Fashioning a New Life
Top designer Sigrid Olsen reinvents herself and her career in Sarasota.
by Kim Hackett
Photography by Jenny Acheson
Until 2008, designer Sigrid Olsen presided over her namesake fashion business of cheerful clothing and accessories that boasted legions of devoted women customers, 54 stores around the country and more than $100 million in sales for parent company Liz Claiborne.
Then, shockingly and literally overnight, her brand was shuttered. Liz Claiborne, struggling to get through the recession, was selling off and closing labels that appealed to baby boomers, taking Claiborne from more than 40 to under 10 brands. The decision took Olsen from a New York fashion icon to one of the unemployed. “All of a sudden I had nothing to do,” she says.
Olsen, 59, is OK with that now, and has become a model for personal and professional reinvention. After taking deep yoga breaths and long walks on a Mexico beach after the painful news, her “compulsive creativity,” as she describes it, bubbled over into new ventures.
One of those ventures now faces Pineapple Avenue, in the artsy Burns Court district of downtown Sarasota, where a “Sigrid Olsen Art Gallery” shingle hangs. The store, in its third year, reflects her aesthetic—colorful, nature-inspired bold prints as well as note cards, ceramics and the Isla Beach House “beach-to-bistro” clothing line curated from lesser-known designers. Olsen also has a gallery in her summer home in the Rocky Neck Art Colony in Gloucester, Mass. And, as disappointing as it is to fans, that’s all the retail Olsen plans for now.
The fine print Olsen signed when she was a struggling textile artist in the 1980s, and again when Liz Claiborne acquired her company, makes designing clothes too complicated now, Olsen says.
“My energy is best spent elsewhere,” she says. “Sketching clothes is not a creative outlet for me.”
Instead of a Seventh Avenue showroom, Olsen now creates by natural light overlooking Sarasota Bay from her two-bedroom condominium. She takes a yoga class nearly every day. “I’m a big believer in going with the flow,” says Olsen.
That flow has brought Olsen through a new window in recent years—artistic yoga retreats in Tulum, Mexico; Provence, France; and Italy. She plans someday to open a retreat center in Florida, combining it with a retail store.
Olsen had gravitated to yoga when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. She now loves sharing this intimate part of her life with other women, along with a few life lessons she has learned along the way.
“Don’t underestimate your talents,” Olsen advises. “And make sure you stick up for yourself.”
Those are lessons Olsen wishes she had absorbed in the 1980s, when she was a young mother using raw potato carvings dipped in paint to create fabrics. She sold her wares at an art co-op; her first product was a potholder. She eventually hired women to sew pillows, blankets and dresses, selling them at art shows. Then one day a man walked into the co-op and asked if she’d consider mass-producing her designs.
“I rode my bike to my first business meeting,” Olsen says.
The investor and another man put up about $135,000; Olsen provided the creativity and labor. She had 10 percent of the company’s ownership, which diminished over time with more investors.
“I was so happy to have someone give me direction,” Olsen says. “I didn’t have the vision to see what it could become.”
Sigrid Olsen opened a New York office in the same building as Liz Claiborne and expanded to resort wear, jeans, sweaters and dresses that the company sold in department stores, including Nordstrom. Olsen’s line caught the eye of Claiborne in 1999 and the company acquired Sigrid Olsen for $54 million. Olsen’s take was less than $2 million.
“Later you say to yourself, ‘I did all the work,’” Olsen says. She regrets not thinking enough of her talent to demand a larger share of the company.
But she had a glamorous job as creative director of Sigrid Olsen with a good salary and benefits. Her late husband, Curtis Sanders, who died this spring, was her business partner; her daughter, Brita, joined the company as a fashion stylist, and her son, Erik, created and operated the Sigrid Olsen website.
Analysts called Olsen “a kinder, gentler Martha Stewart” and Claiborne put her upfront in marketing the line, which once sold in Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and other high-end department stores in the U.S., Canada and Britain. Claiborne opened the first Sigrid Olsen stand-alone store in 2003, competing against Chico’s and Ann Taylor for affluent baby-boomer women’s affections. Claiborne planned 200 to 300 stores and had big plans for a lifestyle line, similar to Martha Stewart Living.
