Famed fashion designer Sigrid Olsen has lived more lives than most women would dare dream. From a world famous fashion designer, to art gallery owner and yoga retreat leader, she is the picture of youthful radiance at 62. Like every great metamorphosis, Olsen has emerged stronger and more creative than ever, transitioning back into the fashion world, but this time on her own terms.
At the pinnacle of her career, Olsen was lauded on the global fashion stage as a leading women’s designer with a bevy of flagship stores, peak sales of $100 million a year, and a passionate customer base of Baby Boomer-aged women. Then in 2008, unceremoniously and abruptly, Olsen was forced into early retirement by the parent company, Liz Claiborne, who dismantled her 24-year-old business, closed 54 stores and laid off dozens of employees. Devastated by the loss, Olsen reinvented herself through her other passions: art, yoga and travel.
Today, her new, original women’s clothing line is sold on HSN. She proudly describes the collection as ageless and versatile for the next generation. Instead of finding inspiration in the hand-printed textiles that launched her career, Olsen says she found a new source of inspiration from the women she hosted and befriended on yoga retreats. In this interview with GRAVITAS, Olsen talks about the lessons she learned as a designer and businesswoman and the passion she feels from regaining her creative footing in the fashion industry.
How did your love of art evolve into fashion?
I was an only child and quite a restless soul. I liked to stay busy. Creativity was my way of keeping myself amused. For my birthday each year, my dad bought me a box of magic markers or crayons. As I grew older, I found that creativity just came naturally to me, from setting the table to doing flower arrangements to making art. When I became a mom and was making Christmas cards out of potato prints with my kids, I realized if I used silk-screen textiles I could stamp it on fabric. That was the “aha” moment that changed my life.
After graduation from art school, I knew I wanted to get involved in textiles. I bought a loom and started weaving. I loved all the different colors of yarn and mixing them together. I spun and dyed my own yarn. It became too tedious, so when I discovered I could do my potato prints, I set up a production studio in my barn where I printed fabric with stamps cut from potatoes. Then, I cut it into pieces, bagged it all up and sent it to home-sewers to have them make it into garments, pillows, quilts and baby buntings.
While I was working in Rockport, Massachusetts, a man came into the shop and said he loved my prints and wanted to start a company. He asked me, “How many of these can you do in a day?’ I said, “I don’t know, like 10?” We became partners and started looking for someone to silkscreen the fabrics into a manufacturing process. We went to New York and shopped around with our samples. One night, my partner met a man at a restaurant where he was eating dinner and they struck up a conversation. The next day, he invited him to view our sample line and he wrote a check on the spot. He ended up investing in the company for 15 years without getting a penny back. When we sold to Liz Claiborne, he made a very healthy profit, but he was patient.
What has been your definition of success, both as a designer and artist in your career?
I think that first you must define success. It can be monetary success; it can be notoriety worldwide and name-recognition. We had 54 Sigrid Olsen boutiques across America and in most major department stores. We had an office filled with 150 employees. I loved building the company. I think my ability to adapt is the key to how I define success now. I am very grateful that I can be creative and make a living doing it. There are plenty of creative people that don’t get that opportunity.
What lessons did you struggle with as a businesswoman?
I didn’t really understand investing and what it meant to have a return on investment and lines of credit. I learned everything very quickly, from manufacturing in Asia and understanding the lead times, to shipping and selling to department stores. As the company grew, we hired people that were experts in those areas, leaving me to manage the design team.
Unfortunately, when your company grows that big that fast, and you’re the creative director, the job becomes less and less creative and more executive, like meetings, which I hate. Half of my job became informing everybody what my creative ideas were with concept boards and sketches and prints and pads. So that was frustrating. I knew from the moment I went to my first corporate meeting at Liz Claiborne, that it was going to be a problem. It wasn’t any one person’s fault; it was just the nature of the beast. There are just so many people that have to interconnect and everyone has a different agenda.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a female designer when you first started out?
I think the biggest problem honestly wasn’t gender specific, but I didn’t have that person that I could lock arms with and unite. The men went out and had drinks together. I didn’t because I was home with my kids. They had a little boy’s club going on and I was just the creative one. I was so busy all the time because I had this huge team of people to manage and I think they respected the fact that I held up my end.
How did you balance being a single mother, an entrepreneur and a creative designer at the same time?
