They Called Me a Dragon


THERE HAVE BEEN PLENTY OF TIMES THROUGHOUT MY CAREER that I have had to fight for what was true and authentic about my brand, but no one had ever called me a dragon.

That is, until the day someone called me a “dragon at the gate,” right to my face.

Okay, it was actually over the phone, but still! I had never heard that term before and it really struck me. I remember what they said so clearly: “Gretchen, what I am trying to say is that you come across as a dragon at the gate and that you need to get out of the way and let people who know what they are doing do their job.”

This was a defining moment for me. This was when I realized how I came across to those who wanted to change things about Devine Color when I stood firmly against it. At that exact moment, I realized that I indeed was, and had always been, a “dragon at a gate” in some form or another. I was either going to have to embrace being a dragon or give up on magic altogether.

I chose magic.

In ancient Celtic Ireland, the “ley of the land” was not about the geographical or physical nature of one’s surroundings, as the phrase has come to be known. To the ancient Celts, the “ley of the land” was a term describing how the cosmic forces flowed through and influenced an area, as well as how the area itself affected those cosmic forces in return. Dragons were thought to have a tremendous influence on the “ley of the land,” hence earning the synonym “dragon lines.” The Anglo-Saxon word dragon is derived from the Greek word meaning “to see clearly.” Greeks believed that dragons had the gift of vision, wisdom, and prophecy. Dragons were considered the guardians of all knowledge and wisdom.

When the little paint line I had created in my garage found its way all the way to Ireland, in 2004, Devine Color had just one paint sheen. It was an homage to my grandmother’s love of sewing with chiffon. She would make me the most glorious chiffon dresses to wear. Colors in chiffon where luminous and that’s exactly how I wanted my wall colors to look – and they did. My version of “eggshell” had meaning.

The Irish paint company General Paints requested a matte finish to compete with Farrow and Ball, a paint line with a European historical color palette and a matte finish with so much depth, they say, you had to touch the walls with your hands to know where they were. That’s quite a paint!

I should mention that it was my first time in Ireland. It’s a lot like the Pacific Northwest. Ireland is lusciously green with gray skies and Dublin has a similar cool, self-aware vibe that Portland does. They love beer, we love beer. It feels like home.

We launched Devine Color at the historical Guinness Store House where close to 100 designers showed up to hear me speak about my story, how Devine Color came to be and how it traveled to Ireland. They were especially excited to hear about the new Devine Powder paint finish, a matte from a woman’s point of view, fashioned after women’s face powder. Everyone loved it.

Afterwards, having drinks in a pub overlooking Dublin, I heard our paint partners talk about how excited they were to sell Devine Powder. I asked if they were just as enthusiastic about Devine Delicate. One laughed and said, “Sorry, but we are not selling Devine Delicate.” I was stunned. It was the cornerstone of the brand; a bedrock upon which the whole company was built. It was rooted in the story of my own personal journey from Puerto Rico to Portland, my grandmother’s sewing, color, light, chiffon…

The man proceeded to say that all they ever sold was matte. Then, the dragon in me came out. I told him that when I created Devine Color someone else told me that I was wasting my time because 90 percent of all paint sales where off-whites and I only had five off-whites in my whole palette. I stood at the gate. “Look where we were now!” I triumphantly exclaimed. Then he told me that Farrow and Ball only sold matte.

Everyone could smell the sulfur fumes by now. Then it occurred to me to ask him, “have you ever seen Devine Color painted in Delicate? Have you ever painted with it yourself?”

He replied, “No, and I won’t!”

I looked at him and asked, “Is this why they say the Irish are stubborn?”

We both laughed. It’s also true that the Irish have a great sense of humor.

I promised him that before I left Ireland, I would prove him wrong.

As we headed back to the hotel, we walked by a very hip, modern architect’s office space with a gorgeous Waterford crystal chandelier. I spread my wings and hissed, “I bet your paint company against my brand that the paint on those walls is not matte!”

He said, “You’re on!” and we shook on it.

I had never been to Ireland, so he definitely thought it was a sure bet.

We buzzed and were let in – and there it was, a beautiful shimmer reflecting across the walls. The walls were most definitely not matte. We sat at that hotel bar all night and talked about paint, light, sheen, and color.

He asked, “How did you know?” I told him it was because I am an artist, and no artist or designer in their right mind would have ever chosen a matte finish for those walls. It would suck up all the beautiful light reflection from the chandelier. Nobody would do that to the centerpiece of the room. I told him that he needed to see the way Delicate reflected light, like chiffon.

The next day we went to his house and tested Devine Delicate on his walls – and he loved it. When I got home, I received an email from him. He told me he had a confession to make. He initially thought I was just an American, coming from America, imposing my American ways on his Irish company, but then he had realized I was an artist, and that artists didn’t see the world (or shall I say, the ley of the land?) with physical boundaries.

I think maybe he meant that all artists have dragon lines within them. I learned that people who really care will fight to get to know you, the way you think and why. They will seek the truth in your face, for the sake of wisdom and knowledge.

That first time I was called a dragon at the gate, I had no snappy comeback, no witty retort. I hung up feeling helpless, insecure, and I got out of the way. It turns out the people who knew better, didn’t.

Today I would have handled it differently. I would have said, “I will take that as a compliment” and led the way.

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