boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

BRANDING OUT

Can designer Sigrid Olsen become the next Martha Stewart? Ambitions to add furniture, TV, and hotel design to her fashion resume certainly don't hurt.


(Photos by Pam Berry)

When Sigrid Olsen needs to add a dash of color to her wardrobe, like many women, she pops down to Newbury Street. The only difference is that the boutique she visits has her name on the door and sewn onto the clothing labels. The fashion designer's rapidly expanding women's clothing line is in 400 department stores and 57 signature boutiques nationwide - four in the Boston area - which is convenient. "It's not like the clothes automatically show up in my house," says Olsen, 53. "I go to the store every month to see what is new and try things on. I haven't seen it for nine months. It looks new to me!"

But don't be fooled by the North Shore designer's easygoing manner. Like another fashionable businesswoman who is also known for imprinting her style on the world without relinquishing control, Olsen is watching her brand expand rapidly. Her eponymous stores have all opened within the last four years, and her line has expanded beyond just clothing and into bedding, jewelry, accessories, and eyeglasses. Also like Martha Stewart, Olsen, whose bobbed blond hair and blue eyes reflect her Danish roots, tends to create products - fabrics in soothing sea greens and blues with prints of shells and leaves - inspired by her personal life, from her seaside summer home in Gloucester's Rocky Neck to the Caribbean excursions she takes with her husband, Curtis Sanders, a veteran of the apparel and textile industry. And the Sigrid Olsen stores reflect the light wooden floors, rattan furnishings, and clean lines of both the Gloucester and the Hamilton homes she and Sanders share.

Yet, she says, it is not a burden to embody the lifestyle her line represents. "I definitely have created a life where I can be myself," she says. "The brand is not about being perfect - it's about being your best self. It's comfortable yet flattering, stylish but not too trendy. It's a feel-good brand."

To those in the industry, though, having a working artist - her preferred mediums are painting and block-printing - at the helm is what really differentiates Sigrid Olsen's line from the rest. "Many of us in fashion start with a love of clothes," says designer Dana Buchman. "Sigrid comes to fashion with a love of art. You can see that when you look at her clothes."

THAT PASSION FOR ART CAME FROM Olsen's childhood in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Her parents owned a shop specializing in handcrafted Scandinavian furniture and socialized with the sculptor Alexander Calder; her grandmother was the visual director for the Lerner department store in New York. After high school, Olsen moved to the Bay State to attend Beverly's Montserrat College of Art and never left the area.

Upon graduating from art school in 1974, Olsen began her career as a weaver and eventually helped found Ten Hands, a now-defunct cooperative crafts gallery in the artists' colony of Rockport, where she developed her hallmark technique, printing fabrics with stamps cut from raw potatoes. In 1984, she partnered with an apparel salesman and a financial backer to launch a line of clothing based on those prints. Within a year, the line was successful enough that she never looked back.

In 1999, Olsen's business was purchased by clothing conglomerate Liz Claiborne, which has developed a track record of successfully bringing other hot lines - including Lucky Brand, Juicy Couture, and most recently Kate Spade - into the fold while maintaining their individual identities. The benefit of such a guiding force, Olsen says, has meant manufacturing economies of scale that make for better quality, access to Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn (he was recently hired as a guru working with all the Liz Claiborne labels), and the Sigrid Olsen brand's rapid expansion into shopping districts and malls across the country.

Entering her own stores is still surreal for her, Olsen admits. "There's Sigrid Olsen that's me, and the brand, and it's kind of two separate entities," she says. "I even talk about Sigrid Olsen in the third person." The key benefit to having the boutiques is that she can design them to reflect her vision, often using her own artistic creations, from paintings to wallpaper to lampshades, to enhance the decor. "That gets across the message 'There's an artist behind this brand,' " Olsen says. "That's what sets it apart."

Olsen creates much of this artwork at her Rocky Neck home, which functions as a studio and gallery when she's there. "I find I need that immediate gratification to make something and have a viewer react directly," she admits, comparing making and showing her own artwork in a relatively quick process to designing a clothing line and not seeing it on the racks until nearly a year later. Her artwork also inspires the color choices and textures of her fashions. "I work ideas out through the creation of a painting," Olsen explains. "It ends up in the fashion - sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. It's the art first, the design second, but it all comes together really well."

Sticking around Boston, she says, has helped her stay "grounded" and kept her from getting too caught up in the "incestuous" New York fashion industry. She still goes in about once a week, though, to meet with Claiborne executives or licensees, give magazine interviews or attend photo shoots, or serve on the committee of Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, a philanthropic campaign run by the Council of Fashion Designers of America that donates a portion of clothing sales to breast cancer research and care. (Olsen is a breast cancer survivor, who fought off early-stage cancer with a double mastectomy in 2005.)

At her company headquarters, which she recently relocated to Beverly from Wakefield, Olsen spearheads a team of about a dozen designers, guiding them with concepts, color palates, and textile designs. She also still serves as art director for all the company's advertising and promotional materials. And her face is increasingly recognized. In November, she appeared on the Martha Stewart Show to demonstrate her technique for creating hand-stamped notebooks. "It was so inspiring," Olsen says of the experience, "the whole empire she's created."

Like Stewart, Olsen's appetite for stamping her style on the world seems to have no bounds. "I'd love to do hotel interior design, have a magazine, a TV show, and expand into other categories - children's wear, swimwear, stationery, furniture," she says. "I feel like I'm just starting."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES