“I remember the day so clearly,” said Dagny Piasecki, co-founder and photographer of SHDW (pronounced shadow) Studios — a natural-light photo studio and agency.
“I remember us sitting at the dinner table,” she said, speaking to her partner, Taylor Jarrett. “It was our little roundtable where we did all our brainstorming. We had a few front runners for a name, for this space that we had just found. But SHDW Studios: That’s what we ended up going for.”
Usually, six months into dating, couples are leaving the honeymoon phase and discovering a routine, or a sense of stability. For Taylor and Dagny, six months of dating brought them headfirst into a new challenging role: co-founders of SHDW Studios. That was four years ago.
Nestled between the up and coming East Austin area and the Colorado River banks, the studio resembles an abandoned gray warehouse from the outside. A series of parked cars at its door hints to the activity happening within.
Chic, the it couple, the must-know creatives of Austin: Everything I had heard about the SHDW co-founders swept through my mind as I entered the studio for the first time. It was dressed in clean, white-washed walls, save for one, which was adorned with beautiful double nine-foot windows overlooking the rushing Colorado River and flooding the studio with natural light. Taylor yelled down at me from the second floor.
“Bella! Hi, I’m up here. Don’t mind Dagny, she’s shooting for a client.”
Hugging the wall, I worked my way towards the jet-black staircase leading upstairs to Taylor. Dagny was sitting on the floor in front of me pointing her snapping camera lens at a model.
The two shoot e-commerce for local and fashion-focused brands that they see value and promise in. When asked for specifics, the two gushed about the talent and good nature of a few of their collaborators: Miranda Bennett, Sunroom, Stag, and Kick Pleat, to name a few.
On this first visit, I was a student timidly photographing the SHDW co-founders for a class’ final project. Initially, I was shocked when he responded with enthusiasm and consent to a sophomore following him around with a camera. Only later did I learn my surprise was misplaced. That is who Taylor and Dagny are: supporters of talent in Austin, regardless of age, or profession.
Fast-forward a year and a few more interactions later, and I am meeting with Taylor and Dagny again, this time to learn more about how the two work with other talent in Austin, and what they have in store for the future.
We sat in the outdoor space between their studio and the “Bungalow” — the next-door house they recently transformed into an office space. They sat across from each other, basking in the perfectly sunny day in East Austin before Taylor ran inside to grab Dagny a hat and some water.
He wore an outfit true to his consistent style: utilitarian and minimalist, but with an attention to detail that comes from appreciating special pieces, such as rings from the cities he loves. She wore a loose pair of white-washed jeans and a fitted T-shirt — what she calls her work outfits, suited for running around and being on the ground during photoshoots.
As our conversations progressed, two things became clear. First, the level of respect between the two outmatches most relationships, business and personal.
When the three of us sat down for the interview, it felt as if I were watching a conversation unfold from the sidelines. They spoke to each other when answering my questions, asked one another if they had anything to say, finished each other’s thoughts, offered words of support when one seemed unsure: It was the epitome of a productive environment born from mutual respect.
And second, they used three words more so than any others: photo, creative and community.
SPARK MAGAZINE: Where did the name SHDW come from?
DAGNY PIASECKI: One of the things we fell in love with about this space was the amount of natural light. And since there are these beautiful double nine-foot windows stacked on top of each other, there was one day when the sun was shining in and casting a shadow on the wall, and it was in the form of an “S.” That ended up being a big part of our inspiration for the name. It was also kind of an ode to Rick Owens.
SM: Rick Owens?
TAYLOR JARRETT: More specifically his brand drkshdw.
DP: That was one of the first fashion books that we bought together.
TJ: Yeah, that’s a huge influence on our brand and being fashion focused and approaching things from a minimal perspective.
DP: Minimal, sexy, and elegant. I think those are all the things that we wanted to embody. And that actual shadow on the wall was a sign for us and SHDW was what we ended up going for.
SM: Tell me what exactly SHDW is, and what you had in mind when you founded the studio.
TJ: SHDW Studios is a creative agency focused on cultural impact and the relationship between how we impact and inform brands and vice versa. So, how brands navigate communicating to our generation and how we as a generation communicate and influence brands to work together.
SM: What does that mean for the community directly?
TJ: We want to provide a platform, whether you’re a photographer, stylist, a model, a creative painter, social media blogger, you know any of those things. We want to create a space for all of those to exist, and we want to be a channel for them to be highlighted and spotlighted.
BOTH: To create alongside them.
SM: Tell me what you both excel at? What are titles you could give one another?
TJ: Dagny is the photographer for sure. I’ve worked with a lot of photographers, but this girl, her language is light, and that’s the fundamental place of photography. Her technical ability blows most out of the water. She embodies the intention of being a photographer. She’s a creative, but just absolutely a photographer.
DP: Taylor is the creative director. He has the foresight and the intuition to know where to navigate and where to place the company in the present and in the future. He has the skill set for business growth, development and staying on track and continuously growing into something bigger and better.
As our interview went on, so did the hot day, the sun nearing its peak now. I shaded my eyes, Dagny sipped water, and Taylor rolled up the sleeves of his black shirt. Though pressured by a busy schedule, the two seem genuinely happy to continue discussing their past, present and future. Call it nostalgia and excitement, or perhaps an eagerness to spotlight a part of their lives they’ve dedicated most of their time to, — regardless, our interview went on in the face of the blinding sun and a pile of work inside.
