Driven by a passion for retail and a love of entertaining, longtime colleagues and friends Gary McNatton and Monelle Totah opened their first Hudson Grace store in San Francisco just over 10 years ago. The Sausalito-based home decor company’s second store opened in 2013 in Larkspur, where McNatton lives, and today there are 10 locations around the country. Here, cofounders and copresidents McNatton and Totah share how they got their start and the inspiration behind their successful business.
Marin Magazine (MM): Tell me about how you met, and how you started the company.
Gary McNatton (GM): I think we met about 30 years ago at a trade show in New York. I had brought a rather clever shower ring with rollerballs into the country, and it was an instant hit. I was also presenting my Mottura fragrance line that eventually became Gap Scents. Mo (Monelle) was director of William Sonoma’s Chambers, and she quickly became my best customer and better yet, a dear friend.
Years passed, and I was at Gap designing fragrance for all brands and was asked to take on Banana Republic Home. I needed an expert partner, so I stole Mo from William Sonoma and brought her to Gap, and that’s when the fun began. Eventually in the corporate life though you hit a wall, and it happened for both of us. Mo had returned to William Sonoma, and I started a branding and packaging company, Through Smoke Creative, based out of Sausalito.
Monelle Totah (MT): A few years later, I called Gary and told him I’d hit the wall again and just could not design another Santa or reindeer plate. I was ready to do my own thing and wanted Gary to be my partner.
GM: I was pretty busy with Through Smoke Creative, so I wasn’t sure I could do it, but she’s very tenacious and eventually broke me down. We came to an agreement and created our new retail concept, Hudson Grace. Within months, we opened our very first store on Sacramento Street in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood. That was 10 years ago.
MM: What were your first products that made you think, “Hey, we have something special here”?
GM: We had a list of small ceramic vendors in Italy that we had worked with over the years whose products we loved. We went through the vintage molds and found stunning pieces that had been long forgotten, and we had the pieces glazed a in a deep, creamy white shade, making them look both modern and vintage. We also had a 10-ounce glass that we both loved to drink wine from, which we named our “Everyday Wine Glass,” and there was a tear-off cocktail napkin from France that we both cherished. I also had a secret weapon, a candle fragrance that I had designed for a rather famous retailer that I did not have the heart to give to them sitting on my desk for two years waiting for its moment. I shared the scent with Mo.
MT: It was a beautifully balanced blend of tuberose, orange flower and jasmine, and I loved it as much as Gary did. We named it “Original,” and it became an instant success. It’s still our bestselling candle fragrance. From there, we built our collection for people who love to entertain.
MM: How do you manage to remain friends running a company together?
GM: I think at first, we may have hit a few walls because we both have strong personalities. I can be stubborn, and she is like a dog with a bone. We danced around each other for a few rounds in the beginning.
MT: The thing is, we both love to laugh, and that certainly helps a lot. We also both have a very strong work ethic, so we are equals on that level, and we know that we’re friends for life — no question there.
MM: Monelle, what’s your favorite candle scent? Gary?
MT: My favorite scent is Savannah, a delicate fresh floral with the true scent of magnolia blossom and a hint of citrus.
GM: “Mine is Brentwood, the scent of sun-dried driftwood, California white oak and cypress.”
MM: Your dogs are part of your marketing campaigns; how are they related to your brand?
MT: It was once a guarded secret but now public knowledge that Hudson Grace was named after our two dogs, Hudson, a 90-pound labradoodle, and Grace, an 11-pound cockapoo. Now our dear sweet dogs will always be with us in one form or another.
MM: Did you do anything special to celebrate the 10th anniversary of your first store this year?
GM: We did, actually. We celebrated the opening of our 10th store on the same day as our 10th anniversary in beautiful Greenwich, Connecticut. It was a full 360 for us both. It was a very rewarding event for us and funny how the numbers lined up — kind of magical.
MM: What’s changed since Crate & Barrel acquired Hudson Grace in 2019?
MT: Nothing has changed, but at the same time, perhaps a lot has changed. Crate & Barrel has an amazing team of experts who are helping us navigate building our web business, legal team, financials and human resources — all the expensive services that one needs to build a first-class brand.
GM: “That said, Mo and I still do all the product development and buying; the real estate, design and store buildouts, hiring staff, and turning off the lights at the end of the day. It’s been a truly great union that allows us to be ourselves and continue developing our vision. And when Covid-19 hit, and we found ourselves the only two going into the office with our stores locked up, it was comforting to know that we had a dedicated staff to hold onto and protect us through dark days. We both looked at each other and thanked the big guy for this wonderful new partnership.”
MM: How did you choose Marin for the Hudson Grace headquarters?
GM: “Sausalito is so convenient, since it’s an easy reverse commute for our staff members who live in San Francisco, and as well as for those who live in Marin. My first company’s headquarters were here, and when we were looking for a larger space we looked in the city, but it just didn’t feel right, so here we stayed. Just think of the creative brands that were born and are still in Marin — Heath, RH, The RealReal, Serena & Lily and Hudson Grace, to name a few. Pretty nice company, we must say.
MM: How would you describe the Marin style?
GM: “The Marin style is easy, not fussy or pretentious. Marinites are smart, traveled and inquisitive, and they love their homes and entertaining both inside and outside. With the weather and the views, why would you not want to enjoy what you have at your fingertips?
MM: What accomplishments are you proud of?
GM: “We just opened two new stores this past year, Bleecker Street in the West Village in New York and Greenwich, Connecticut. Both were dreams we had when we opened our very first store. We said to each other, ‘Can you imagine having a store in New York or the Hamptons?’ And look, we did it! It’s kind of wonderful and crazy good, don’t you think?”
Lotus Abrams has covered everything from beauty to business to tech in her editorial career, but it might be writing about her native Bay Area that inspires her most. She lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Peninsula, where they enjoy spending time outdoors at the area’s many open spaces protected and preserved by her favorite local nonprofit, the Peninsula Open Space Trust.