Alen Sands York
Warren Shoulberg -- Home Textiles Today, 5/14/2012 2:00:00 AM
Look up the phrase renaissance man in any dictionary having to do with this industry and chances are the first reference you'll find is to one Alen Sands York. Literally born into the home textiles business - his mother Rose York is considered one of the true pioneers of the business and perhaps the first to create coordinated bedding ensembles - York has spent his fair share of time in the world of sheets and towels, but that hasn't stopped him from having parallel careers in advertising, public relations, shipping and marine activities, automobiles, alcoholic spirits, medical technology and other assorted endeavors. Not to mention his long-time proprietorship of the vintage Chinese junk Mon Lei.
These days you'll find him at Stellar Alliance, the importer and marketing company he founded and continues to help run as a partner. It was in Stellar's midtown Manhattan offices that we sat down with York, who turns 80 this year, for our interview.
HTT: How did you get started in the home textiles business?
Alen Sands York: My grandfather had started a feather company and in 1950 when I was 18 I started working with my mother there at the company, New York Feather Co. Rose and I worked as a team. She deserves the credit. I was a back-up guy, having worked in public relations and advertising. I did the design and she did the selling.
Back then there weren't any prints. Maybe there was some lace or embroidery, but there was no coordination of anything and everything was very basic.
So there had to be somebody to start the process and that was Rose. She decided the whole industry was boring. The first thing we did was get the department stores to put pillows into the bedding department and we turned them into impulse items.
Nobody else was doing it, but Rose was and I'm proud of what we did..
HTT: If you hadn't gone into this field, what would you have done?
ASY: I've done it. I had an ad agency with clients like Datsun and Saeco. I wrote for business publications in the shipping and marine industries. I was an importer bringing in beer from Hong Kong. I developed a car.
We don't design anything in this business because we're an aftermarket industry. We style things. We have talented people, but they're not designers.
The only thing that differentiates me is that I've been in other industries and learned from other businesses. I've run parallel lives.
HTT: When did you know you were going to be successful in this business?
ASY: I don't know if I am a success. The only thing I'm successful at is in sticking around and still being here.
I consider myself a success in limited areas such as the medical devices I'm involved in developing in Germany right now.
HTT: What single accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
ASY: The single accomplishment was helping to transform our dull, boring industry to what is considered the normal industry today. Back when I started, the sheet mills didn't realize that comforters were the focal points of the bed and they could drive sales. We weren't the only ones doing it, but we inspired everyone else. I'm proud to have been part of the team with Rose that did this. It didn't just happen, somebody had to do it.
HTT: If you had to do something over, what would it be and how would you do it differently?
ASY: What I should have done is purchase other companies when I could have. We should have acquired companies with mills in the 1960s and 1970s.
We were successful in some things and some things we bombed in.
From a totally different standpoint, I probably should have never gone to work. I was an artist before I got involved in the industry. I was selling paintings and didn't have to work.
I bought the junk in 1955 (now docked in Connecticut after a long run at Manhattan piers) with the idea of living in Cuba, but Castro came along and changed my plans.
HTT: What's the single-biggest change you've seen in the industry?
ASY: I haven't seen anything new in the business for a long time.
HTT: If you could do one thing to improve the industry's overall business, what would it be?
ASY: Invent something new. I don't have anything special yet, but I'm looking at the space and medical fields for input. Maybe we take a pill and we think we've slept the night.
We need great new products, people will respond to color and design, but you need to go beyond just that.
HTT: What's your exit strategy?
ASY: To stay around as long as possible. And I've done better in that respect than others. I will be 80 this year; Rose worked until she was 90. I have enough things to keep me busy right now.
I want to keep doing this and many other things. There's a TV show I'm working on...
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