Arguably, SHDW’s efforts to uniquely impact the community and the healthy dynamic between Taylor and Dagny are the two strongest qualities of the business. Their relationship fosters an environment that can only breed actionable ideas of creativity. With trust, respect and a desire to build a working community in Austin, the success of SHDW is limited only to what the co-founders can come up with at their brainstorming roundtable.
‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Drawing this African Proverb from memory, Taylor was not sure where it came from, but placed much faith and respect in its meaning.
“We apply Navy Seal strategies to the creative, that’s what it is,” Taylor said, smiling after finding his thought. “We deploy a team — a special ops team — out to a certain area. They nail the problem or find the solution and bring it back home, and then we champion it as a community.”
Dagny smiled in response to the image Taylor painted of SHDW. The love and belief the two have for talent is enough to change anyone’s minds about what can be possible. “If someone has passion for what they’re doing, I think they’re going to be good at that thing, no matter what,” Taylor once said to me.
Perhaps it was this belief that pushed the couple towards success so fast — a belief in passion and creativity, and motivation to get the job done. No doubt it pushed the couple towards growing SHDW organically. Designing their studio to grow from word of mouth and close networking, Taylor and Dagny build personal relationships with the people they collaborate and work with.
Despite, being a grassroots grown business, everything about SHDW advanced fast. The two met and began dating, and then after numerous nights organizing dreams and ideas, they created a unified vision of their business only six months in.
“We moved at a fast pace with both our relationship and our business relationship kind of out of necessity,” Taylor said. “It’s what life called for.”
SM: What pushed both of you to want to create something like SHDW?
TJ: I was coming off a pretty intensive business background with pretty bullish partners who I learned a lot from, but also learned a lot of things I didn’t want to do, or want to be. And that’s why I felt really fortunate to have Dagny as a partner and to be able to approach things from a creative perspective. At the time, Austin didn’t have that in the form of an agency or a collective or even a studio space. Nothing was to the caliber in which I think we developed or facilitated. What do you think Dags?
DP: Yeah, we were both in a place where we really wanted to create something new and our visions, and the dreams we had, happened to align perfectly at the right place and at the right time. I was in a studio prior to this with other really awesome creatives, and I was so happy to have a space, but it wasn’t quite the space that I had envisioned myself being in in the long run.
SM: It’s 2019 now. What is in store for SHDW this year?
TJ: I think we’ve run fast for a long time. Now we are slowing down. To be able to do that, to gather everything and apply it, I think we will have a much richer impact in the things that we do.
DP: And, through local events we’ve put on, we’ve really met so many amazing people from so many different places and backgrounds. We want to continue to be a part of our community here in Austin, so that’s another thing that, within the next year, we’re going to be more involved with.
SM: As your business has grown, have your roles within it changed? Have you let go of the reins at all?
DP: I think we are getting there when it comes to releasing some control — we are growing, the business is growing internally. We are still really involved with the systems and employees and all of that, but we work with some really amazing people and in time we will be able to sort of let go of those reigns. But we are still very much involved.
TJ: I think we’re both looking forward to becoming genuine leaders within our company. We’ve led the company, but we haven’t necessarily led employees of the company up until now. And now we’re getting the opportunity to do so and it’s really cool. It takes a lot of insight and it’s a whole new part of the business, a whole new learning, a whole new chapter for us, which feels really good.
They both paused in silence, continuing to look at each other — not as a means of communication, but perhaps as a moment of mutual reflection. After a moment, then their heads turn to me, ready to tackle a new series of questions.
SM: Where is SHDW at right now … What are you focusing on?
TJ: It hasn’t been so much about client acquisition, it’s about building our verticals within the clients we do have and within the teams that we do have. We’re making everyone really strong.
DP: With the way that we are slowing down and reformatting and tightening all the reigns, I think by the end of this year or beginning of next year, we would love to be more fully functioning as an agency of creatives.
Not to say that’s not where we are right now. I think we are still doing so much, you and I, and working with so many other people separately and I think by the end of this year we are all going to be working a lot more together — on different projects, with us overseeing teams.
“Something a little bit bigger.”
SHDW has always been ready to advance, hence their considerable growth over a short time. While this can sometimes lead to tackling too many big ideas at once, SHDW seems to spend most of its time in a balanced world between putting too much on its plate and attacking the right amount of goals.
Currently, a huge focus of theirs is growing the business while keeping their consistent edge. “Our consistent edge is that we’re unique to the market — we have our own character, we have our own voice,” Taylor said. “Just figuring out different ways to amplify that is a focus, and I think it will go hand in hand with the growth of our team.”
On a day-to-day basis, Taylor strives to develop their website and social impact, while together they enhance their community engagement. Nonetheless, the two see a future where they continue to reach for that something that is just a little bit bigger. Right now, that may just be found in exploration.
Every year, the two set aside time to step back from their role as business partners and make time for themselves. Their exile from business often leads them to places such as Italy, Morocco, New York, and other high cultural locations. Ironically, they tend to come home and immediately brainstorm ways to incorporate the culture and new things they saw into their business.
“There is something really beautiful about setting roots somewhere and loving where you live,” Dagny said. “But leaving the city for a while and finding little things — even if it’s a street sign that looks different from the ones here — even something as simple as that can be inspiring.”
All the answers are not here in Austin yet, Taylor added. Traveling and bringing multicultural influence and resources back to their home in Austin is one of SHDW’s core values and big plans. SHDW Studios: a small business in a small town that grows from inspiration from all over the world — it’s got a nice ring to it.
Whether they’re taking a moment to focus on each other or simply bringing the outside world to Austin, the SHDW co-founders can always be expected to come home and start something new at their brainstorming roundtable.