It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Irene Chen and Matthew Grenby of Parker Thatch

It’s kind of a funny story how the designers of Parker Thatch met…

11.23.16
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Irene Chen, Parker Thatch: We met here in New York, actually. I had been living here for a while. I moved to New York from San Francisco and I met Matt through my sister’s boyfriend at the time. My sister’s boyfriend and Matt went to college together. My sister’s no longer with him. How did we meet?

Matthew Grenby, Parker Thatch: This is at the dawn of web 2.0. Ancient times.

Irene: I had been working at Donna Karen for a long time. It was the year 2000 and I started getting that “I want to do something new!” feeling. Matt’s friend from college started this web thing and asked me if I wanted to join.

Matt: This was back when brands like Barneys and J.Crew were doing their first websites. I had a design and technical background, and the firm I was working with worked on their websites.

Irene: I came in to do product development.

Matt: Irene and I weren’t in the same groups, but we were both part of the same holding company, a parent company. And there were a lot of company events. Technically I was still living in Portland, Oregon at the time.

Irene: We first met at a company dinner. We were at the hottest restaurant. Remember that restaurant? I don’t even know where we were but it was like, one hundred degrees.

Matt: Physically hot. We were melting.

Irene: It was the worst restaurant.

Matt: It was called Hot Spring Sorbet, right? We got sorbet for dessert and it melted by the time it came out.

Irene: It was horrible and sweaty. At this dinner, I was the one who was like, “He’s kind of cute.” Tall and really funny. I don’t think he even gave a shit.

Matt: It was love at first sight.

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Irene: After that we just started hanging out because we were working together at this company doing the weirdest things ever. Honestly. I had been working with clothes and then at this company…

Matt: She had to sell weird shit.

Irene: Like wax frogs on a stick….I didn’t even know what this website was.

Amelia: You just knew you wanted to get in online.

Irene: I knew it. I was like, “I need to do this. I need to get on this train.” For some reason, that’s how I felt. So we got on the train and of course it blew up.

Matt: This was before the first crash. It was a great group of us.

Irene: I don’t know how we actually starting dating, though. It’s really weird that I don’t remember.

Matt: We were at a dinner downtown and I was staying at a friend’s place in the West Village.

Irene: That little pad.

Matt: Seriously, he had this tiny little pad.

Irene: We kissed that night. That was the first night.

Amelia: So you guys were at a dinner that night. And you, what, got drunk?

Matt: We met at that first dinner — the hot place. Time passed. There were other social gatherings for the company and meet-and-greets. We’d see one another and talk. Then Irene’s sister and my friend were doing something and they invited us to this other dinner…

Irene: And then that’s when we kissed for the first time. After that, we got together and we’ve been together since.

Matt: It’s corny, but yeah.

Irene: No joke. So I was here in NY and he was in San Francisco.

Amelia: You guys were fully doing long distance?

Irene: We were.

Matt: Officially, our mailing addresses said we were long distance dating, but we were spending a lot of time together.

Irene: We were together all the time.

Matt: But then my mom got sick. My parents were living in Australia. (I grew up in Vancouver but my mom was originally from Australia.) So my mom got sick and I was going down there to be with them and that’s when it was long distance.

Amelia: That’s the most long-distance you could be.

Matt: Pretty much. Actually half-way around the world. That’s also when the seed of the business that we started happened. We always appreciated and loved fine stationery. Handwritten notes.

Amelia: Were you guys writing each other letters?

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Matt: Well, even back then there was too much email and it was all too impersonal. So the idea — and this is the year 2000 — the idea was, “Why can’t we bring what we love about our real, beautiful and great stationery to email?”

Irene: You were way too young back then, but American Greetings was this thing—

Amelia: No of course I remember that!

Irene: Those weird goofy cards you’d send? Come on!

Amelia: 100%. I lived in San Francisco with my mom and my dad lived in New Jersey. He would sent me an American Greetings card like, every single day. They played music!

Matt: That was state-of-the-art back then, right? We were like, why can’t we elevate that experience a little bit and bring it to email where it’s not so cheesy and it’s…stationery. I made a prototype of Paperless Post, essentially, in the year 2000. That was our love letter back and forth.

