WAKEFIELD, Mass. — Shortly after designer Sigrid Olsen opened her first retail store in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in 2003, a friend told her it was perfect for conservative Boston women.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ Warning signals immediately go off in my head,” recalled Olsen, lounging on a low-slung sofa with her daughter, Brita, the firm’s concept designer, at company headquarters about 15 miles north of Boston. “I had been worried that [the store] was a little generic — too much like the competition.”
That competition would be Ann Taylor, Talbots and J. Jill, to name a few already aiming to be “perfect for” the classics customer. Backed by parent company Liz Claiborne Inc., Sigrid Olsen has opened 34 stores in the last 24 months, and plans to have 100 in operation by 2007. The goal is a 200- to 300-store chain, Olsen said.
The Sigrid Olsen brand, which caters to affluent Baby Boomers, is betting heavily on its founder’s artistic sensibility and distinctive use of color as it expands into retail and licensed merchandise.
A new store design from SoHo-based retail design firm Pompei A.D. is intended to set apart Sigrid Olsen from its rivals through an aesthetic highlighting Olsen’s persona — her artwork, travel and hints of her Scandinavian heritage.
Olsen, 52, pointed out that, unlike “Jill” or “Ann,” she is a real woman with a real lifestyle serving as fodder for apparel, store decor and brand extensions. Prints made from her original watercolors, for example, are consistently among the line’s bestsellers.
David Wolfe, creative director for retail consultancy Doneger Group, said Liz Claiborne is wise to emphasize Olsen’s story, which began in Rockport, Mass., in 1984 with fabrics she hand-printed using raw potatoes carved into designs.
“She is a kinder, gentler Martha Stewart,” he said. “We are in a celebrity era, so anytime you can hook the right personality to a merchandising message, you’ve got a winner.”
Even before the redesign, the stores have exceeded expectations, with particularly strong results in town center locations, Olsen said.
During a July conference call, Liz Claiborne executive vice president Trudy Sullivan said the company was “encouraged” by the brand’s “especially strong second-quarter sales in both department stores and our own Sigrid Olsen stores.”
Retail is only one of the brand’s engines. The company recruited Ellis Kreuger, former creative director at contemporary label Tocca, to retool fits and silhouettes, giving Sigrid Olsen options for Baby Boomers and young mothers.
Kreuger’s first major contribution is a new department store bridge line called Sigrid, bowing at the spring market on Sept. 6. Embroideries, silk jacket linings and buttons derive from Olsen’s art-based prints. The company also launched a pant program aimed, like Banana Republic, at creating fit franchises. In addition, Sigrid Olsen is growing beyond apparel. In July, the brand launched costume jewelry and a home collection in department stores.
All in all, the Sigrid Olsen brand is having a moment, and its founder means to seize it.
At Liz Claiborne’s annual shareholders’ meeting in May, chairman and chief executive officer Paul Charron cited Sigrid Olsen as among brands with the potential to become “global, multichannel, multicategory brands that reach consumers when, where and how they shop.”
Liz Claiborne, a $4.6 billion business, acquired 84.5 percent of Segrets Inc., holder of the Sigrid Olsen label, in 1999 for an undisclosed sum. Olsen retained a small stake. At the purchase, Olsen told The Boston Globe that company revenues were about $60 million. Liz Claiborne does not divulge the sales volume of individual brands it owns.
Asked why major expansion is coming six years after acquisition, Olsen smiled and said: “I had to prove myself.”
There are other factors in play, as well. Opening Sigrid Olsen stores fits with Liz Claiborne’s strategy of weaning its reliance on department stores and generating growth with vertical retail operations.
In addition, the success of Chico’s FAS Inc., and its sister lingerie concept, Soma, has shown Baby Boomers have apparel dollars to spare.
Erin Ashley Smith, analyst with New York-based Argus Research, said many Baby Boomers like making fashion “discoveries” in boutiques.
“Most won’t know the brand is owned by Liz Claiborne,” she said. “For those types of consumers, going to a stand-alone store is a better way of getting them to pay full price for the brand, rather than buying it on sale at a department store.”
The brand also has had fashion timing in its favor.
Consumers’ love of all things colorful plays into one of the brand’s core strengths. On the downside, it also means it has to work a little harder to remain distinctive, Olsen said.
Color will wash throughout the new store design, bowing in Tampa, Fla., in November. The facade features wood stained in aquamarine, green or terra-cotta and accented with coordinating ceramic tile (color palettes are used regionally, with an aqua scheme slated for Tampa).
Inside the stores, Olsen’s watercolors will hang on the walls (customers can purchase limited-edition prints), rugs and lamps are created from her signature prints and there is a banquette area where herbal tea is served.
Ron Pompei, whose namesake firm designed the lauded, scrapbook-style Anthropologie interiors, hung out with Olsen in her studio, a converted former yarn mill with soaring wood-ribbed ceilings, and in her bright, cottage-style home in bucolic Hamilton, Mass.
Out of the collaboration came a store that’s “meant to look as if Sigrid just stepped out for a moment,” said Brita Olsen, who has started to serve as her mother’s proxy in design matters.
“I know what she’d hate, and what she’d push for,” said the younger Olsen, who reviews everything from clothing collections to window-display sketches for brand consistency. Her training as a production set dresser has been valuable as the company struggled with how to create a more personal store environment.
Her youth is also valuable.
“I am still a 23-year-old person, so sometimes I do challenge the brand a little,” she said. “I know when it’s appropriate to push for a strapless dress. And sometimes they make it into the line, and do pretty well.”
Designer Kreuger has unveiled five pant fits, ranging from the traditional high-waisted Impressionist to the lower-rise Innovator. Each has a color-coded label, so in future seasons, an Innovator customer can quickly recognize her preferred fit.
Kreuger also is pushing for “more sophisticated interpretations of my sportswear prints,” Olsen said. In practice, that might mean putting her artwork into a silver-threaded silk chiffon, instead of a simple cotton knit.
Olsen sees growth prospects not only in the company’s own retail, but in an array of licensed merchandise.
Handbags, jewelry, bedding, bath and table linens are already on the market. This past winter, almost a dozen prospective licensees showed up to hear about the firm’s vision, strategic goals and design direction. Eyewear is next up for launch, Olsen said. Footwear, children’s wear, swimwear and outerwear are also part of the plan.
Doneger’s Wolfe says that, though Sigrid Olsen’s profile is growing, Liz Claiborne “still needs to spend a lot more money on promotion. The brand is substantial and respected, but to be a lifestyle brand, they need wider exposure. To make a lifestyle brand work, you need to spend a ton of money.”
A certain celebrity does seem to be dawning for Olsen. Brita reminded her mother about being “recognized” recently after she signed a credit card receipt.
“That’s unusual,” the daughter teased. “Most people don’t think you’re actually a real person.”