About six years ago, I went to a psychic who told me that someone named Carrie was going to change my life.
Less than a year later, Carrie Eddmenson of Imogene + Willie hired me to be the company’s media director. The job encompassed marketing and public relations – something that as a longtime journalist I never thought I’d want to do, as there’s a bit of a church-and-state thing between the two professions. But as it turns out, I’m good at PR. Today, I have my own agency. Life changing, indeed.
Regardless, my new profession came with more than a bit of a learning curve. I needed some help. So I was only a few months into the job when I began the hunt for an intern. It was a fun gig at a cool company, so a lot of people applied. But Elise Joseph’s application stood out, for two big reasons.
First of all, she wasn't a kid. She had been out of college for a few years and had been working in the music industry, so I knew she had some kind of decent work ethic. And second, she had a great-looking blog called Pennyweight that had a huge following across several channels. It was impressive – especially to someone as social media-challenged as I was then. At the very least, I thought, this savvy new intern could do a killer job running the store’s social accounts. She ended up doing that and much more.
When I left I+W to go solo, Elise gracefully took on many of my roles, all the while continuing to grow Pennyweight (today she has over a million Pinterest and 78K Instagram followers) and make plans to fulfill her longtime goal of opening a store.
Last Monday, that dream came to fruition with the launch of Goodwin, an online capsule retail project featuring a curated collection of goods from some of the country’s best independent and emerging fashion and home designers. All items are designed exclusively for Goodwin and are available in limited quantities only on her website.
Like Pennyweight, Goodwin is executed with extremely good taste. The site’s overall look reflects Elise’s own style, which is clean, refined and sophisticated - the kind of chic that stands out without being a spectacle, that’s notable as much for what it is as for what it isn’t.
With that in mind, it was especially fun to see what Elise chose to wear for her TCR photo shoot, for which she was challenged to choose clothes from my closet, which is packed with bright colors and busy prints – two things that are abundant in my home’s interior design scheme.
Since turn around is fair play, the same day Elise let me have a dress-up party in pieces from Goodwin’s debut collection. I paired them with selections from my personal vintage clothing archives and modeled the resulting outfits in her Belmont Boulevard apartment, which is an oasis of sun-drenched peace and calm.
The wonderful Heidi Ross was the photographer for both shoots. Highlights from Elise’s session, which Heidi christened “Minimalist in a Maximalist World,” are pictured here; you can read Elise’s interview with me and check out my time in front of Heidi’s camera today on Pennyweight.
I really enjoyed doing this post, not least of all because it gave me the chance to spend two blocks of uninterrupted time with Elise, who over the years has become a close and trusted friend – albeit one I don’t see as much as I’d like. Thanks to some career overlap and our shared membership on the board of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, we run into each other in meetings and in passing at events. But by comparison our half-day shoot last week and the four-hour brunch hang we shared a few Sundays ago at my house were downright luxurious.
During our long chat, we reminisced about how we met; shared our thoughts on minimalism versus maximalism; and talked at length about Elise’s career and how it’s been shaped by the evolution of the modern digital landscape - which is really just a high-falutin’ way of saying that we gabbed about how she goes about crafting the very special voice and unique visual profile she displays on Pennyweight and now Goodwin.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
TCR: You were the first and only person I interviewed for the Imogene internship.
ELISE: I don’t think I knew that.
TCR: Yep. You sent me an email with a resume and a link to Pennyweight. And from the start I thought, this girl is good. Her work is good.
ELISE: Was it, though? I think it would be very laughable now. [LAUGHS] It probably wasn’t awesome.
TCR: Well that was, what? 2011? It was definitely good for that time.
ELISE: Blogs weren’t really a big thing then. The only blog I really knew about was The Sartorialist.
TCR: During the interview, I remember asking why you wanted to come intern for us when you were obviously well on your way to building something great on your own. You said that you wanted to learn how to run a business, because you’d always wanted to have a store.
ELISE: Longer than I’d like to admit. It’s been since I was in middle school.
TCR: At any rate, you impressed me. You were very mature.