Amelia: And just you two used it?

Irene: We started using it back and forth and I was like, “Wow, this is so chic. How cool is this?” And I decided, you know what? Maybe I’ll just take time off. By then, the web thing had blown up. I took like eight, nine months off and went to Australia.

Matt: It was during the first internet bubble.

Irene: We lived on Matt’s dad’s farm for nine months — we both had taken time off — and were seriously thinking about what we wanted to do. I kept coming back to this stationery thing. We didn’t know what it was, but it was very cool.

Matt: It wasn’t going to be weird and animated like American Greetings or Blue Mountain. It was just, when you opened your email, you would see a nice card with good fonts and graphics. No plug-ins, nothing like that.

Irene: Just beautifully done. And so that’s what we started doing. We started building it out down there because we really had all day. We came up with the whole line and Matt was building it out. We were really trying to figure out what we could make it into.

Irene: That is how we started the business. Then we moved back to San Francisco and had no jobs. And really no money left. So we lived at my parents’ house. But we continued on because we were like, “I think we can do this.”

Matt: It was early 2002. Here parents were so nice. I was coding all day long in a basement, building this platform from scratch. Like up at five in the morning just coding. And then we launched our business. It was a subscription-based thing where you could send as many of these cards as you wanted.

Irene: But no one wanted to pay for anything back then. It was only, like, ten dollars a year.

Matt: That was enough of a barrier to entry.

Irene: People kept saying, “Well,we don’t want to pay for this thing, but we really want the physical designs.” We kept getting requests for it. Like, “Can we just get the paper or the card?”

Matt: We had these super loyal, hard-core users.

Amelia: Was this all from like word of mouth?

Matt: Oh man, we tried all sorts of tactics to market this. Anything you can think of. We went door-to-door, we went out to stores, we printed postcards, we did everything.

Irene: People kept asking, “Can I get paper? Can I get paper?”

Amelia: Which is so funny because at that time everyone was like, “Go online!”

Matt: Right? We finally move out of her parents’ space and into this loft space where we had walls of inventory of cards.

Irene: We were living in a stationery house.

Amelia: Matt, you were you doing the illustrations back then?

Matt: I’ve done every drawing since the beginning of the company.

Irene: It’s been a full collaboration. It really has.

Amelia: Do you guys ever disagree?

Matt: All the time. But Irene’s got her design sense and will pull inspiration. Then we’ll have a conversation and I’ll do the illustrations and designs. Where we overlap is that we both really value authenticity and a sense of humor and timeless style.

Amelia: Who said “I love you” first?

Matt: The first “I love you” was not this momentous thing. It wasn’t dramatic, just natural. I mean, my proposal was a disaster.

Amelia: Why?

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Matt: Oh god. So we’re doing stationery and paper goods at this point —

Irene: Oh my god. We were so poor. I was working at this store…

Matt: I was nervous. I went to See’s to buy this cheesy box of chocolates. So cheesy. And do you know what a Xootr is?

Amelia: No…

Matt: You know those little push scooters that you see kids going around on? It was like an adult version of that. So I Xoot-ed down from Polk St. down to Chrissy Field to her.

Irene: I was like, I’m working in this store, my life sucks…what am I doing?

Matt: I was like, I just going to do this. So I’m down and —

Irene: It was really cold. The fog was coming…

Matt: Then this fog horn went off —

Irene: I couldn’t hear anything. I was like, alright, I’ve been working in the shop all day, what are we doing here? It’s too cold, I can’t hear you.

Matt: And that was it. She was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll marry you, let’s get out of here.”

Irene: We Xooted away like, “Let’s get out of here! Let’s go.” But it was a great day. We’d been together for almost four years at that point.

Amelia: And did you guys talk about it before?

Irene: We always knew we were going to get married. I did. We never really talked about it, but I just felt like we would get married.

Matt: We had already been through quite a bit at that point, halfway around the world, building this business together.

Irene: We’d been through a lot of challenges like living with our parents together. It’s tough, you know, but it worked.

Amelia: Okay, so you did the awkward proposal. So how did the business blossom?

