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Cut From a Different Cloth

Craig Conover gets candid about his business, creative interests, and staying true to himself.

“So, what was he like in real life?”

This question was asked no less than half a dozen times when I shared that I’d interviewed Craig Conover, of reality TV’s “Southern Charm” fame, for our cover story. “Was he … nice? Is he this? Is he that?” 

I couldn’t help but laugh. Sure, he was very nice - genuinely so. But after an hour of conversation about his business, Sewing Down South (SDS), and other miscellany, I actually walked away most impressed by what Craig Conover is not.

Beyond all of the lights, cameras, and action that inevitably accompany a life lived in the public eye, Craig is refreshingly unconcerned with what anyone thinks of him. “How do you do that?” I asked, as I’m not sure I could ever get there. 

What I found is that his lack of concern over others’ opinions is not due to a flippancy, some hardened sense of fame-induced apathy. Rather, it appears the opposite is true, as this can grow organically, from a softer place. This sense of self-assured purpose and confidence is rooted in his past, apparent in its present tense, and will likely continue thriving in his future.

Because neither Craig nor his business is going anywhere, anytime soon. 

***

I arrived early to The Sweetgrass Lounge and was met by Jack Gilchrist, SDS's Marketing Manager. We busied ourselves selecting pillows to showcase, ultimately deciding on a handful that worked best with the plastered walls and perfectly-imperfect backdrop provided by the lounge’s impressive space. We enjoyed a quick tour of the bottling facility and a sampling of their (to-die-for) espresso martini before settling into a discussion which confirmed my suspicion that there is much more to SDS and its founder than meets the eye.

***

A confession. 

I hopped in my car after our interview and looked down at my phone in mild horror. I’d apparently been so absorbed that I’d forgotten to press “play,” on my recorder. Great, I thought, the realization settling in like a small tragedy. I was left with my little yellow notebook that had nothing more than random, barely legible words scrawled in every direction across a single page. Positivity. Passion. Local. Community. 

I sat with these cryptic, pseudo-notes for a few minutes and began attaching them to different parts of our conversation. Their purpose showed up for me after all, these words, like breadcrumbs, bits and pieces of his story to be followed, helping to bring the whole back into focus. 

Positivity

Craig alluded to reservations about starting his business at 31, fearing it may have been too late. “I thought I was too old,” he laughed. “But today is always the first day of the rest of your life, and while that’s cheesy, it’s so true.” So, he jumped; head-first and all the way in, working out of his home and making pillows to order. “It was horrible,” he lamented, expressing an almost tangible sense of relief at the evolution the business has enjoyed since it began in 2018.

In addition to the downtown store, SDS has a shipping and fulfillment warehouse in North Charleston. “This is great for several reasons,” Jack noted, explaining how it’s harder to get as much done when Craig is in the store, as people are always wanting to meet him, and he always obliges. So, having a second location for logistics has been a boon to the business’s overall efficiency.

But he still stops by, you can still catch him in their flagship King Street location posing for photos, signing merchandise, and even occasionally slinging beer. “We have a keg in the store!” Jack noted, supporting Craig’s description of how dedicated the business is to keeping things fun and positive. “We want to uplift - that’s the goal,” Craig explained. “We want to celebrate and champion inclusivity, creativity. We want to challenge norms and push back against cultural stereotypes a little bit.”

Passion

“I was severely bullied as a kid,” Craig shared. “The cooking and sewing I did in home economics class gave me a way out of that, it was an escape. Sewing is something that I’ve always loved, despite other people not understanding it.”

But as it turns out, our passions don’t require others’ understanding to survive, to flourish even. SDS’s continued success stands as a testament to that fact. “You can’t let the bad things that happen to you stop you. If you do, then it’s really no one’s fault but your own.” 

This is a universal truth that bears repeating, as much of creative work looks like this. You just keep going, building bridges and dodging their trolls … working until you’ve created your something from nothing, an everyday sort of magic that is accessible to all. It can be as simple as a bed pillow, or as spectacular as a thriving business; the idea is the same. Put your head down, narrow your vision until the critics fall away, and just keep doing what you love, these extraordinary ordinary things. 

