Behind the rise and rise of Aussie designer furniture brand Sarah Ellison

Known for its modern aesthetic and original designs – you’ve probably seen its ‘Huggy’ chair on Instagram – Australian designer furniture brand Sarah Ellison has just launched what it believes will be its next big hit: the 70s-inspired, modular ‘Float’ sofa in Piccolo, a custom, chocolate-brown colour that the brand created in collaboration with the Pantone Color Institute.   Pantone has previously created custom colours for the likes of Valentino, which showed its Fall/Winter 20

2022-23 collection almost entirely in its signature PP Pink, and American football star Tom Brady, who used Brady Blue for the launch of his activewear line. But this marks the first time the company has worked with a designer in the home category, as well as an Australian designer.

The collaboration, which launched globally on Thursday, heralds Sarah Ellison’s ambitions to move beyond its current status as a cult “Instagram brand” to become a global name that is synonymous with iconic furniture design, like Eames. 

“Someone like Pantone has that authority in the design world, so we were thrilled that they wanted to partner with us,” Leigh McKeown, co-founder and managing director of Sarah Ellison, told Inside Retail. 

The collaboration is the latest major milestone for the brand after it clinched a deal with Design Within Reach (DWR), an American furniture chain owned by Miller Knoll, considered the LVMH of the furniture world, to distribute Sarah Ellison products online and through its network of 45 bricks-and-mortar stores in the US. 

The brand has enjoyed a positive response to its first collection, which debuted in DWR in February, and it expects the US market to represent the bulk of its revenue within the next 12 months.  

“It’s selling like hotcakes. The first month, our ‘Muse’ sofa became the best-selling sofa at DWR, which kind of blew our minds,” McKeown said.

From Australia to the world

The brand was founded by McKeown, a former publicist, and Sarah Ellison, a former style editor at Real Living, in 2017 to fill a gap in the market for designer furniture that didn’t break the bank. 

“There was the really high-end stuff that Sarah was shooting in magazines, and then there were the Ikeas and the Freedoms. We just didn’t have that middle market in Australia,” McKeown recalled.

It wasn’t until the co-founders actually started trying to produce original designs at an accessible price point that they realised why the gap existed. 

“We had some blind naivety,” McKeown said, which is something that “all founders do,” Ellison added.

“You have the idea, but you don’t know how hard it’s going to be,” she told Inside Retail. 

The co-founders persevered, learning the ins and outs of overseas manufacturing and building a large following on social media, thanks in large part to Ellison’s eye for creating captivating visuals and McKeown’s talent for branding and storytelling. 

But their success on social media belied their small size; McKeown and Ellison didn’t hire their first team member until the beginning of 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. 

“It was two weeks before lockdown, and we didn’t know what was going to happen,” McKeown recalled. “I was going to pull all the stock out of the warehouse and put it in a shed on a farm until it was over.” 

Of course, the opposite happened. Operating primarily online at the time, Sarah Ellison was one of countless e-commerce businesses that benefited from the cocooning trend during Covid. The brand has had a small bricks-and-mortar presence in Australia through furniture retailer Life Interiors for the past few years.

Sales went through the roof, rising over 300 per cent in 2020 alone, and the brand has been growing rapidly ever since.

“In 18 months, we’ve [grown to have] 10 full-time employees, and another 10 consultants working on the business,” McKeown said.

He noted that the DWR deal happened during the pandemic, and stressed the fact that the American furniture chain discovered the brand the same way most of its customers do – on Instagram. 

“Without social, we’d be a very different business,” he said. “It [confirms] the content-first strategy we had from the get-go.”

Seeking external investment

If the rise of Sarah Ellison over the last two years seems fast, it’s nothing compared to what the brand has in store. It is currently in the process of extending its US partnership with DWR, the initial agreement was for 12 months, and it is considering a possible expansion into Europe. 

It also plans to start manufacturing some of its products in the US to enable faster delivery to that market. Its products are currently manufactured in a handful of countries, primarily in Southeast Asia.

“We’re really doubling down on the US and investing heavily there because that’s where the opportunity is,” McKeown said.

He noted that DWR has enabled Sarah Ellison to achieve in six months what it took four years to achieve on its own in Australia, and the business is now doubling in size every six months. Its growth is both profitable and sustainable, he said.  

Most significantly, after bootstrapping the business for the past five years, McKeown and Ellison are speaking to a number of private equity firms about potential outside investment for the first time. 

“We are in a position where we don’t need to take the investment, so it’s only if we find the right strategy that we’ll go down that road,” McKeown said.

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