We almost missed him behind the piles of Hallmark cards with the carbon-copy red-cheeked Santas, pink bunnies and bunches of roses lining the greeting card racks in stores nationwide. So, get your pen out and take notes from stationer Alton Weekes–a paper master who has the answer to sending chic notes and invitations right at your fingertips. Weekes artful folding began 14 years ago when he made note of the missing handcrafted touches in the greeting cards market. Now his Black Snowman and Champagne Collection cards has everyone from Ben Stiller to Pauletta Washington reaching out to Weekes for something special to the handcrafted touch.
EBONY: How does a backup singer for Mariah Carey make their way into the stationery aisles?
ALTON WEEKES: I know, right! I sure did love it–and I got to travel all over the world. But beginnings always have beginnings–and mine began as a child. I remember that my mother always gave my sisters and myself cards for us to give to family and friends. Everybody got showered with a card or handwritten note–that was her way of letting someone know they were in her thoughts. If she had a girlfriend who looked nice at church one Sunday, she would receive a card that said, “Girlfriend, your hair was looking sharp last Sunday!” If I had to sum it up, I’d say that giving cards were here way of administering ministry! So, I always wanted to duplicate that feeling–of getting something in your had and opening it up–like a surprise! So I started making cards back then and my mother started buying them–from me. That encouraged me, told me, that it was a possibility. She is no longer with us–but I continue to keep her memory alive by carrying on the card-giving tradition, which was her legacy.
EBONY: So how did you go from making cards for your mother to handcrafting creations that belong in Museum gift stores?
AW: The idea of just folding paper in half began in 1999. I took the allowance that I got from my parents and saved it up to buy card stock–creamy ivory, embellishments and mask pieces. Then I got serious–it was time to create my first collection which I called, `Behind the Mask.’ It was a collection of ethnic cards–all beautifully hand made and embellished with hard carved marks indicative of African masks from specific villages.
I took my card collection to Jamie Glover, the buyer at the Studio Museum in Harlem Gift Store and he loved them. He was an excellent buyer–the kind that liked to work with individual artists. The orders from him poured in for over a decade as he remained a staunch supporter of Alton Weekes stationery. Back then, I also had a childhood friend, designer Jon Berry who had a store in downtown Brooklyn. He was designing an outfit for Susan Taylor and gave her one of my greeting cards–the Ivory Coast mask card which had an ivory mask mounted on ivory brocade paper stock and matching envelope. It was supremely fresh and contemporary–and she loved it. Little by little, I began getting orders from other stores and discerning customers.
EBONY: The peonies on your cards are popping. Where does the inspiration for your flower power come from?
AW: I’m a big fan of Botanical Gardens, museums and just walking down the streets in any city and soaking up the inspiration. I love to travel–and everywhere you go, you can spot a beautiful floral arrangement, or see flowers in full bloom, which has led to my latest creation: an eggplant flower bloom card. It’s an eggplant gerber daisy flower that is embellished on top of champagne and eggplant pattern paper with a diamond cabochon in the center to give it class. This card is perfect for a graduation card or garden party, or for a wedding gift–just slip some money inside.
EBONY: After your initial success, how did you take your stationery business to the next level?
AW: I would always visit Kate’s Paperie in Soho and ogle and marvel at their stationery. On the back of the chicest cards, I noticed there was a label, Constance Kay. I was like, who is this? I found out she was a sales rep who represented over 70 of the best stationers in the business. The largest stationery show is held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and anybody who is anyone in the stationery business will be in the mix there. I went to her booth there and introduced myself. She became my agent and now my cards are sold in over 50 stores including Bergdorf Goodman which carries my large oversized holiday cards embellished with Swarovski crystals, lace embroidery and velvet touches and retail for $65.00 each!
EBONY: Custom cards are an essential part of your business, no?
AW: Yes. I have over 200 designs in my greeting card collection now, but not everyone wants to send the same card that is `making the rounds’–especially celebrities and power people. Actor Ben Stiller, for example, didn’t want to send a red or green Christmas card during the holidays because he is Jewish. So I made a silk diamond-crusted snowflake on white brocade and silk violet paper. He ordered 600 cards. Pauletta Washington, on the other, loved the Black snowman and that’s what she ordered for her Christmas card. My Black snowman represents an old tradition reinvented with a cultural touch for our modern times.
EBONY: But not everyone can afford to send out lavish cards. Do you think the art of sending the handwritten note or elegant invitation is a dying deed?
AW :Not if you’re trying to make a fabulous statement. Yes, some people say, `Wow, your cards are expensive and I’m not spending $20.00 on a greeting card!’ My answer is, `Expensive to whom? Girlfriend, you are the one with the Gucci bag under your arm! The truth is, as consumers, we buy whatever we want–it speaks to our value system. And trust me, when you send a stunning card or invite to someone, you are showing thoughtfulness that will be remembered–long after that Gucci bag has frayed at the handles! Yes, Alton Weekes cards aren’t your run-of-the-mill pharmacy-purchased cards–they’re for someone special–and when you drop a fabulous card in the mail instead of sending a text or email, it says, you really want to connect—as opposed to fake Facebook shoutouts!
EBONY: Aside from being a background singer, have you had any other off–the-stationery path careers?
AW: Yes, indeed. I was in the Navy and therefore, I am a veteran. I was also was a student mortician and funeral director at the renowned McAllister Academy of Funeral Services, but I must admit, things were too dead there, so I didn’t stay for long! I was also working the graveyard shift for the Bronx Medical Examiner, picking up remains of dead bodies throughout the boroughs. That meant, I would go into houses and hoist up the cadavers. That’s when it was time to quit and upgrade the tricks–and I came into my true calling.
EBONY: After 15 years of paper creations, business is blooming. What’s trending these days for you?
AW: Fortneum and Mason in London, England, where the Royals shop, are crazy about my Butterfly series cards. Katrina Parris and Harlem Flo Atelier, both based in Harlem, and the Montage Hotel Gift Shop in Beverly Hills, on the other hand, are crazy about my flower cards–they both love my FLOWER BLOOM series. I think the reason why my cards have come to the attention of museum store gift buyers such as San Francisco Museum and the High Museum in Atlanta is because my cards are like art pieces–each card can be framed.