“All fashion is laundry!” exclaims Theresa Williams.
The tall, striking 30-year-old has just emerged from her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, office, buttoned into a pair of pale-blush Katherine Hamnett high-waisted trousers and matching blazer, and gets an approving nod from her equally beguiling sister, Corinna. It would be easy to assume that these two women are discussing the downsides of maintaining a full closet (as fashionable New Yorkers are wont to do), but on this quiet Thursday morning, the two chic Brooklynites are instead discussing their thriving laundromat.
In 2017, the Williams sisters turned New York family laundry businesses on their heads with the opening of Celsious—a sparkling and open-spaced laundromat that is one part launder, one part cafe, and all parts eco-conscious. Sunny and cheerful, awash in whites and yellow tiles, with high ceilings, the airy space boasts Electrolux washers and dryers, the best turmeric lattes in the borough, and the upcoming addition of sweet and savory treats from Nourish Kitchen + Table. Luxe and carcinogen-free cleaning products shipped in from Germany line the wall, while a sprawling deck out back invites customers to lounge as they finish a load. It’s not just a place to get one’s laundry done in under 30 minutes (the washers are both time and water efficient as well), but a hub for socializing and community. The sisters regularly hold yoga and meditation courses here.
Determined to find a solution, Corinna convinced Theresa, a Central Saint Martins–trained graphic designer, to join her in the city in 2014 to open up their own laundry service. After deep-diving into the most socially conscious plumbing options, the sisters were met with pushback from every angle: permits, loans, construction. But they persisted and rolled up their sleeves, with Corinna putting up drywall and Theresa assembling their outside deck, to ensure they opened their doors. Celsious has since become a Williamsburg staple and disrupted an age-old, male-dominated industry that had not only remained stagnate in innovation but was also skeptical of two young women—especially those of color with fashion backgrounds—looking for a stake.
Instead, with their energy-efficient Electrolux washers and dryers, homemade cleaning products, and zero-waste system, Celsious stands poised at the center of a growing national conversation around sustainability and transparency in beauty and cleaning products. Urging against dry cleaning, Celsious has the propensity to in turn change the fashion system and clean up the very messy business of laundry.
Here, the Williams sisters reveal how they got their start and scaled back their own closets, and explain why “dry clean only” isn’t always what it seems.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRESS
Corinna Williams: “Theresa and I were born and raised in Germany. The entire concept of doing-laundry-outside-of-your-home thing was foreign to us. Our dad is from the States. So we were not completely overwhelmed when we moved here, but some of these smaller, mundane, day-to-day things that you do not really think about, like laundry, were a thing all of a sudden. Whenever I talk to other friends in New York, it was a thing for them, too—a pain point.”
Theresa Williams: “It’s mind-blowing that in this city, where seemingly everything else exists and there is so much creativity, that there could be an idea so central to everybody’s lives that nobody had tackled yet. For many people drop-off service is the solution, but there are still a lot of people that, if given the opportunity to do their laundry in an inviting space, they’d prefer to do their own washing—there’s an element of privacy, intimacy, specialty garment care. A thing that boggles people’s minds in the industry is when they see us, it’s like, ‘Oh, the fashion girls…’ Well, you know what—all fashion is laundry. Once you wear it, it is laundry. People who care about their clothes are really an important segment of the market!”
TURNING THE CAREER DIAL
TW: “I think we’ve always had this entrepreneurial spirit. We always known that at some point we wanted to work for ourselves. Both of us are workaholics. When we work for somebody else, it is very hard to separate ourselves because everything feels like our baby. Everything feels like our project—it is the ultimate expression of yourself.”
CW: “To me, it did not feel like pivoting in my career. It felt like the next step, even though it was obviously something that was dramatically different to anything either of us had ever done.”
CAUTION: WOMEN WORKING
TW: “We found a spot and signed a lease in 2016. We spent enough time reading the building plans, going over things with our engineers, refining things. We had about nine months of build-out. We were on the construction site every single day. We started during February, and it was freezing every single day.”
CW: “Contractors started skipping out, which is a really common thing. And if I can’t get someone in here to finish something, I am going to do it myself. I am going to put in the flooring, the drywall, and I’m going to paint. It’s about doing whatever it takes, which nearly killed us!”
TW: “I built the deck in our backyard!”
CW: “We never butted heads on major decisions. When it came to certain things I know Theresa really cares about and I don’t necessarily have a very strong opinion on them, like design-related aspects, I’d be like, ‘Do your thing. You want those tiles? I am not the biggest fan of those tiles, but I also don’t feel so strongly that I need to start a fight.’
TW: “Sometimes we are like, ‘We wish we had another sister that just went to business school, who was an accountant. One sister who has a business/science background!’”
A SUSTAINABLE UNIFORM THAT’S ON BRAND
CW: “Four years ago, I got rid of a lot of clothes. I think the main reason was that I needed both the physical space as well as the headspace. I was at a point where we were working 24/7 on Celsious. I just cannot be spending time planning an outfit. I basically need a uniform.”
TW: “When we are in the space we prefer to wear light colors because it goes with the brand. Jeans and definitely functional items. And then, as with everything we source, we look at materials. I think we both prefer to wear natural materials that are sustainably produced. I wear the same thing every day, and then every couple of days I’ll just throw that exact outfit in the washer and then put it on again. So I am trying to get my closet to a point where for any type of reason I literally only have one item in each category. I am a very passionate knitter, so I will finally have time to create all my own pieces.”
CW: “I procrastinate on laundry even though I own a laundromat, so I have a big stack!”
WHAT MAKES CELSIOUS UNIQUE
TW: “Customers can take up six washers and they will still have their laundry done in the same amount of time because all the washers run at the same time. That’s why even some people that have machines in their building or unit will still come to us. Because even at home someone will have to run back up and down to the basement to put in another load. It is a whole-day operation.”
CW: “We did do a lot of research. A bunch of the products we carry are from Europe. One of the brands that we love, Sonett, is from Germany, and we grew up using it. We love their oxygen brightener. It’s like a bleach alternative that’s not chlorine, and you can use it to brighten your whites. It’s a really efficient fade treatment. We also carry their wool wash and wool conditioner, which are olive oil based and hydrating.”
TW: “A large part of our demographic is local WIlliamsburg, Brooklyn, people. They are very dialed in, shopping at Whole Foods, buying natural beauty products. But when you talk to them about fabric softeners, dryer sheets, even the type of detergent they use, they are just like, ‘I’m just using dryer sheets because my mom used to do it.’ And the second you tell them, ‘You know what? Actually a lot of them are laced with fabric softener and those two items are some of the least necessary and most toxic.’ Conventional sheets usually contain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, which is important for us women and our reproductive health.”
LUXURY GOES GREEN
TW: “A huge thing going forward is that manufacturers and brands are taking responsibility for their products beyond sale—for their care and disposal. So any brands are allowing consumers to bring back products—like Patagonia—and they will recycle the items. This is what really needs to happen, ensuring circular product cycle. You put all these things out in the world and you expect the consumer to be responsible for their disposal. Companies should be responsible for the products that they put out, on top of looking at ethical professional practices and innovative sustainable fabric. That is the only future we can have.”
CW: “Same thing for luxury brands: They are lacking transparency about where things are made, where materials are sourced from.”
COMING OUT IN THE WASH
CW: “I am proud of the fact that we were able to prove so many people wrong, because we knew we were right and we knew we were on to something. We didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. We never doubted ourselves. There are more moments where we thought, How are we going to get it done? Then we did, and it’s been so widely accepted.”