Nancy Talbot, colorful retail icon, dies at 89

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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Red and orange were Nancy Talbot’s favorite colors, family and friends knew. By extension, so, too, did shoppers who used catalogs to sample the clothes she sold, and those who passed through the bright red door of Talbots, the store that bore her name.

“Metaphorically, that’s really who she was - very alive, a bright, brilliant person,’’ said her daughter Polly Talbot Donald of Boulder, Colo. “Color was something essential to her life - with her clothes, the way she dressed. The walls of her houses were orange and turquoise.’’

Mrs. Talbot, who with her husband opened in 1947 the first of what would grow into a chain of nearly 600 stores, died Sunday in her Boulder home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 89 and for much of her life divided her time between homes in Cambridge, Cohasset, Hingham, and Maine.

“Nancy believed chic and understated styles were the hallmarks of good taste,’’ Trudy Sullivan, president and chief executive officer of Talbots, said in a statement issued yesterday. “We pay tribute to the indelible mark she leaves at Talbots and extend our heartfelt condolences to her entire family.’’

The store that became the chain had a different name when Nancy and Rudolf Talbot became merchants. In 1945, his father opened a clothing store in Hingham, and died soon after. They took over and within two years were deciding whether to renew a franchise contract as a Johnny Appleseed’s clothing store.

“The Harvard Business School did a case history for us, and we sat in the back of the classroom while they discussed it,’’ Rudolf Talbot told the Globe in 1985. “Everyone in the discussion said, ‘Why are they paying Appleseed for a franchise? Why don’t they go on their own?’ So that’s what we did.’’

Initially carrying medium- and high-priced sportswear for children, women, and men, the couple renamed their store The Talbots.

Soon, they dropped everything but women’s wear. The small shop’s location, meanwhile, left a little to be desired: A bar was next door.

“All these drunks would come staggering in,’’ Mrs. Talbot told the Globe in 2002.

From the start, merchandise choices were made mostly to reflect her style and her affection for bright colors, which included more than just clothing. When the Talbots moved the store two blocks into a white clapboard house on North Street in Hingham, they heeded a designer’s advice and had the front door painted red.

By then, an even bigger change had occurred: Mrs. Talbot thought the store could expand its base of customers by sending 3,000 black-and-white fliers to potential customers. The couple used a subscription list from The New Yorker magazine and launched a mail-order operation in 1948.

By the early 1950s, they were sending out catalogs a few times each year. Some items remained constant and popular with catalog shoppers, such as a classic corduroy wraparound skirt.

“We’ve never really varied,’’ Mrs. Talbot told The New York Times in 1980.

Mrs. Talbot, meanwhile, developed a fine sense for which styles worked where and when. Each year, she made several trips to New York City, where she would choose designs to feature in the store and catalog.

“Boston’s about six months behind New York in style, and Hingham’s about six months behind Boston,’’ she told the Boston Herald in 1978. “We carry no pegged pants this year, and our slit skirts will not be slit to there.’’

Born in Charlevoix, Mich., where her family had a summer home, Nancy Orr grew up in Chicago, one of two daughters.

“She loved Chicago and loved cities,’’ her daughter said. “My parents lived for many years in Hingham, but I think she always thought of herself as a city girl.’’

Mrs. Talbot attended the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and went to Radcliffe College, leaving in 1941 after one year of studies to work with the Red Cross during World War II.

“I was the Red Cross girl saying, ‘How are you today?’ ’’ she told the Globe in 2002.

One soldier she greeted was Rudolf Talbot, an intelligence officer. They married in 1945 and took over his father’s Hingham store soon after.

“Our customer wants to conserve what is good and right for her in fashion,’’ Mrs. Talbot said in a company publication. “We look for clothes that are timeless because they are ladylike, simple but not contrived, gimmicky, or extreme, smart but not faddy, fashionable but not funky - chic and understated, the hallmarks of good taste.’’

Away from work, the Talbots gave their financial support to Robert J. Lurtsema’s “Morning Pro Musica’’ program on public radio, and decorated their homes with paintings and sculptures they purchased from artists throughout Greater Boston.

In 1973, the Talbots sold their company to General Mills for $6 million, but Mrs. Talbot remained as vice president and a guiding presence for the store’s styles and fashions until 1983, when she retired. Her husband died in 1987.

Mrs. Talbot was “known for her love of bright colors, modern art and architecture, and all things related to merchandising,’’ Sullivan said in the statement. “At Talbots, she was the original merchant with a keen eye for timeless but always distinctive styles.’’

By the time Mrs. Talbot retired 35 years after opening the first Talbots, the chain had grown to nearly 30 stores and was distributing more than 10 million catalogs annually.

Talbots counted among its customers Barbara Bush, the wife of George H.W. Bush, but for a time, the founder saw the clothing colors as not quite zippy enough for her tastes.

“There’s nothing to buy,’’ she lamented in a 2002 interview with the Globe. “Beige or black. No colors. I’m a big color girl, as you can see.’’

That extended to the houses she had built or renovated, including a former church in Rockport, Maine.

“She chose the unusual colors for the rooms off the central space - a rich terra cotta for the dining room, a cool mint-green for a guest bedroom, and an incandescent yellow for her own bedroom,’’ Down East magazine reported in 1995.

“She had exquisite taste and was a perfectionist,’’ her daughter said. “Everything she did had a beauty to it. My sister and I were just talking about how we learned what was beautiful from my mother.’’

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Talbot leaves another daughter, Jane A. Winter of St. Louis; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

A service will be announced.