ELISE: I wasn’t really intern age. I was 25. I had been working in the music industry, which is when I started Pennyweight. So when I saw your “media intern wanted” ad, I was like, Imogene + Willie is a great brand. They’ve gotten great buzz and have such a cool story. This would be a great opportunity for me to go in and learn about running a business from the ground up. I knew I wasn’t ready to open my store that day. And personally, I was really in a season of thinking, what do I want to do? Who am I?
I was having a really difficult time. I was comparing myself to other people and felt really unsure of what I should be doing. I didn't feel like I had locked into anything that was right yet.
TCR: I could tell you had your act together and were driven, but that you were maybe casting around a little. Which is actually the perfect time to take an internship.
ELISE: I always felt like I was good at a lot of different things. But I thought I needed to have that one thing that I excelled at. So I wanted to come in and grow and learn. I think that time was when I was able to realize — through Imogene, through Pennyweight — what my gift is and what I’m really good at. And that’s making things beautiful.
That’s why I got into styling for a little while. I was really interested in working with designers who had a collection that I could make as beautiful as possible. I feel like that was me locking into something.
And on Pennyweight, I love to share the stories of things that I find interesting and beautiful: clothes, designers, things for my house, whatever.
TCR: Do you remember your first Pennyweight posts?
TCR: I know – it’s like thinking back on a bad high school haircut or something. I feel the same way about my early newspaper clippings.
ELISE: It’s a little painful to bring up. [LAUGHS] I really looked at Pennyweight as a creative outlet while I was working at the record label. It was my connection to fashion. A lot of it was similar to what I'm doing now, but the taste was a little different.
But then I started getting comments here and there, and I’m like, who are these people? Where are they coming from? Because social media wasn’t what it was now. So I was like, someone’s reading? People are interested in this?
Still, I knew it wasn’t where it needed to be. I ended up going to a blogger conference, and I had a moment there where I was like, what am I doing? I realized I wouldn’t read my blog.
TCR: That story is what got you hired! [LAUGHS] It told me how self-aware and conscientious you were.
ELISE: That's right - I told you that in the interview! I knew I needed to make some changes. So I started pursuing a new direction, which is sharing my discoveries and brands that I love, the places I find myself going back to, the music I’m listening to. In some ways, it was bringing a personal aspect into what I was doing, without being like, “Here’s what I did this weekend.” You know?
It’s a constant balance because Pennyweight has very much turned into a business. So it’s like, how do I be me and be real with people but also keep some things personal and private?
TCR: When do you think Pennyweight became a brand? I feel like Pennyweight has really exploded over the last three years.
ELISE: I feel like it happened organically as social media started growing in popularity. I got onboard the Pinterest train pretty early, and was able to grow a big following there. They featured me (as a pinner), which was how I was able to get a lot of the numbers that I have now. Companies started reaching out and I started doing partnerships and events. That’s when I feel like Pennyweight turned into a brand. It’s been fun for me to work with and partner with other people and businesses. It’s cool because I’ll work with a small indie designer and then I’ll work with like, Benjamin Moore.
But I’m careful about what I say yes to. I say no the majority of the time. I’m not going to do something just to get paid — and I do get paid for some things. A lot of projects I’ll do just because I believe in the brand or the person. It would be easy to say, “Yeah, I can post a picture about this if you’re going to pay me.” But I want to make sure that there’s more to what I’m doing than that. And at this point, it’s saying yes only to things that make sense to me.
TCR: The funny thing about “becoming” a brand is that people kind of have to tell you when you are one, you know? It’s not a decision you get to make on your own.
ELISE: I’ve been on some fashion-blogger-conference panels. And every so often, people ask, “How do I turn blogging into a business that makes money?” It’s hard for me to tell someone how to do that because it wasn't my intention. I’m so grateful for it, but Pennyweight was an outlet that turned into a really unique and special business. It opened a lot of doors and allowed me to work with people that I may not have thought about working with before.
TCR: What’s been the biggest surprise for you, in terms of somebody reaching out and wanting to work with you?
ELISE: The Sartorialist was huge for me, because that was the blog that I looked to (in terms of how to grow Pennyweight). I met Scott Schuman through Chad Davis (a former I+W employee who is now a NYC-based fashion photographer). Chad was like, “Scott is coming to Nashville. Can I hook you guys up so you can show him around?” That was probably 2012. And it was just full circle, you know?
