May 10, 2006

Interview with Zutano's Michael & Uli Belenky

in Interviews

Zutano is an internationally distributed children’s clothing, accessories, and plush toy company based in the green hills of Cabot, Vermont.  Started in 1989, we recently we sat down with husband and wife founders Uli and Michael Belenky.

Color and pattern inspiration

How do you start work for the next season’s collection?  What does your creative process look like?
Uli: We start with the colors. We review our current assorted color palette, and see what new colors we will add for the next season. That’s what Zutano is all about – the mixing and matching of color.  Next, I source an assortment of textiles and yarns that will work with my new collection concepts. Silhouettes and textural elements go hand in hand, following the season’s new theme or mood we picked.

Uli Belenky at work

What makes Zutano stand out from other clothing designers and manufacturers?
Michael: Zutano is a design company foremost. We’re proud of our high print quality and superior 100% cotton interlock fabric, and we carefully select our graphics, colors, stripes and geometrics. But most of all, we strive to express a child’s individuality through fashion, using clothing as an expression and canvas.

Color Inspiration StudyCan you describe your approach to building a new season’s collection?
Michael: Each season we put together a large array of prints and colors.  Zutano is about a wardrobe of clothes that is playful and has versatility.  Our combinations of tops and bottoms and other pieces are unlimited.  We work from the knowledge that every baby is unique, and that cultural differences are not enough to express their individuality.  Coming from the graphic design and architecture world, Uli brings a freshness not commonly found in the garment industry.  Her eclectic background is one of our greatest assets.

Both you and Michael come from creative backgrounds.  What is the interaction you have between each other everyday at work?
Uli:  We do have pretty separate roles in the day-to-day operations, but Michael gets to see all the new developments first, because he is still my most honest critic.

You moved the Zutano headquarters from NY to Vermont in 1991.  What is it like to operate an internationally distibuted design company from a restored farmhouse in Vermont?
Zutano Headquarters in Cabot, Vermont Michael:  When we first moved it was definitely difficult to run an international business from rural Vermont.  Cabot is essentially a small farm town.  But I have to say that our growth has coincided with the advent of email and the internet – enabling a greater connectedness.
Uli:  I think there are unique benefits to our location that gives us our character. It also reflects an element of the unexpected that is very important in Zutano’s design philosophy. Also in NYC, where we have a showroom – we’re not located in the garment district.  We turned to a Greenwich Village brownstone into the location for our stand-alone showroom. I think it all adds to the unique personality of our company.

How have you developed as a designer since moving from NY?
Uli:  The move has been very good for me as a designer, it has made me more focused and concentrated.

What or who inspires you?
Uli:  My children, the environment around me, travel, art, etc.  I can get inspiration from a candy wrapper if it is at the right place at the right time.

Can you give an example of an unusual inspiration source?
Zutano Dinosaur PrintUli:  The American Museum of Natural History in New York (home to the single largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world) had me dreaming about those gigantic creatures, and I knew I had to develop a dinosaur print for the collection.

Tell us more about your design team.
Uli:  Besides me, there are two more designers on the team.  One graphic designer and one technical designer, they take care of the web design, a lot of the printed materials and are involved in fit of the garments and many of the wonderful details you see in the collection.  

What are the important details to you?
Uli:  The personal involvement that Michael and myself have in every aspect of the business.  It makes Zutano retain that personal touch that we started out with 16 years ago.

Some last questions to end—who is your favorite artist?
Uli:  I got so many, but Alexander Calder is definitely among the top.

Favorite movie this year?
Uli:  Walk of the Penguin

Where will you travel for pleasure this year?
Uli:  Mexico… I am looking forward to all the color for inspiration.

Uli's Gnome

Latest cool thing you bought for yourself?
Uli:  A gnome pushing a wheelbarrow, which is holding the pens on my desk.

Official Zutano Site 

Previous post:

Next post: