BLUE WILLI’S SEES GOLD IN U.S.
Byline: Katherine Bowers
LACEY, Ore. — “Growth comes for those who deserve it,” said Troels Engholm, the president of Blue Willi’s, an upscale Danish sportswear company quietly amassing a following in the U.S.
If Engholm sounds stern, it’s for a good reason. A Puritanical focus on creating high-end, sophisticated sportswear has served the Danish company well both in its 50-year history and in its foray in America.
The privately held company, which commenced U.S. operations in 1995, is expanding at roughly 50 percent each year, with bookings doubling for each of the last four collections. Blue Willi’s produces two men’s and women’s natural fiber sportswear lines each year, as well as a small selection of handbags, shoes and accessories.
They’ve gotten accolades from retailers, some of whom have petitioned the company to let them establish Blue Willi’s franchises. The jury’s out on that one, said Engholm, who believes that “growth is as difficult to manage as its opposite.”
Blue Willi’s is still a modest enterprise, pegged somewhere between $6 million and $7 million in the U.S., according to industry sources. Parent company Blue Willi AS is estimated at $100 million to $150 million annually, based on distribution in 22 countries, a concept store in Denmark and two boutiques in Poland.
The line is casual and minimalist, with a price point that plunks it firmly in the better category. Sweaters wholesale from $109 to $149, bottoms from $69 to $79 and coats from $169 to $299.
Clean lines, natural fibers and a palette that keeps to white, ecru, olive, camel, indigo, ice blue, coffee and black make up the design aesthetic. The pieces are classic, but with subtle twists. For example, a cotton indigo sweater pairs several knit textures with a section of seamed, layered cotton and a Prince of Wales plaid asymmetric wrap skirt is trimmed in indigo.
Because of its price, the line generally attracts women aged 35 and up, although retailer Dena Draxton said some of the pieces are drawing interest from moneyed twentysomethings.
The line is heavy on cotton, silk, wool, flax and leather, with novelty treatments: coated with a polymer for a soft shine, for example, or fluffed into a fake shearling for a coat lining. The company makes an exception to its natural-fiber rule for Lycra spandex, a small amount of which is blended into pants for extra comfort.
That gives the line a “true missy fit,” according to retailer Shannon Thompson, who carries the line in her two Seattle-area stores and who also has a significant amount of Blue Willi’s in her closet. Hangtags are made of wood branded with the company’s sailboat logo.
According to Engholm, the focus on natural fibers is not an ecological posture — the fibers aren’t organic — but a statement about wearability and easy care.
“Human bodies breath better [in natural fibers] than in plastic,” Engholm noted.
Contrary to fashion convention, the longer a Blue Willi’s style lingers the better its performance at retail. A pearl-stitch, roll-neck sweater, for example, has been in the collection for eight years and each year surpasses its previous annual volume, Engholm said. In 2000, the sweater sold 800 pieces in the U.S., and halfway through fiscal 2001 the company has sold almost 700 pieces.
Most of the volume comes from its core pieces — deep blue sweaters that are dyed with indigo and then knitted, a tricky endeavor because the plant-based dye changes the consistency of the fiber.
Indeed, the name Blue Willi’s comes from a nickname Danish locals gave to company founder Marius Willi Thomassen, who was reportedly covered in blue dye by 2 o’clock every afternoon. Willi made clothing for neighbors and friends and ran a contract knitting shop from 1950 until 1993. Then cupid intervened: daughter Grethe, who currently designs the line, married Peter Pedersen, a businessman with an apparel background.
“He said you’ve really got something here, let’s design your own brand,” Engholm said.
In population, wealth and sheer affinity for blue, the U.S. represents an important opportunity for Blue Willi’s.
“The U.S. is a big chunk to chew,” Engholm said.
To position the U.S. operation for manageable growth, Engholm moved it from its original location in Dublin, Calif., to its current digs in Lacey, Wash., a suburb about an hour outside of Seattle.
Although the connection is not immediately obvious, Lacey is in Thurston County, one of the fastest-growing geographic areas in the U.S. with a ready labor supply that Engholm is eyeing for eventual U.S. production. In the meantime, there’s a direct airfreight link between Seattle and Copenhagen, which allows Blue Willi’s to get product to U.S. retailers within four working days.
Because Dublin, Calif.’s nearest metropolis, San Francisco, lacked such an air link, the company used UPS, which was routed through Louisville, Ky., and caused a sluggish supply chain, Engholm said.
The company currently has a base of 350 specialty stores and no intention of courting department store business, Engholm said.
Draxton, who owns a single store in Cannon Beach, Ore., said she and Engholm have discussed opening a Blue Willi’s store. She’s been scouting Portland, Ore., locations and said she’d be happy selling Blue Willi’s full time. She said she did close to $300,000 last year with Blue Willi’s men’s and women’s lines in her own 700-square-foot store.
While a stand-alone store may be on the horizon, Engholm said he thinks the biggest growth area will come from the store-in-store fixtures the company introduced last year. The stainless steel and sandstone pebble fixtures have somewhat of a nautical feel.
Some 30 retailers currently have the fixtures, and Engholm said roughly 15 more showed significant interest in installing them at a recent fashion show and cruise on Elliot Bay, which the company hosted for 80 retailers.
Shannon Thomson opted for a Blue Willi’s fixture when she opened her second Harbor Naturals store in Gig Harbor, Wash. She said she went from “dabbling” to $50,000 worth of business on the line in the second half of last year.
Thomson, who also carries Karen Kane, Fitigues and Cutter & Buck, said she was initially reluctant to carry a deep selection of Blue Willi’s because the price point is higher than her other lines. Thomson attended the cruise, was “blown away” by the camel pieces for fall 2001 and wrote a $35,000 order.
She’s still holding the paper, though.
“I have to be paranoid for a few more days,” she quipped. “There is no other line I write like this.”