The fashion industry isn't for the weak. After a major setback, an ambitious designer finds new purpose in a career reinvention — with a multitude of business ventures.
A decade ago, designer Sigrid Olsen got the news no entrepreneur wants to hear: the namesake apparel brand she'd spent some 25 years building was shuttered by its owner, Liz Claiborne Inc., a casualty of the recession.
The past decade has brought other low points, like the sudden death of her husband, Curtis, in 2013. But it's also been a time of reinvention and rebirth. She's built new business ventures, all under the umbrella of Sigrid Olsen: New Designs for Living. The list includes creative well-being retreats she leads in places like Tulum, Mexico; artwork she sells online; and apparel and home accessories she designs and sells through licensing agreements at places such as Dillard's and HomeGoods.
Olsen, a Sarasota resident, writes about her life and recent career shift in a new book, “My Life Redesigned: Embracing Change, Aging Gracefully and Finding Magic in the Simple Things.” She talked about those topics, key business lessons she's learned and her current ventures in a recent interview with Business Observer. Edited experts follow.
Tough break: From the brand's beginnings in 1984, Olsen never truly owned her eponymous company. She started it at age 31 in partnership with an older veteran of the fashion business, and they were funded by a venture capitalist until the company's sale to Liz Claiborne in 1999.
“I was just the talent, as they say,” says Olsen. “I didn't invest any money. I really had a very small share of the company, so when it came time to sell to Liz Claiborne, it wasn't up to me.”
Can do: After Sigrid Olsen the company went out of business, Olsen had a two-year noncompete clause during which she couldn't design clothing. “I would have if I could have,” she says. “But this is the lesson you get when the thing you think you can't live without is actually the obstacle that's keeping you from progressing.”
Olsen and her husband headed to Tulum, Mexico, where she stumbled upon her next business idea after meeting a group of women on a yoga retreat. Olsen also practiced yoga, and she'd been using art as a kind of therapy for herself. She thought she could put the two together and organize retreats herself, with the help of her sister, who taught yoga.
“I could combine the discoveries I've made doing yoga and meditation and spending more time in nature, all of those good things that have caused me to feel more creative,” she says. “So my sister and I started doing these yoga retreats that combine yoga and art. I call them 'inspiration retreats.'” They offered their first retreat in Tulum in 2009 and hold one there every January. Retreats have also been held over the years in Sarasota and other locales.
Intentional mind: Through the retreats, Olsen has learned women are constantly in transition, and they often feel alone during the process. She wants to change that.
“One of the things that I'm inspired to do is to find a way to network women here in Sarasota as well as on my travel retreats,” she says. “I'm not sure how I'm going to do that yet. But I've learned at this age, in my 60s, that I don't have to know how, I just need to know what. I need to set the intention, then start to do my research. And then take the steps necessary to see whatever my dream is come to fruition.”
Be bold: Even after her noncompete clause had ended, Olsen didn't control her own name, which Liz Claiborne still owned as a trademark. But after five years passed and nothing new was done with it, Olsen wanted it back.
This coincided with the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack. “I made an appointment to meet with the CEO of Liz Claiborne, and I played the widow card a little bit,” she says. “I said my husband had just passed away and I noticed they weren't doing anything with my name, so could we come to some sort of an agreement so that I could use it again.”
It took about nine months to work out a deal, where terms are confidential. But Olsen says it's based on future earnings and favorable for her, and she has free use of her name again.
Unique approach: Olsen's retreats also gave her insight on the women who might buy any new products she creates. “I brought something to the table as a designer that most designers don't have,” she says. “And that is actual time with their customers —like literally eating meals with them, taking walks on the beach with them and hearing their innermost thoughts and dreams. I really understand what makes this customer tick.”
Her customer base now could be even broader than before, as the things Olsen is interested in these days — yoga, a healthy lifestyle, juicing — are interests shared not just by her baby boomer cohorts but by a lot of millennials and Gen Xers as well. “All the stuff I did in the '70s because I was a hippie is now trending,” she says. “Where I naturally have evolved to happens to coincide with what women want right now. So that puts me in a very unusual and favorable position as a designer, because I feel like I understand the heartbeat of women today.”
Stay true: “The ambitions that you have when you're in your 30s and 40s —I feel like I was driven to succeed at any cost,” she says. “And now I realize there is a cost that's too great, and that is to veer off of authenticity. I know that this time around not only is it better for me to stay true to myself, it's better for the product and for the customer for me to offer something that is uniquely fueled by my insights.”
Get help: Olsen has a business partner who handles the “left brain” side of the business, such as financial and legal tasks. “I don't believe you can go it alone,” she says. “I have my 10 rules for entrepreneurs, and one of them is hire experts. And another is don't partner with someone who has the same skill set that you do.”
Cautious mindset: Olsen has a bigger ownership and financial stake in her business ventures this time around. While that means she can call the shots, it also means she's responsible for the results of any decision. “I have to think very carefully before I make a move,” she says. “But at the same time I know it's important to take risks. So they have to be calculated risks.”
Have faith: Olsen admits she struggles with this. “Sometimes you're doing all this stuff and nothing seems like it's happening,” she says. “And sometimes you do have to kind of pivot a little bit. But you just have to have patience, because it doesn't happen overnight.”