By  on September 3, 2009

Nancy Talbot, who recognized the dearth of stylish clothes for suburbanites and launched Talbots Inc. with her husband Rudolf in 1947, died Sunday at age 89 in her Boulder, Colo., home.

The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said one of her daughters, Polly Talbot Donald.

Born in Charlevoix, Mich., Talbot dropped out of Radcliffe College to sign up with the Red Cross during World War II. While working in France, she met her future husband, Capt. Rudolf Talbot, who was serving as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. After German forces surrendered, the pair returned to the U.S., married and settled outside of Boston.

Recognizing a need for well-made clothes for women who lived outside major cities, they opened a store that catered to those overlooked shoppers in Rudolf’s hometown of Hingham, Mass., in 1947. They took over a space that had housed his father’s Johnny Appleseed boutique, which had been shuttered when he died shortly after its debut. While debating whether to use the same name, they arranged for a Harvard Business School case study and sat in the back of the classroom when students debated their findings. In a 1985 interview with The Boston Globe, Rudolf Talbot explained the name change: “Everyone in the discussion said, ‘Why are they paying Appleseed for a franchise? Why don’t they go on their own?’ So that’s what we did.”

Nancy Talbot was known to describe the shop as being smaller than the living room in the couple’s Cambridge apartment. The fact that it was located next door to a bar resulted in some unwelcome shoppers. “All these drunks would come staggering in,” she told The Boston Globe in a 2002 interview.

Women’s, men’s and children’s clothing were offered initially in the first store, but the focus was quickly shifted solely to women’s. So much so the husband-and-wife team launched the company’s direct-mail business in 1948 by sending 3,000 black and white fliers to New Yorker magazine subscribers. Nancy Talbot molded the company with her colorful take on fashion, her own sensible style, homey merchandising and willingness to stick with proven catalogue styles.

Early on, she and her husband needed more room for their burgeoning business, so they relocated to a large white house a few blocks from their store and painted the front door bright red at the suggestion of a local designer. The red door became one of the retailer’s signatures. As the company continued to grow — there are currently 600 stores —the Talbots moved their corporate headquarters a mile down the road to 175 Beal Street, where it stands today on what is now known as One Talbots Drive. Throughout the years, Nancy Talbot stayed true to her customers’ fashion sense without trying to advance trends. “Boston’s about six months behind New York in style, and Hingham’s about six months behind Boston,” she once said.

In 1973, the husband-and-wife team sold their company, which was then a four-store operation and direct-mail business, to General Mills for about $6 million, Donald said. At that time, Rudolf Talbot retired, but Nancy stayed on as a vice president. In 1983, she too bowed out for good, after 35 years of service. Rudolf died in 1987.

In an interview a few years later, she described her merchandising philosophy: “Our customer wants to conserve what is good and right for her in fashion….She knows what is becoming to her.She doesn’t want change for the sake of change, but rather she adopts those styles and looks that become her and her life. She dresses to please herself rather than to keep up with the latest styles.”

In addition to Donald, Talbot is survived by another daughter, Jane Winter of Lake Forest, Ill. A memorial service will be held this fall in Cambridge, Mass.

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