And then recently, I was featured in Domino. I loved Domino so much when I was younger.
TCR: I’ve got every issue from back when it was a monthly.
ELISE: Oh yeah, I still have them, too. So I was thrilled to work with them.
TCR: Let’s talk about Goodwin. How does it fit into the picture? Like, what does the Pennyweight/Goodwin Venn diagram look like? Where do the two overlap?
ELISE: Well, as I’ve said, I wasn’t intending for Pennyweight to be a brand, and definitely not for it to be my store. So, while it’s such a big extension of me, I knew that the store had to be a little different. I wanted to be really intentional in my approach.
I remember having coffee with Van (Tucker, the CEO of the Nashville Fashion Alliance) and asking her about how I should move forward. I told her that I had Pennyweight but that I wanted to do a store called Goodwin and that I was also Elise Joseph, a consultant. Van explained that they were all extensions of me. She said, “I’m Van, but I’m also Mom and I’m a wife and I’m work-Van. But it’s all under the same umbrella.” That really clicked for me: I can be all of these things, but Goodwin can live on its own. It’s a part of me but I want to open it up to everybody. I don’t want to be the face, like I am with Pennyweight.
You know, people think my name is Penny.
TCR: That’s hilarious.
ELISE: Right? So Pennyweight is clearly me. But with Goodwin, I wanted something that was reflective of me but built from the ground up. I’m not going to be in all the photos (on Goodwin’s Instagram account). I’m trying to draw a line there. I’m hoping people can see bits of me in it through little details, like the packaging or the design or the color. I still feel like Goodwin’s look is “very Elise,” or “very Pennyweight.” It’s not a total left turn.
TCR: During the Pennyweight pop-up last summer at Wilder, what surprised you most about how people responded to what you had chosen to be in the store?
ELISE: Oh, man. I loved getting to see firsthand what people liked instead of trying to figure it out from behind a computer screen. To really connect with people about what they were seeing was super-cool. I think Nashvillians are really open and interested in learning about new designers and new brands.
TCR: What did folks dig the most?
ELISE: People loved Lauren Winter, and I’m excited to work with her again on Goodwin. They liked 7115, which is a New York brand. No one really knew (Szeki, the designer), and she’s not sold anywhere in this region. And then some local brands, too. At the time, Elizabeth Suzann didn’t have a showroom like she has now, where people can come and shop. So I think people enjoyed seeing some of her pieces in person and getting to try things on. Being able to touch and connect with the actual garment is powerful.
TCR: With that in mind, is your intention still to take Goodwin on the road at some point?
ELISE: Yeah, and even turn it into brick and mortar eventually, too. But I feel like starting this way makes a lot of sense. And obviously it’s a lot less overhead: I’m able to grow a little more intentionally without getting in over my head at first.
But I’m excited to lead with what I think is really an interesting concept of partnering with designers to create exclusive pieces that aren’t available anywhere else. It’s a Goodwin collection, but it’s with 30 different designers.
TCR: I love how many indie fashion communities are represented in the mix.
ELISE: Yeah, there are several from Portland. I spent a few months living there and I’ve always felt connected to the city. There is a great creative community there.
TCR: There’s a reason Imogene + Willie opened their second store there, you know? Portland and Nashville have a nice creative simpatico.
ELISE: Yeah, I agree. The local angle is really important to me, because there’s so much amazing stuff happening in Nashville. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s an exciting time to be here. I’m a Nashville native and it’s been so cool to watch how it’s grown over time. I really wanted to represent that. So over a third of the first collection is from Nashville designers.
TCR: What inspired Goodwin? Like, what are some of your favorite shops?
ELISE: Stores like Totokaelo and Bird - I think (owner Jen Mankins) does an amazing job. Need Supply: they’ve been changing a lot lately, which is cool to see. There’s a store called Mille in Minneapolis, and Idun in St. Paul. Dalia is the owner there; she’s got amazing taste. And from my time living in L.A., I love Mohawk General.
I really connect to the style in L.A. — the ease. It’s very laid back. I spent a lot of time in Venice Beach. Almost daily, I’d walk down Abbott Kinney to get breakfast at the Gjelina Take Away — the GTA. Just standing in line, I would find so much inspiration from the people and what they wore. They’d be in like, pajamas, but they were still super-chic.
TCR: Something I realized recently is that the look that I identify as minimalist is really a sort of West Coast casual. You have it, and I love it. It’s beautiful. Do you describe yourself as a minimalist?
ELISE: Yes and no. I think I’m definitely more minimalist than maximalist. But I think sometimes I associate a minimal look with a cold or sterile feeling. I think that that’s beautiful, too, and I can be very inspired by it in the same way that I’m inspired by a maximalist thing. But for me, it’s somewhere in the middle. I skew more minimalist, but I try to bring in things that have stories or meaning. I’m always thinking about warmth, and texture is a really big thing for me, both in fashion and my home. I need a mix.
TCR: Do people think that they know you because they read your blog?
ELISE: Yeah. But it’s funny to talk about because I’m not a celebrity.
TCR: Arguable. Some people’s eyes get really big when they meet you. I’ve seen it.
ELISE: Well, that’s flattering. And like I said, people do call me Penny a lot, and clearly I know then that they follow me.
TCR: It’s like an actor getting confused with the role he plays… Actually, that’s not a good metaphor. What you do is different because you’re representing your honest, true life.
ELISE: I’m just trying to be intentional and authentic. At this point, when I post something online, it looks a certain way. But that can be hard because my life isn’t beautiful every day, you know? While this picture may be pretty, to the right of it might be my dirty dishes in the sink! And I’m not trying to act like I don’t have dirty dishes in the sink, but that’s not the brand that I’ve created.
I try to find beauty in the present. Finding ways to capture the things that are really natural and not having everything be so styled or so perfect. I think there’s so much beauty in the imperfect — that that’s what is beautiful, you know? So I try to remind myself of that and to not over-think things or try too hard to make images look a certain way. But I also realize that people are looking at my brand for a certain theme.
TCR: There’s a really interesting balance you have to strike there.
ELISE: Well, even Jordan, the model that I worked with (for the Goodwin website imagery) — she couldn't believe I didn't want to pin everything to make it fit. She shoots a lot of e-commerce, and in so much of that the clothes get pinned to make them look a certain way. But I really want to represent the boxy and oversized things for what they are.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve put myself in a box with Pennyweight, which is this very clean, beautiful, very certain thing. And sometimes I’m like, ugh, I just want to shake it up!
So Goodwin is a little bit of an outlet for me in that sense. It’s still very pretty, but I just want to show pretty in different ways, and not necessarily the pretty I’ve created for Pennyweight. It’s fun for me.
TCR: There’s something I’m curious about that I’ve been meaning to ask you: How do you like to refer to what you do online? Do you consider yourself a blogger?
ELISE: Well, kind of. There are all these terms and I don’t really like any of them. Blogger, influencer — you know? I’m most active on Instagram and Pinterest. And I do have a blog, so I am a blogger in that sense. But that’s probably the thing that I update the least. But then I wouldn’t call myself, like, an Instagrammer or a Pinterest-er, you know? [LAUGHS] So I think “blogger” fits within what I’m doing, but it’s not the end-all be-all.
TCR: Sometimes I’ll read someone’s bio where they’ll describe themself as an influencer. And I’m like, give me a break.
ELISE: Oh, I know. That word makes me want to throw up. Blogger is way better.
TCR: Influencer just feels so self-important. “I influence people.” I get it as a concept and I actually use it quite a bit in my professional life – everyone I work with wants to have “influencers” on their side. And for good reason. But in general, the word doesn't sit well with me.
ELISE: Totally. But I don’t know what the right word is. There are all these different facets to what I do. Sometimes I’m a blogger, sometimes I’m a consultant, sometimes I’m a storeowner. I’m always all of those things, but really, whatever hat I’m wearing at that moment, that’s what I am.
Our multi-talented friend Heidi Ross is a whiz with words and visuals. An accomplished photographer, copywriter and graphic designer, she currently does creative direction and content creation for brands and artists. You’ve likely seen her photography on album covers, book jackets, or the walls at Third Man Records, which hosted her ILK: Similars 2004-2016 exhibit earlier this summer. Follow Heidi on Instagram at @heidirossphoto.