Features: Conversation With...

Aug
2007

Portrait of an Artist

Designer Sigrid Olsen Weaves An Intricate Pattern of Art, Architecture and Fashion



Sigrid Olsen entered the fashion world through textiles and weaving. In fact, the caption with her eightgrade yearbook photo predicted she would one day become a textile designer. She attributes her early interest in textiles and art to both her parents. Her Italian-born mother collected fabrics from all over the world. Her father is a landscape and portrait painter and has a gallery in the same building in Gloucester, Mass. that houses his daughter’s design studio.

Following Olsen’s graduation from Montserrat College in Massachusetts, she began her career as a weaver. Inspired by her experience with brilliant colors and distinctive patterns, she developed a signature printing technique emphasizing nature’s inherent beauty into a small textile business. Discovering natural artistry had broad appeal, she founded the brand that bears her name in 1984, focusing on knitwear featuring her trademark prints. Olsen has since broadened the scope of her designs from casual resort wear to a lifestyle collection of year-round sportswear, knit accessories, handbags, jewelry, footwear, bed, bath and table linens (called SO Home) and since 2006 an ophthalmic and sunwear license with California-based Altair Eyewear. Olsen also has 54 stores nationwide, including her flagship store, which opened in New York’s SoHo in 2006.

Whatever product she is designing, Olsen adheres to the same philosophy—simple, modern design with a twist of color. “I like to add some little detail that stands out, such as layers of color in the eyewear,” she notes. “I want my training as an artist to come through in my designs. I like a modern look—a look of relaxed femininity— nothing too over the top,” Olsen says. “I design for today’s women. We lead complex lives. Living with beauty should be simple.”

Olsen sees herself as her typical customer. “I epitomize my customer base, women between 30 and 70, but more specifically Baby Boomers aged 42 to 60,” the designer says. My customer is someone looking to feel young, but dresses appropriately with flattering colors and fun, whimsical details. I try to interpret current fashion trends to suit women of all ages and sizes. It’s important to listen and adapt to the marketplace and give our customers what they want that we can provide. My customers want clothing and accessories that are relevant to their lifestyle and are comfortable, but polished, for at home and in the office.”

It’s important in fashion to know what looks good on you, Olsen emphasizes. “Style is a personalized way of viewing the world. It’s what you select to have around you to make a harmonious statement.”

When choosing licensing partners, the company is very selective, the designer says. “Licensing agreements depend on relationships. I like the people at Altair Eyewear. They are nice, professional people, who have the same service-oriented attitude we have and are able to create product at an accessible price point that retains its identity as Sigrid Olsen. Altair understands my design with a fashion twist concept.”

Olsen feels glasses have evolved enormously as a fashion accessory. “People now have several pairs of glasses, instead of just one,” she notes. “I actually have seven pairs in rounds and rectangles, metals and plastics.”

The challenge with eyewear, she says, is giving it a unique look without making it costumey and also, of course, keeping it functional. “The big challenge in designing anything is following trends without being a slave to them. We want to be one step ahead of the trends so customers can tiptoe into a new style tastefully. Aviators and rectangles are important directions in eyewear now so we offer them with a small additional touch such as a Swarovski crystal,” Olsen notes. Altair has also just launched a new line of Sigrid Olsen readers. “The readers are fun,” the designer says. “It’s possible to be a little wilder with colors in readers. But our eyewear collection in general has been great for us. The right pair of glasses tells so much about a person. It’s a small way to make a huge impact.”

In designing any of her products, Olsen always works out a color concept for the season first, picking color swatches herself by hand and designing all the textiles in her studio in Massachusetts. She also oversees the art direction and advertising for all products, including eyewear, and is actively involved in the design of her stores.

Like her product, Olsen’s objective with her store designs is to create an uplifting experience. “I tried to make the SoHo store have a residential appeal,” she explains. And in fact, the first thing one feels on entering the store is “this would be a great place to live.” The store has seating areas for husbands or friends accompanying the shoppers, complete with books and magazines. Photos from Olsen’s travels adorn the walls. Lamp shades feature patterns from Olsen’s paintings and the fitting room walls are stenciled with her art work. Her signature color green, which she refers to as a leaf green (the color of new growth), is apparent in the store decor and in her product. What Olsen likes most about her work is the design diversity. “I need a career where I can create—if not fashion, interior design or landscape architecture.”

When she is not designing, Olsen creates one-of-a-kind watercolors and prints. And she travels. Her favorite place is Italy. “There is so much history, beauty and art there,” she notes. Everything about Italy moves me. I love the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the blue water, the rugged mountains, the lemon groves….”


 

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