Dana Buchman and Sigrid Olsen, two high-profile sportswear designers who at one time had significant businesses under Liz Claiborne Inc., found themselves at a crossroads when Claiborne abruptly closed their then-struggling divisions in 2008. Buchman’s sportswear line, which had been aimed at the bridge customer, was licensed by Claiborne to Kohl’s Corp. as an exclusive moderate brand, while Olsen’s art-inspired sportswear business was shuttered after failing to find a buyer.
This story first appeared in the March 11, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD caught up with both women recently to talk about their new careers and how they’re faring in their second acts.
“It’s great. It’s such a luxury to have a second phase,” said Dana Buchman. After designing for 30 years, she switched gears and threw herself into a nonprofit organization called Promise Project, which promotes, sponsors and develops programs that help underprivileged children with learning disabilities. The nonprofit establishes relationships with organizations in New York City to get students the help they need.
“I’m using a lot of the same skills that I used in the fashion industry,” said Buchman, whose daughter, Charlotte, was diagnosed with a learning disability when she was a child. They co-authored a book about their struggles entitled “A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities.” The book explores Charlotte’s struggle with her learning disabilities, as well as Buchman’s own path to self-discovery. Buchman donated the profits from the book to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Today, Charlotte is in graduate school for social work.
“We’re starting a program to identify what learning disabilities are, and a guide for parents on how to get help,” Buchman said. The programs are designed to help kids who are “struggling in school, who don’t graduate and don’t get diplomas and don’t know why they’re failing.”
Claiborne gave Buchman an office at company headquarters, where she works full-time on the nonprofit.
After an adjustment period, Buchman—whose line had once been an anchor in the bridge departments of stores such as Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, and at its peak racked up wholesale volume of between $180 million and $200 million—is finding fulfillment in her new role.
“When you leave something, it’s a shock,” she said. But after a while, she was able to establish the same rhythm she once had designing her line for Liz Claiborne.
“The feeling is very much like being in the fashion business,” she said. “You set a goal, you try to make it and surpass it. It doesn’t have the tactile part, but it is creative. You’re creating a program that has the marketing side to it. I’m a fund raiser. The need is immense. There are few programs like this.”
She said she meets with the foundation and seeks sponsorships.
Promise Project is organizing a fund-raiser that will take place May 3 at Studio 450 in New York. There will be a designer accessories auction and a cocktail party.
Buchman said she’s still in touch with many of the people she worked with at Claiborne. But one thing is certain: She has no desire to get back into the fashion fray. “I don’t have that itch,” she said. “I have a place to put my energy and passion. It’s fun having something different.”
When Sigrid Olsen’s company closed in 2008, she retreated to her home in Massachusetts, where she set up her own gallery and studio art Web site. In the summer of 2009, she opened a seasonal store in Rocky Neck, Mass., called the Isla Beach House, which sells colorful knits and maxidresses by other designers, reflecting an island-casual vibe. After her non-compete ran out in 2010, Olsen intended to get back into the fashion business with her own clothing line, Isla Beach House. However, Olsen told WWD that she subsequently had a change of heart.
“I’m not going to do it. I was going to do it and formed a corporation, and met with legal. But I have so many other things I want to do, and don’t want to immerse myself. And, I don’t want to get in bed with anybody again,” said Olsen, in a telephone interview from Tulum, Mexico, where she was hosting a yoga retreat. She said it was an interesting process to go through, and after Claiborne closed her business, “I immediately thought I would do that, but I’m happy with things the way they are.” At its peak, Olsen’s brand at Claiborne was generating wholesale volume of $160 million. However, it started to lose money after an aggressive retail expansion that saw the firm open 54 stores in roughly four years. Claiborne still owns the rights to the Sigrid Olsen name.
But Olsen is moving full steam ahead on several fronts. In December, she added e-commerce to her Web site, sigridolsenart.com, which features her own paintings as well as prints, ceramics, recipe cards, yoga cards and stationery. “I dipped my foot back into textile design. I was [originally] a print designer, but I got so big, I had to buy prints from other studios,” she said about her former life. Now she spends her days painting and creating artwork and ceramics for both individuals and decorators. She also began hosting week-long inspirational yoga retreats with her sister, who’s a yoga instructor, around the world. During the retreats, they mix wellness activities such as yoga and meditation with hands-on art workshops run by Olsen. She is also writing a book, “From Fashion to Fresh Air. My Life Redesigned,” which is part memoir “and part what to do when your life changes.” She has also self-published a cookbook called “Cooking With Color.”
Olsen said she’s been pitching a “mother-daughter” TV show to the networks with her daughter, Brita Olsen, who’s a freelance stylist in New York, which would encompass home decorating, style and food. “We’d cover it all,” she said.
Olsen stays in touch with many of the people from her previous company and the industry and attends meetings of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
“I miss the interaction with the bigger world,” admitted Olsen, who will open another gallery in Sarasota, Fla., this month in the artsy Burns Court district. She plans to spend her winters there, and her summers in Massachusetts. “It’s a bigger audience than what I have,” she said.
On further reflection about what she misses most about the Seventh Avenue hustle and bustle, she replied, “Today, I realized that I keep creating new projects all the time, because I am so used to designing new collections every season. I think that was the hardest thing to get used to…no need for constant creativity and freshness like we get in the fashion industry. The lack of deadlines was a relief, but I still have that built-in mechanism that is looking for newness all the time.”