Irene: The breakthrough came when we had kids. Matt went back to get his MBA. That was challenging, too. We got married, I got pregnant and Matt decided he wanted to go back to school — he went to Columbia — so he was flying back and forth between San Francisco and NY.

Matt: Still full-time doing our business.

Irene: Yeah, so that’s how our relationship was. We just always really saw it. We fight, and it’s also weird because we work together, but then at the end of the day, we go home and we’re married.

Amelia: You’re able to compartmentalize it a bit?

Irene: Yeah, I don’t feel like we’re married at work.

Amelia: Do you think that was something that you had to learn how to do, or is that just part of your natures?

Matt: It’s always been the dynamic, yeah. I don’t think it would work if it wasn’t.

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Irene: I think if you’re married at work, it probably wouldn’t work. When you’re at work, you’re at work. There’s has to be a common respect, too. And I think that’s what our relationship is built on: this love for each other. It really is.

Amelia: And you have two kids now, right?

Irene: Parker and Thatch. One is eight, one is ten.

Amelia: How did having them — or maybe it didn’t — change the dynamic?

Matt: We had a lot less time.

Irene: Teamwork. It’s really, really teamwork. Sometimes one person has to leave early, one has to pick up the slack. A lot of that.

Amelia: The brand must have been your baby, and then suddenly you have a real baby. Did it shift priorities?

Matt: Well, necessarily. At the end of the day, the business is great, but it’s all about the kids.

Irene: When we had Parker, we were focusing pretty hardcore on the stationery.

Matt: I figured out a way to get designs on a type of canvas bag, and Irene invented a certain way of doing a Lucite tray. Like, customer-selected design.

Irene: The bag was very funny, the process. He was like, “Have you ever thought of printing on canvas?” We decided to try it. I took four or five of my favorite bags and went to our dry cleaning lady because I noticed that she had a certificate on her wall from the San Francisco School of Design. She always did my pants so well, in a way where it was the right slouch. She had a good eye. I went in there and said, “I have this crazy idea: can you put these four bags together and draw a pattern for me?” So she did. She was like, “Alright, weirdo.” We were totally still cobbling it together. We started buying spools of fabric at Jo-Ann Fabric.

Matt: With coupons!

Irene: With coupons. Two of us had to stand in line because I could only use one coupon per day. Then we started sending the bags out to the editors. That really it hit it off.

Matt: That was the first canvas bag.

Amelia: And here you are today. Do you guys feel like you’re in a good place?

Matt: It’s been a long journey to find our “authentic voice,” and we’ve settled on this notion of utilitarian luxe.

Irene: It’s really taken a journey to get here. And honestly we never talk about it, so it’s kind of cool.

Amelia: So here’s where we come to the end. What do you love most about each other?

Matt: Life’s hard. What I love most about Irene is how she’s able to look at it with a sense of humor. Whatever we’re going through, to be able to both laugh at it and take a step back, even when in the middle of it, that’s very important. You don’t find that in a lot of people. I love all of the usual things, obviously, but that’s at the core of it.

Irene: For me it’s all of that. That sense of humor, and our shared aesthetic, but I also always know he’ll take care of me.

Matt: That’s the other thing. We can depend on each other.

Irene: It’s true, he’s just a solid man. He’s going to take care of us. Things could blow up, but we have each other. Building on what we have done is so important.

Matt: We count on each other.

Amelia: What has been the hardest part throughout?

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Matt: There’s no formula. You have to keep adapting. Once you start having responsibilities — obviously you have a responsibility to each other — but when you have children, you can’t just wake up on a dime and go where you need to be and do what you need to do. That’s the hard part.

Irene: You have to make sacrifices, like, I’d love to do this, but I can’t.

Matt: We have a shared understanding of what it is to be a good person.

Amelia: What relationship advice can you offer to our readers?

Matt: Listen to your heart. Use your head, but at the end of the day, listen to that quiet voice.

Irene: You have to find someone who is going to be with you for the fun stuff and in darkness. All the other stuff is great, but find your person.

Check out the Parker Thatch website and follow the brand on Instagram @parkerthatch, Twitter @parkerthatch and Facebook.

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