Interview: Justine Gilbuena



I've had this interview queued up for a couple of weeks, but obviously things have changed in the world recently. While it was always a good thing, now more than ever it's important to support small businesses. While all of the ones I share are shoppable online, a lot of them depend on conventions or in-person events, and some are dealing with international suppliers. It's a tough situation for all, but today I want to spread a little hope and light.


In times of uncertainty, does it get much better than enamel pins of accordions, sewing machines, and banjos? Take one look at the items that Justine Gilbuena makes and you'll agree with me that no, it does not. I know I overuse this word, but you can't blame me - everything Justine makes is just damn ADORABLE. In addition to pins, she also creates art prints, patches, and stationary, and everything she makes feels like it's infused with a little bit of whimsy and love. Reading her interview answers reminded me why it's so vital to support shops like hers now; Justine wears all of the hats in her business and is putting in the work to run things on her own. It's a shop like this that makes you feel like when you buy something from her, you're buying something personal. And honestly so cute I can't stand it. Enjoy getting to know Justine!


I also want to start sharing my favorite item from each shop I feature. My pick of Justine's? This Meet Me in Montauk enamel pin from my absolute favorite movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.


Q: Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of starting your business? What made you want to do this and how did you turn your art into a business?

A: Throughout college, I worked a number of different jobs but nothing ever felt like the right fit. Instead, I had taken up side projects and hobbies that always absorbed more of my attention and enthusiasm. Funny story is that before designing pins/accessories, I used to make and sell cold process soap. At some point, I realized that I was having more fun designing the packaging than actually making the soap! From there I started learning about surface pattern design which eventually led to the thought, "Ooo, what else can I print my designs on?!?" After that, I designed my first pin and opened my Etsy shop. It was a slow process but the handful of people who purchased and shared their kind feedback really motivated me to design more items and it still keeps me going even now, almost four years later.


Q: What was your first product to take off or find enough success that you were encouraged to do more?

A: The first item I designed that really landed well was my sewing machine pin. It was inspired by one of the vintage sewing machines that my mom kept in the apartment. Designing that pin was so meaningful for me since it was such a strong memory for me growing up. I do think that because the sewing machine did so well, it encouraged me to explore more designs that I could relate to my childhood.


Q: What were your friends and family’s reactions to you starting a business? Were you nervous to share it?

A: My close friends and family are really supportive of my business and I am very grateful for that. While I wasn't nervous to share it with them, I'm definitely nervous to share it with other people outside of social media. I have this fear that they won't take me seriously or call it a hobby which can get a little frustrating. I guess I'm still trying to figure out how to really share with people what I do for a living, haha.


Q: How long did it take you to transition into a full-time job?

A: At this point, it feels like I'm working 10 full-time jobs. I still do other work outside of my business so it's been an ongoing process trying to transition to just my shop full time. And even once I get there, I know that with all the things that I want to accomplish with the shop, I'm going to have to work a lot of overtime.



Q: Do you prefer creating traditional art prints or translating your work into other items like accessories and stationery?

A: While a large portion of my shop has focused on pins/accessories, I've been really excited about creating more traditional art prints and designing stationery like sticker sheets. When I was a kid, I used to have a sticker collection with so many different and weird stickers like the fuzzy ones or the ones that you could smell (I had one that smelled like chocolate for years!) But really, the main draw for me with adding more things like prints and stickers, is that I can really take an opportunity to experiment with my artwork that I haven't felt like I could with accessories.



Q: What’s your advice for someone looking to stand out in the world of enamel pins right now?

A: I think the best advice I can give someone is to design things that connect to what you love or what makes you happy. It might sound really cheesy, but there's no one else like you and your perspective and experiences are so important and unique. So designing things that are important to you will always feel more unique as well. Also!!! This is super important... never go with the first draft. It is very tempting when you finish a first draft of a design to get it into production immediately. But take your time. Sleep on it. Make sure you're 100% (or at least 90%) happy with it first.


Q: What do you wish more people knew about running a small business?

A: I think that most people are surprised when they find out that it's usually one person behind the shop. While I can only speak from my experience, since I'm one person, I don't get to design as often as I like because I want to make sure that all the little, but important, things get done. So this means packing my shop orders and wholesale orders, making post office trips, answering emails and messages, creating invoices, counting inventory, taking product photos... the list keeps going. BUT, I LOVE IT. And I've never wanted to work harder at anything else before. Every single order means a lot to me and I just want to make sure that each package arrives safely and that all customers are happy and that there's a lot of love put into every item that goes out.


Q: Favorite item in your shop currently?

A: My favorite item is probably one of my Philippines inspired pins, my sampaguita garland. I've been wanting to design this for the longest time but had trouble translating it into a pin. But I kept working on it, and many many drafts later I was finally happy with it.



Q: What goals do you have for your business going forward?

A: I think the most important thing for me going forward is striking a balance and being able to dedicate more of my time to the part of my business that I love the most which is being creative. This means finding more time for drawing and embroidering and experimenting with different mediums like ceramics.



Q: Lastly, let’s spread the love. What are a few of your favorite small shops owned by women that you personally shop from?

A: I love this question!! I love pins and pottery from @shinyapplestudio, pins and prints from @tinydeerstudio, knitted scarves from @yokootextileco, ceramics from @fromtreetosea, more pins from @hemleva, @coloringpins, @teathoughts and @shopshoal and sooo many more!!


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