The relentless pursuit of passion, coupled with the goal of creating a positive impact on this region, has led to a steadily growing business that is well-positioned to give back. Creation of the Craig Conover Foundation is under way, established with the intention of expanding charitable efforts. SDS has donated sewing machines to local high schools, furthering its mission to support the creative arts. They consistently donate to various charities, and are active supporters of the South Carolina Special Olympics. Through the sale of their Bahamian Lobster Pillow, they raised funds for Hurricane Dorian. They partnered with MUSC’s Hollings Cancer Center and have worked with Uplift Charleston, serve the city’s homeless population.

This type of service and attention paid to its hometown runs as the very bloodline of SDS. “This is our ethos; Charleston is a part of everything we do.”

Radically Local

“I knew I had a good idea,” Craig recalled of his first inklings about his future business. “But I needed help. I’m a team-oriented person, but initially had trouble letting different aspects of the business go. But I knew I needed to bring people in to manage things that weren't aligned with my own skill set.” 

CEO and co-founder, Jerry Casselano, and Chief Marketing Officer and co-owner, Amanda Latifi, bring different assets to the table, completing an executive team that not only thrives on each of their individual skills, but also on their collective belief in the importance of incorporating the community into everything possible. 

Tucked in between a series of bars and eateries, their store occupies what any local will tell you is an impressively large space in the heart of King Street’s bustling shopping district. “People from out of town comment that it looks bigger on TV,” Jack said, smiling. In a city where the first streets were laid in the 17th century, most of Charleston’s buildings are long and deep, with very little street-side frontage, helping to make the best use of space. 

“Charlestonians know better,” he said, with a conspiratorial smile. “They’ll walk through the doors and immediately comment on how huge the store is. It’s one way we can always spot a local."

Once misunderstood and perhaps a bit misrepresented, in its early days SDS was like this loose thread, just hanging off to the side of the tight-knit fabric of downtown Charleston. Today, a different reality has settled in. Always quick to recommend a nearby eatery and never one to shy away from a chance to sing its city’s praises, this is a business that may be sweeping the nation, but its roots are firmly planted in Southern ground. 

As I write this, SDS has 16 employees, many of whom are either current or former College of Charleston students. Furthermore, they work with eight different families across the Carolinas to produce all of their pillows - they are not outsourced overseas. “It’s intimidating to produce things locally,” Craig admitted. “It’s harder, more costly.” But doing things this way is non-negotiable, regardless.

Passion

Like so many business origin stories, this one begins with wonder. With trepidation and some self-doubt in tow, Craig sort of fumbled his way into his own mystery, letting his passion lead the way, and not really knowing whether his business would work or not, despite having confidence in the idea. Whether you have a huge platform and are in the public eye, or are starting from scratch, some truths are just universal. We throw our hands up in surrender, letting curiosity and passion carry us around on their backs for a while. 

The bullying Craig experienced as a kid thickened his skin, forming a protective shield of sorts that would serve to help ward off criticisms, judgment, and negativity. When we focus less on what others think, and more on the things that bring us to life, we allow wonder to take the reins, filling us up. As a person who has spent the whole of my creative professional life trying to do exactly this, it was nice to be reminded that this experience is universal in its unfolding. Craig spoke to this quieter part of his story generously, with zero pretense, making it relatable, unique to him though it was.

We do this. We tell our stories, holding our realities up like mirrors for others to catch glimpses of themselves in the reflections. Like stitching, they connect us, showing us the way … to the next step, to each other, and back to ourselves. 

***

He shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m best when I’m busy, always working on something new,” Craig explained, citing new endeavors he has in the works. And if they’re anything like SDS, as Craig says, they might just be “silly enough to work.”  As SDS’ Chief Creative Officer, his dreams for the future are very much a reflection of where he is today but just broader, more enriched and informed by the experience and learning that come with growth, with the showing and telling of his own experiences and the wisdom gained from others. 

Despite his initial reservations, Craig Conover’s story is still in its early stages, and it’s clear that he’s the one holding the pen … his drive showing no signs of slowing down, his creative mind bursting at the seams. 

“We want to uplift - that’s the goal,” Craig explained. “We want to celebrate and champion inclusivity, creativity. We want to challenge norms and push back against cultural stereotypes a little bit.”

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