Cover Story

And now for something completely different

Fashion line gone, Sigrid Olsen embarked on a journey of reinvention. It hasn’t been easy.

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / January 22, 2011

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After her beloved fashion business tanked three years ago, North Shore fashion designer Sigrid Olsen decided she had two options.

The first was to give up and “sit on the couch and eat Haagen-Dazs.’’

The second was to quit the apparel business and reinvent herself. She went with that option. “I decided to make the most of it,’’ Olsen said.

For nearly 25 years, Olsen filled a niche that engaged few other designers: She made clothes for baby-boomer women who wanted to look funky, not frumpy or, worse yet, invisible. “People would come out of the dressing room with a smile on their face,’’ said Olsen. “They told me my clothes made them feel happy.’’

As it happened, Olsen’s designs made the Liz Claiborne empire happy, too. In 1999, the conglomerate bought Olsen’s company, including the rights to her name. Olsen stayed on as creative director and head designer, as Claiborne aggressively expanded the company into major department stores and more than 50 Sigrid Olsen boutiques nationwide, then ran into trouble when the economy faltered. They eliminated Olsen’s brand in 2008.

It was a huge blow for Olsen, especially since Claiborne retained the rights to her name, which meant she could never again design clothes under a Sigrid Olsen label. But she rallied. She returned to her roots as an artist — painting, making ceramics and prints, designing cards. She downsized from a huge house in Hamilton to a tiny cottage in the artsy Rocky Neck section of Gloucester, which doubles as a small gallery for her artwork. Around the corner is ISLA beach house, a small clothing boutique she operates with her husband. In March, she opens a second gallery in Sarasota, Fla.

This week Olsen’s in Mexico for another endeavor close to her heart. With her stepsister Martha Abbot, she’s leading an art-and-yoga inspiration retreat to help other women who are reinventing their lives after a major life change.

“People were always asking me about what I would do next, about how I got through it,’’ said Olsen, 57, who is also a breast cancer survivor and is writing a book about navigating through transition. “This lets me share my philosophy.’’

Until recently, the idea of older people reinventing themselves — starting from scratch in a new endeavor — was not taken very seriously. “Something in us feels that people our age should be consolidating our experiences, integrating all that we’ve learned and accomplished, and resting on our laurels — not engaging in risk-taking projects, embarking on unmapped adventures, and enduring the awkwardness and vulnerabilities of new mastery,’’ writes Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, author of 2009’s “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 years After 50.’’

Even more incongruous was the notion of women reinventing themselves. “I’m not sure 30 years ago women would have been able to do this,’’ said Harvard psychologist Susan Pollak, who is organizing a March symposium called “Reinvention’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in collaboration with the Boston Institute of Psychotherapy.

“Until recently there weren’t many options for reinvention that didn’t include men,’’ said Pollak, referencing the TV drama “Mad Men,’’ which illuminates domestic life in the 1960s. “Betty Draper wouldn’t have had these options. Her option was to find another man to marry.’’

But in this economy, it’s no luxury, for men or women. Pollak said she’s organizing the symposium because she had so many friends and clients who were going through hard times and starting over.

“It seemed staggering to me that all of these people in my life were being forced to reinvent themselves and it wasn’t a nice privileged luxury of having a midlife crisis or, ‘I have an empty nest, let me start meditating,’ ’’ she said. “It was more like, suddenly the job I thought was secure was disappearing. It was job loss, foreclosures, divorce. In this economy, more than ever before, it’s become a necessity.’’

To be sure, for Olsen, it was less of a financial necessity than it is for the vast majority of people in this economy. She needed a new creative outlet, and she wasn’t the only prominent designer to find herself in that situation. Vermont fabric and home product designer Susan Sargent has a similar story. Known for her vividly colored textiles and home products, economic pressures forced Sargent to close her much-touted store on Newbury Street and her flagship Vermont store last August.

“I spent 18 months trying to get investors, and that was a nightmare,’’ said Sargent, who’d hoped the Boston store would be a model for expansion. “I was going to venture capital firms and hedge funds with my begging bowl. It never came together.’’

Facing her 60th birthday, Sargent decided it was time to do something new. Like Olsen, she’s begun drawing again and is considering launching an e-business to sell her framed art and ceramics.

For Olsen, the idea for the yoga retreat came about serendipitously. After her business folded, she went to Mexico with her husband to unwind, staying in Tulum, where there are many such retreats. One day she struck up a conversation with two women, and introduced herself. When they heard her name, they “were like, gaga,’’ she said.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment for Olsen. It recalled the many times her customers had told her how much they appreciated her clothes. “Later, we were on the beach and my husband said, ‘Why don’t you find a way to provide an experience for women that offers the same experience your clothes did, without an actual product’?’’

Olsen, who’d practiced yoga for years, started to think about ways to merge an art experience with yoga. “I felt there was a correlation between relaxing and quieting the mind and being creative,’’ she said. “I put that all together and came up with this retreat idea.’’

Her natural collaborator was Abbot, her stepsister, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. Abbot didn’t hesitate. A self-described “free spirit,’’ she’s reinvented herself numerous times as a yoga and movement therapy teacher, personal fitness trainer, administrator, and school teacher.

The Mexico retreat is the third they’ve organized, and they’d like to do more. Participants have included a teacher caring for an elderly parent, a recent widow, and a high-tech executive who after leaving the retreat opened her own health club. Yoga newbies are welcome. “I tell people if they want to lie on the floor the whole time, that’s fine,’’ Olsen said. “The yoga part is important but you can absorb a lot by being in the room and chilling out.’’

Olsen not only leads the art workshop but participates, too. “I have this incredible drive to make my mark because I feel it was a little bit taken away from me, and I still have stuff to say, and I still want to be relevant in this world, and not just Rocky Neck,’’ she said. “I’m trying to figure out what form my voice will take.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at