Sheila Gribbin has always had a flair for design. In her native Great Britain, she spent eight years running a successful interiors shop called Dressing Rooms, which showcased her unique furniture and bold, colorful accessory lines.
After she relocated across the pond, however, she had an epiphany, and her designing desires altered accordingly: “Everyone’s got a pillow,” she realized. “More people have got pillows than have mobile phones.” Pillows – not the sort you sleep on, but the pillows that dress up a room, a sofa, a loveseat. Pillows that reflect their owner. Artistically-designed pillows.
As president of the St. Petersburg company The Boutique Pillow, Gribbin, 56, oversees an inventory of more than 600 designs – from abstracts to pastels, jazz to classical, cats to catamarans, dolphins to dogs.
Last month, the company teamed with acclaimed New York designer Steve Luongo to create an exclusive line of pillows featuring his original designs and fabrics.
Each pillow is made by hand, embroidered or digitally printed, and the gel fiber interiors make them fully machine washable – and machine dryable.
Two years since the company launched, with her daughter Ocean Hanna as vice president, Gribbin’s pillows are in a half-dozen local stores, and are sold – by the dozens and by the hundreds – to pillow people around the country.
“I thought of it as sort of a hobby,” Gribbin reports, “maybe selling a few at a time. It was actually my husband, Tom, that was the main cog in creating the business. And obviously I want my right arm here – Ocean was interested enough to say that she would buy her way into the business and become a partner with me. So we all sat down and discussed it, and The Boutique Pillow was born.”
Well, actually, until a few months ago, the business was called My Boutique Pillows. But Michael Lindell, the Minnesota-based creator of the “As Seen on TV” My Pillow, threatened a lawsuit.
Rather than deal with it, the company name was quickly changed to The Boutique Pillow.
That, Hanna believes, was serendipity. She and her mother don’t make bed pillows, anyway. Best to disassociate.
“It was already taking a real artistic turn, and became more about art in pillows – making them more like pieces of artwork that someone would want to own and put on their wall,” she explains. “But instead, you can get comfy with it.”
Back in the days when she was just plain Sheila Kenton from Aldershot, Hampshire, pillows weren’t even a twinkle in Gribbin’s eye.
She’d loved swimming since a very young age, and by her early teens had won numerous local and regional competitions. This led to a passion for the sport of synchronized swimming, at which she exceled – so much so that she was chosen to represent England at competitions and exhibitions all around the world.
She participated in the World Games in Tokyo, and as the recipient of a Churchill Scholarship spent six months in California, training in American synchronized swimming techniques.
All this despite the fact she was, and is, allergic to chlorine. Getting through it, Gribbin says, took “grit and determination … and you smother yourself in baby oil.”
She retired in her early 20s, just when she was becoming eligible for Olympic competition. “If you get to the point when you’re not 100 percent into it any more, and it’s not fair on your coaches and your team members, you just need to walk away from it,” Gribbin says.
“I decided to have a life, because when you’re training that hard, you don’t have one. You don’t go out to discos; you’re up at five in the morning and training until night. Seven days a week.”
She met her first husband while they were both working at Foster’s Menswear in Aldershot. She was also modeling at the time, and was awarded “Sexiest Cashier in the Country” by the clothing chain, and “Sexiest Legs” by the Daily Mirror newspaper.
(Being English, those sorts of things don’t embarrass her all that much – nor does the TV commercial she made for Carling Black Label, an English beer, in which she appears as the sexily swimming Lady of the Lake to temp King Arthur and his mob).
Daughter Ocean came along in 1990; her parents divorced a few years later. “Since Ocean’s been born, it’s been the two of us, all of our lives,” Gribbin exclaims. “She’s my world.”
The two of them moved to Stratford-Upon-Avon to start a new life. She sold cars. She flipped houses. She taught herself to renovate and re-vitalize furniture. She and Ocean bought and sold at “car boots,” the British version of flea markets. “As soon as I could stand, she put me to work,” Hanna says with a grin.
After earning a design degree from the City and Guilds of London Institute, Gribbin opened Dressing Rooms, in Stratford.
“The recession hit and she thought she’d open a company,” laughs her daughter. “But it took off. There were companies closing down around us. They were coming into the showroom and saying to her, ‘I’ve lost my business because of you.’”
Hanna, meanwhile, had become an actor – she attended the Oxford School of Drama – and then a professional chef. Unlike acting, where the hunt is always on for “types,” she says, “There’s hundreds of thousands of chefs, but no chef can cook alike. So I found I could put my own stamp on it.”
She spent a few years traveling, working as a sous chef all over Europe, in Australia and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, her mother had rekindled (through Facebook) a friendship with Tom Gribbin, whom she’d met during her swimming days – the St. Petersburg businessman had been in London, performing with his band.
One across-the-pond visit turned to a series and romance blossomed. They were married in 2015. “All these years on,” she says, “I guess it was meant to be.”
And so the two of them run The Boutique Pillow. The two of them are The Boutique Pillow. Tom, who works with Bill Edwards’ Big3 Entertainment, is there in an advisory capacity, while mother and daughter peddle their wares at morning markets, festivals and home decor events across Florida. Hanna handles the advertising and maintains the website.
The catalog is a combination of original and adapted, existing designs. It’s grown substantially since the company began two years ago. They also do custom designs, including branding for businesses.
“At the beginning, we were selling five or six pillows and thinking ‘That’s good,’” says Gribbin. “But then you start selling 10, 15 pillows. Then 20-odd pillows. Then you start doing bigger events, festivals, selling 40 to 50 pillows at a time.”
She won’t reveal the numbers, but says the profits were good in the first year – and doubled in the second. “That’s not bad going,” she smiles. “Aren’t businesses supposed to lose money in the first couple of years?”
Find The Boutique Pillow at Etcetera, Jackie Z, Coastal Fine Furniture, Blue Cottage and Sunset Beach Shop. Visit the online store here.