Finding Sigrid Olsen’s storefront in Burns Square is sort of like stumbling on a buried treasure.
The first thought most people have is: “Sweet! There’s a Sigrid Olsen store in Sarasota.” The second thought is: “Wait. Where are the clothes?”
The clothing designer is used to fielding this question, especially from women who knew and loved her brand. Five years ago, her name was emblazoned above the doors of 54 retail stores in malls across the country.
Eileen Fisher. Lilly Pulitzer. Ellen Tracy. Sigrid Olsen.
Now it’s written in small white capital letters at 407 S. Pineapple Ave: SIGRID OLSEN art gallery & ISLA beach house.
The only garb you’ll find inside is airy, laidback resort wear by little-known designers whom Olsen loves.
Olsen no longer designs clothes.
In 1999, she sold her company to Liz Claiborne. Nine years later, the corporation eliminated her line and with it the designer’s position as creative director.
“Everyone wants to know when I’m going to make clothes again,” Olsen says. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing. I love that they love the clothes, but, please, look around and see if you like what I’m doing now.”
What Olsen is doing now is sitting cross-legged on a rattan sofa in her new downtown gallery. She’s taking long sips from a chai latte and listening to a dreamy mix of songs by raspy-voiced singer/songwriters.
“You know what it’s like?” she asks with a playful grin. “It’s like the Beastie Boys have come a long way in their careers, yet people still want them to sing ‘Fight for Your Right to Party.’”
Tan, blonde and dressed in a white eyelet blouse of her own design, Olsen, 58, radiates effortlessness from her blond ponytail, to her flip-flops to her knowledge of 1980s hip-hop.
Compared to her days as a jet-setting fashion designer, Olsen’s career has taken a sort of quiet, contemplative turn.
Three years ago, she and her husband, Curtis Sanders, a former textile merchant, sold their 3,600-square-foot suburban home in Hamilton, Mass., and moved into their summer cottage — a funky wood-shingled bungalow in Rocky Net Art Colony in Gloucester, Mass.
They turned the space into a studio, gallery and retail location devoted to selling and exhibiting Olsen’s watercolors, hand-painted ceramics and stationery.
A breast cancer survivor, the designer began painting in 2005 after undergoing a double mastectomy.
“I needed peacefulness in my life,” she says of the reinvention that has been chronicled in great depth by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and her hometown daily, The Boston Globe. “At this point in my life, if I’m going to design clothes again, it has to have some profound meaning in my life other than just being a job.”
Her jump from fashion to art isn’t that major of a reinvention.
The entrepreneur’s fashion career began in weaving and textile design. After graduating in 1974 from Montserrat College of Art, Olsen lived in a cabin in Massachusetts with no running water, where she created hand-printed fabrics using stamps cut from potatoes and belonged to a cooperative craft gallery that sold wares at small craft fairs.
“When I started my clothing career, the majority of my day was spent making something with my hands,” Olsen says. “When it came to an end, only 1% of my time was spent making something with my hands. It was like the only hands-on piece I retained was when I made store appearances as Sigrid Olsen.”
She’s returned to her roots, as they say.
Sigrid Olsen, the artist, is a daily yoga-devotee, a self-published cookbook author, a speaker at inspirational retreats and now a Sarasota merchant.
After embarking on what she calls a “reconnaissance mission” to find the perfect Florida city in which she and Sanders could open a second gallery, they settled on Sarasota.
“We wanted a town with some unique personality,” Olsen says. “And it had to be easy to fly back and forth (to Gloucester).”
They opened their Sarasota location in March. By May, however, the business was closed for the summer, leaving locals to wonder if Olsen would be back next season.
“I’m expecting the longer we’re here, the more we’ll make connections,” she says. “I’m still getting a feel for the texture and depth of the community based on the kind of people coming in and out of the store. Hopefully they get it. Even if they don’t buy anything, I hope they at least leave feeling better.”
She spent a long time transforming the narrow concrete space into an atmosphere that conjures up a relaxed island vibe or, as her store motto suggests: “from beach to bistro.”
The floor is lime green and the back wall is sherbet. Olsen’s artwork is bright and cheerful, peppered with uplifting messages and Caribbean motifs.
Contrary to what might have seemed like an obvious fit, she didn’t want to open a store on St. Armands Circle.
“I think we’d lose our identity in the tourist milieu,” Olsen says. “I like it here. The neighborhood is funky. My yoga studio is next door. What can I say? In New York I always lived downtown. I guess I’m just not an uptown girl.”
OLSEN’S FAVORITE LABELS
“I love everything Miuccia Prada does. She doesn’t care what the trends are. She forges ahead of the curve and stays true to herself.”
Dries van Noten
“He’s closer to an artist than a lot of (designers) in the fashion crowd. Some of his styles are not that wearable, but I love his unusual colors and textiles.”
“It totally inspired the island lifestyle for ISLA beach house. I love that kind of beachy, bohemian chic.”
Diane von Fürstenberg
“I don’t own an original wrap dress, but she did make my favorite sweater.”
IF YOU GO
SIGRID OLSEN art gallery & ISLA beach house is now open. Olsen will host a re-opening reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 28, at the gallery. For more information, visit sigridolsenart.com or call 312-5826.
VIDEO: Sigrid Olsen shares the key to repeating images on a canvas: a hand-carved rubber stamp.
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