It was wonderful, and yet it was really difficult. I was a single mom, after being in business for only a few years. When my company formed in 1984, my daughter was three years old and my son was five years old. They remember it as fun time. I think I made it look a little too easy. I had an apartment in New York and went back and forth. My kids were in boarding school. I think I set a good example showing them that you can do anything you set your mind to do and it can be fun and wonderful. We are extremely close now, I love my kids. They are like my best friends. Today, I am a grandmother, and I am a much better grandmother than a parent.
What saved you mentally when you closed your company?
My creative work and the fact my husband at the time and I were doing a retail store together. I found another way to satisfy the essentials of what I was missing by opening two art galleries, one in Gloucester, Massachusetts and the other in Sarasota. I was missing my community, so I created a new one through my yoga retreats and relating to women.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time your company was closing. How did you manage?
I never expected to have everything go wrong with me. When I got my mammogram, I had put it off for a long time. When they wanted to see me again, I thought it was nothing. What happens when you are diagnosed with breast cancer, is that it doesn’t happen all at once. There are so many diagnostic procedures you have to go through. It’s amazing how many decisions you have to make, and at the time, I was still working. For me, the first few months of it were a nuisance more than anything else. I was fortunate because it was stage 0 so I never felt like my life was in danger. It was more like, “Sigrid, you have to take care of this. You can’t let it go.” But, I didn’t feel like my mortality was imminent.
How did the yoga retreats come together?
The retreats included 15-16 women going to a beautiful place like Tuscany, Vermont or Mexico and really taking time to get to know each other. Women are moving so fast that they don’t have time to think or focus on themselves. The retreat is really a sisterhood of people that care deeply for one another. Those kinds of values and the things that I think are important are what I hold onto: the desire for peace and serenity, natural beauty around me, and my well being. I try to keep my life aligned to my personal self. I still take a couple hours out every day to do yoga.
What sparked this new chapter with HSN?
It was all the people involved. I was doing an interview with Lisa Lockwood with Women’s Wear Daily, who I had known for years. She says, “My roommate used to be Mindy Grossman. Are you interested in talking to her?” I was like ‘Yeah!’ We got a direct line to Mindy, and she responded immediately. I think they felt that they didn’t have anything at HSN that was similar, and the fact that I am a real designer and I live an hour away was a golden opportunity for everyone.
Do you believe that female designers better represent what women want in fashion today?
Unfortunately, designers have to think about what their boss wants, or what their buyers want, or what their merchandiser wants, or what their salesperson wants and they rarely really have a chance to think about what the customer wants. Now, I watch what real women wear. I understand about a woman’s silhouette and how the fit, production and construction of a garment matter to women. Now that I am on TV, I can talk and show consumers all of these things.
What advice would you give young designers?
My first impulse is to say don’t be seduced by what you think it’s going to be. I often tell people don’t use your own name when you are an apparel designer because if you decide to sell your company, you’ve sold your name too. However, the fear is if you don’t use your own name, who will recognize you? I’m grateful that now I have my name back to use again. If you want to experience everything in life, the small moments and the big moments too, sometimes you have to dive in. I think that perspective makes me realize that nothing lasts forever. I didn’t really plan for the future and now being my older self, I’d tell my younger self to think about life in stages and make sure you’re ready for whatever happens next.
Where do you find inspiration for your new collections?
Relationships helped me get this started. Somebody I knew put me in touch with a design and manufacturing company in New York. I met their designer, who I felt like I had known my whole life. As it turned out, she actually came to my yoga retreat in Mexico last January. The whole design process actually came easily. I went back into my archives, into my closet, and pulled out some of my favorite things and newer things that I had been wearing in Florida. I think women of all ages kind of relate to fashion, but they have to find something that is appropriate for their bodies and their lifestyle. I still want to look feminine and I want to have a little sex appeal, but I don’t want to look like I’m trying to be 18. When I design clothes now, I want to give women that skinny pant that doesn’t cling to your leg, but skims your silhouette.
In my new collections, I created Inner Beauty, a twill tape that is printed with words “joy, beauty, balance, love” sewn into the lining of the garment. It’s like a little hidden message just for women, and it reminds them that there’s more to life than just clothing.
What would you like your legacy to be known for?
I would like to be known as someone who unified the principles of creating a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Women all want it, even if we don’t know we want it, and when we experience it, it’s just magical; it’s amazing. If I can bring that to people by speaking, by being on television, by designing clothes or things for their home, then I’ll feel like I’ve really accomplished something. If I can bring that message to others in a fun, visual, pretty-designer way, that’s what I will do. Everything I do has to be authentic to who I am today, with a balance of visual, creative fun and spiritual enlightenment.