate NY in 2016 and that really gave us all the things that we missed - seasons, easy access to NYC culture, less back and forth on buying trips, and closer proximity to friends. It would be impossible to choose one coast because both offer so much.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENTS?
Number one for me has to be finding Jeffrey and being on our journey for the last 11 years. We all know that relationships are challenging and I know I’m becoming a better person because of him and I want to continue to grow with him. I’ve never been with anyone before who I want to tough it out with and who will always make me feel safe. He’s very special.
I’m also very proud of the business I’ve built and the opportunities that has given to everyone who has been a part of it over the last 20 years. It’s a very unique community of co-workers and customers and in many ways, we feel like a big family.
And having our pad in Upstate NY has helped me find a lot of what I was looking for personally and professionally. I’m able to connect with customers who shop with us all over the country, understand how they tick and live their lives in different climates, etc. which informs how I source and buy for them.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE IRENE FORTE SKINCARE?
I am always looking for skincare that’s clean but also offers visible results. Oftentimes, I find lines that perform well, but contain harmful ingredients, or a line will be so clean that it has no sensory element and more importantly does nothing to improve my skin concerns. For me at my age, I have very dehydrated skin that is still reactive - I get breakouts which are very quickly made worse if products are overly rich or oily. This summer, I was in England and visited one of my favorite stores, Liberty’s and stumbled upon Irene Forte. A really helpful representative of the collection walked me through the concept of provenance of ingredients and that theirs are grown on an organic farm in Sicily, Italy and that their line is all skin type friendly with proven effectiveness. As I started trying each product, the incredible fragrances stood out and the texture of the serums and creams felt amazing on my skin. Now, 3 months later I can say my skin is less red, dehydrated and all my breakouts are gone. The science behind the brand works and the nutrient dense ingredients reveal your best skin. I’m hooked!
WHAT DOES SELF-CARE MEAN TO YOU?
I believe that success is relative/subjective. When I think back now, 20 years ago to what success meant to me, it was hard work, dedication, having goals, opening stores all over the country, traveling around the world and having all the things I desired. When you're starting from scratch and you have relatively little by way of financial resources, it’s a natural thought that the goal should be working towards having more. Whist pursuing my dream, I realized at a certain point, success can only be enjoyed if I’m as dedicated to thriving physically, emotionally and mentally - In other words, self-care. It’s impossible to celebrate all that’s going well and build on that if I’m exhausted and depleted. Now, success to me means having at the center of my life as a businesswoman, good health, family, supportive friends and shelter where I can recharge. And on top of that, inspiration. I think if I’m inspired by my daily life, I’m successful. The size and scope of my business is only important in that it can sustain itself. Beyond that, it’s gravy. The richness in my life comes from the experiences I’m having while inspiring, being inspired and creating a community around me that I can give to and receive from. This kind of ecosystem is where I can thrive and where I’m putting my energy as I look to the next 20 years of DIANI.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED?
As I have further back to look now on this whole experience with DIANI, I think my inspiration goes deeper than what I had originally thought. Yes, I had recently graduated with a degree and, yes I was inspired to be creative and curate a point of view. But deep down there were so many markers growing up that laid a foundation of confidence that I have in myself. That’s not to say that I don’t get terrified or daunted by what I’ve built, but I know deep down if what I’m working on is coming from a place of authenticity, I can’t go wrong. I am forever grateful for my upbringing – being born in Kenya and raised in England by parents who were very grounded, fun loving and adventurous. My father was a businessman and successful rugby player and I really looked up to him. Whatever it was that I was into at any given period in my childhood, and there were some wacky things, he would say, “go for it.” In turn, what I was quietly observing with him was his dedication to his job and his attention to detail. He was Retail Operation Director for a bakery chain in England called Greggs (still around and bigger than ever). He would take me around the local Greggs shops as a child and his office sometimes after work and I was fascinated by the “magic” he appeared to create. When I was old enough to have a Saturday job, one of the Greggs bakeries was where I worked, putting pastries in the oven and ringing up customers, and I loved it. Greeting everyone with a smile and seeing how happy I could make them as they left, it was my first experience of making a difference in a stranger’s day. That’s where the retail part of my DNA was born. The ritual of opening up in the morning, turning on the lights, sweeping the floor, firing up the ovens, stocking the shelves with fresh baked goods, the smell of warm bread, putting on the Greggs uniform with apron and hat... it was so exciting. And that anticipation of not knowing what the day had in store was very invigorating and something that I love to this day. There is nothing predictable about retail. And, it shouldn't go unchecked that during my informative years, we had a female Prime Minister in England, so I was learning very early and from multiple sources, that girls could grow up to be anything they wanted to be with enough tenacity and hard work. I know this doesn’t technically answer your question, but I think all of these markers were seeds of advice or signals that guided me to where I am now.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
If I was to talk to myself 20 years ago, I would say, “whilst you plot your vision for your business and for what your life will look like, also set a plan for how you’ll maintain your joy and wellbeing.” It’s all too easy to go into high speed overdrive only to find the years evaporating, realize that you've lost sight of yourself, and put off much needed opportunities to reset the priorities. If I'm a shell of myself after accomplishing my goals, I haven’t succeeded. I'm the embodiment of my own vision and my wholeness and vitality are essential. There's an art to dedicating to one's craft, and that requires an equal measure of dedication to taking care of oneself. I never imagined I would be part of something continuously for so many years - same career, same level of dedication, same amount of love for it. And, if there’s one take away from the crazy almost 3 years we’ve had, it's that mental health is more critical than ever in maintaining equilibrium, and achieving the kind of artful living I dream of. And I hope I'm able to inspire that idea with friends, my team, and all those I care about so that we can continue supporting each other. I have a clearer and deeper appreciation for what I have right in front of me. I have so much and I need so little to find peace and contentment. I have gratitude for having someone to love and who loves me back, for a team who show up for me and my business, for customers and their unwavering support, for friends and their ability to feed my soul. When I was able to strip away so many feelings of doubt, my needs became very simple. Get up and show up for everyone I care about, even if I don’t have all the answers.