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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 3 years ago

Fashion forward

Charlotte Osterman, after a bold move, rose quickly in the high-end corporate fashion world. She seeks to duplicate that success with her own venture.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Clutching a handmade book of samples of her textile design work, Charlotte Osterman nervously walked into a San Francisco Neiman Marcus in 2002 with career-altering hopes.

Fashion industry icon Diane von Furstenberg was also at the swanky department store, there to promote her new wrap dress line. Osterman was there for another reason: to ask von Furstenberg to check out her work. “I went with my best friend in case I chickened out,” says Osterman, then 26 and a graphic designer at a Silicon Valley tech firm.

The gutsy, just-show-up meeting was a success. The New York-based designer liked Osterman, and the young designer's work. Von Furstenberg invited Osterman to come back to the hotel she was staying at to chat some more. That led to an invitation to fly to New York for a job interview.

A month later, Osterman was von Furstenberg's print director. She oversaw textiles for the company, from the United States to China. Osterman also found a career and life mentor in von Furstenberg. “She taught me everything about prints and fabrics,” says Osterman. “She taught me how to have confidence. She was caring, and so kind.”

Now 41 and living with her family in Sarasota, Osterman recently entered a new phase in her career: She launched her own hand silk-screened fabrics and textile line, a Made in the USA brand that ranges from pillows to, coming soon, tote bags, umbrellas and possibly even paddleboard covers. Targeted clients include interior designers, homeowners and real estate agents in need of new materials for home staging. She also sells a line of fabric in her own designs.

“I always wanted to design my own collection,” Osterman says. “Now I need to get my work out there.”

Osterman, for now, works out of a home studio. Going on her own, she's learned, in many ways is more nerve-racking than an encounter with a famous fashion designer. She's invested at least $20,000 in the business so far, and is considering a much deeper investment, to get her work into high-traffic showrooms. Big-city showrooms normally require independent designers to have a significant amount of capacity and backlog available, says Osterman, so customers will be taken care of if and when a product line takes off.

But expanding capacity with manufacturers is a costly risk. “When you are funding the business on your own you have to be thinking about all the details of all the costs,” says Osterman. “This would be a really big investment.”

Beyond capital to fund potential growth, Osterman now also has firsthand experience in another entrepreneurial-fostered set of growing pains: being simultaneously pulled in multiple directions. To wit, Osterman has several freelance opportunities and jobs, but while those pay nice per project, it's not her dream. Says Osterman: “I'm trying not to do too much that takes my focus away from what I need to do.”

Osterman's fabric line is Florida-inspired, colorful and bold, with a judicious use of florals. The collection includes Moroccan tiles and Matisse cutouts. The work is something of a departure from Osterman's work with von Furstenberg. At that job, Osterman designed a variety of upscale clothes. “There's definitely a sense of satisfaction when you see your clothes on the runway,” says Osterman.

Her next career satisfaction, she hopes, will place practical over runway panache. “I want to apply my prints to the Florida lifestyle,” Osterman says. “I want people to use the fabrics.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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