By  on March 27, 2006

Sigrid Olsen is celebrating a milestone of her own this year — 20 years in business.

Along the way, the designer, a graduate and now trustee of Montserrat College of Art, has never strayed from her artistic roots. In the early Eighties, she had a co-op crafts gallery, Ten Hands, in Rockport, Mass., where she, two potters, a jeweler and weaver sold their crafts. But when she introduced Segrets Sun Prints apparel in the spring of 1986, it “pretty much took off” and Olsen started selling to small specialty stores along the East Coast and in California. The Golden State continues to be a key market for her brand, as are Florida and New England.

In 1999, in the first of what would be a series of acquisitions, Liz Claiborne Inc. paid a reported $54 million for an 84.5 percent stake in the sportswear firm. At that time, its portfolio included Sigrid Olsen Sport, Sigrid Olsen Collection and So Blue by Sigrid Olsen, and annual sales were said to be about $60 million. Today, the brand consists of the Sigrid Olsen, Sigrid Olsen Collection, So Be It by Sigrid Olsen, Sigrid Olsen Petite and Sigrid Olsen Woman labels. Olsen and Liz Claiborne executives declined to comment on current annual sales.

“My vision wasn’t really as big as it has become,” Olsen said. “That vision really grew over time. I knew I was on the right track. It really felt right and I knew it would pay off.”

With the might of Liz Claiborne behind her business, Olsen is on the expansion trail. This year, she expects to increase the number of freestanding Sigrid Olsen stores to 69 from 44. In addition, last month she opened one with a more distinctive point of view in Tampa, Fla. Designed by Pompeii A.D., that location will serve as a prototype for future stores, since it is more visually interesting, is geared for that specific market and has a social context as well as more of a residential feel, Olsen said.

“Retail expansion is our number-one initiative. For me, it’s very important to be very clear about what this brand is and what it isn’t. We want to make it distinctive,” Olsen said. “There is a huge array of brands. We want consumers and trade to understand the difference between ours and Talbots, Chico’s, Ellen Tracy, Lucky Jeans and Ann Taylor. With the exception of Lucky, most of those brands are competing for the same demographic.”As part of her plan to customize a store’s design to its specific location, Olsen is looking into getting art students involved with the visual displays. “The culture of art has driven this apparel and accessories company, and lifestyle brand,” Olsen said. “So you can be in a mall and forget that you’re in a mall. You can be transported into feeling good. We want to make people feel good, aside from feeling good just trying on our clothes.”

The Tampa store, for example, has a turquoise-colored wall covered with framed photos of the designer vacationing. There is also a lounge area with a coffee table stocked with magazines near the checkout to try to insure any lag time is pleasant. “It’s more residential and less corporate and industrial, and that’s hard to do. It’s an illusion, but it really goes to the core of what makes people feel good,” Olsen said.

This spring, the company introduced an ad campaign and its first magalogue featuring model India Hicks at ease in the Bahamas. A self-professed island girl, Olsen said she has had an affinity for the ocean since she was a child vacationing with her family on Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, Olsen, who wed on Isla Mujeres in Mexico, did this interview by telephone during an Anguilla getaway. Aside from inspiring color schemes, prints and textile designs, being near the ocean has helped shore up some other ideas. The company is considering introducing such categories as swimwear and paper goods, and opening retail kiosks in resorts.

Hiring Ellis Kruger as design director last year has somewhat freed Olsen. “That has just lifted the brand to a new level, and has allowed me to focus on the whole vision and direction of the company,” she said.

Another addition to the company is Olsen’s 24-year-old daughter, Brita, who is concept designer and brand stylist. That’s quite a step up from the early Eighties, when Olsen would take her daughter along to the craft fairs where she sold her wares. At that time, Olsen handled the bulk of the work with the assistance of five or six people. Today, there are 70 employees in her Wakefield, Mass., office and New York showroom. That figure does not include the number of staffers in her freestanding stores.While there’s no knocking success, Olsen doesn’t regret ploughing through those early days with little support to speak of. Looking back, she said she was a real entrepreneur who hired a handful of local women to use her hand-printed textiles for pillows, pot holders, quilts and jackets. Once Sigrid Olsen hand-prints were introduced in 1986, the designer found herself handling specs, choosing colors, taking phone orders, packing boxes and going to trade shows.

“That was fun, though. There’s something about being an entrepreneur and doing every aspect of the business that makes you understand all the different departments and see what’s going on,” she said.

All along, prints with a resort flavor have been her signature look, just as bold prints are for Lilly Pulitzer and Marimekko. With her business thriving, she has more time for printmaking and textile design. “I’ve sort of come full circle. That’s where I began.”

Olsen still spends much of her time working where her business was born. “I need distance from the craziness of New York to work in the art studio in my house. That’s really the nucleus of the creative part of me,” she said. “The textile team and brand development team is here. And it’s so easy to get to New York from Massachusetts.”

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