Heavenly pursuits

Stafford's Ethnic Collectibles creates holiday keepsakes

When we die and go to heaven, don’t we all turn into white angels?” asked Keith Stafford’s eight-year-old foster son.

That innocent question, asked five years ago, inspired Stafford and his wife Shereen Emde to launch Stafford’s Ethnic Collectibles in Novato, California. Today, they sell 17 Christmas and Kwanzaa angels and ornaments, ranging from $14 to $45. Initially investing $2,500 of their savings, they sold dreadlocked angels made with a polyfiber body, wooden head and African head wraps, all with authentic African facial features. All 800 ornaments sold, generating $6,000 in gross sales.

“The message was clear,” says Stafford, 45. “People would buy ethnic ornaments if they could find them.”

Although the first batch was handmade in their home, they needed a distributor to produce enough ornaments to be competitive. Stafford linked up with Willitts Designs of Petaluma, California, in 1995 to produce 43,000 units, a deal that included $300,000 in financing for product development, production and distribution for two years. By 1997, Stafford was able to distribute the ornaments himself.

Emde, 31, designs the ornaments that are manufactured by subcontractors in Asia. The Kente cloth is purchased from suppliers in West Africa.

In 1996, Stafford added Kente Claus, the multicultural amalgamation of Santa Claus in a regal African king suit. Even with its high visibility, Stafford says getting the public to accept a new icon is difficult.

Marketing a seasonal product year-round is a challenge. “You have to sell during the off season to have a good holiday season,” adds Stafford

In addition to independent marketing and accounting consultants, Stafford’s has two full-time employees. Cumulative sales for the past three years have exceeded $500,000, and are expected to reach $500,000 this year. Stafford owns a trademark to the Kente Claus name as well as a copyright to the design, which have given him another revenue source to license the character and name. Stafford’s Ethnic Collectibles have been sold through Macy’s, Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Hallmark and Target and are available by mail order (800-565-7799) and on the Web (www. netnoir.com).

Stafford’s Ethnic Collectibles, P.O. Box 701, Novato, CA 94948; 415-892-9934

ACROSS THE WEB