Baby boomer women gravitated to Olsen’s designs because she was one of them and knew how to “design for her customer,” says Kristin Joyce, an expert in global brand development who now lives in Sarasota. Joyce, who met Olsen in New York and became a close friend, adds, “She is likeable and could be trusted.”
In the midst of fast-paced growth, Olsen found a lump in her breast. She endured a double mastectomy and took a month off to recover. “I had my first taste of not working,” Olsen says. “I hadn’t realized how much work had taken over so much of my life.”
Her cancer recovery gave her a glimpse of a rewarding life without the stress and deadlines that come with running a top fashion label. She lunched with friends; she did the warrior pose and painted. And because she is a “creative compulsive,” she bought the Rocky Neck property to sell the work she created.
“I lost the core of who I was” as the Sigrid Olsen brand grew, Olsen says. “The smaller venue helped me regain myself and distill my vision.”
Olsen returned to New York in the midst of dizzying company growth. She supervised 150 employees and a dozen designers. Looking back, Olsen says the company grew too quickly and quality suffered. The Sigrid Olsen aesthetic less and less reflected the woman.
When the recession hit in 2007, department stores consolidated and mall vacancies soared. Claiborne, which owned Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand, announced it would consolidate from about 45 to five labels. Claiborne’s indecision on which lines it was cutting dragged out for “six horrible months.”
“We were designing lines of clothing that were never made,” Olsen says.
Then in 2008, Claiborne announced it was keeping Juicy Couture and Lucky—the brands appealing to younger women—and selling Ellen Tracy and Sigrid Olsen, the brands with older boomer appeal. Claiborne sold Tracy, but it did not find an acceptable buyer for Sigrid Olsen. Claiborne closed the retail stores and pulled the line off department store shelves.
Olsen says she never saw anything collapse so quickly. The break-up meant Sigrid was not only out of a job, but she had lost her good name. Olsen had a non-compete with Claiborne, preventing her from designing until 2010. Now Olsen can design clothes but cannot use her name because Claiborne (now called Fifth and Pacific Companies) holds the trademark.
Shortly after the company collapsed, Sigrid retreated to Tulum, Mexico. “Once all the trappings of my life were stripped away—the office, the big house, the staff, the meetings, the shoes—I was left alone with myself,” Olsen wrote in her blog, carried on her new company’s website. “I walked for hours (barefoot) on the silvery shore of Tulum that winter trying to heal my damaged spirit. I found so much more than I ever expected.” A year later, working with her sister, a yoga instructor, Olsen hosted her first retreat incorporating art, yoga, meditation and journaling.
Olsen made Sarasota a second home in 2011 after discovering Burns Court while visiting a yoga studio, something she makes a habit to do in every place she visits. And, as if it were a sign, the space next door had a for-rent sign. “We signed a lease on this place before we had a place to live,” Sanders says. “We didn’t want to be here without a business.”
Sigrid Olsen Art Gallery and Isla Beach House quietly opened in 2011. Olsen does not have much of an advertising budget, so customers have come in by word of mouth or when spotting the familiar name. She does a brisk business on her website, sigridolsenart.com, selling her art, accessories and clothing. She considered franchising the concept to hotels in resort communities but has backed off the idea. Growth and revenue are no longer the primary goals.
“The store is doing well, but I couldn’t rely on it to be my sole business,” Olsen says. “I’m happy with the exposure it gives my work; it’s my portal to my community.”
She would now like to focus on developing a “creative lifestyle center” in Florida, incorporating art, yoga, retail and inspirational retreats. She is keeping an eye open for possible locations but does not have a timetable.
“I’m looking to integrate my life and launch something special,” Olsen says.
She admits she sometimes misses the “trips to Europe, the intense creative collaborations, the endless labor of love that was my business.” But she has peace.
“I do feel that the universe was conspiring to get me to a new place,” she says.