South Street Linen makes cool clothing for the women fashion forgot.
By Rebecca Martin Evarts
Photographed by Patryce Bak
Some painters just want to have fun.
Back in 2010, Lynn Krauss admired a linen scarf sported by her friend and fellow painter, Mary Ruth Hedstrom, and uttered the fateful words: “It might be fun to try hand block printing on fabric.” Jane Ryan, another painting friend, jumped in, and they began dying, printing, sewing, and piecing linen to make scarves as wearable art. Collaboration begat obsession, and fun became a business.
Within six weeks, they had created a distinctive design concept — stripes, dots, standout colors, plus linen — and had made enough scarves to hold an evening gallery launch. Calling themselves South Street Linen, they strung the scarves like giant Tibetan prayer flags on clotheslines across Portland’s Corey & Co. To their amazement, women packed the opening, and all the pieces sold for $125 each. Scarves, it turns out, are the makeover artists for Women of a Certain Age.
“We realized then that we might be on to something,” says Hedstrom, chief designer and company philosopher.
Any woman past the half-century mark knows the problem. Styles for the “mature woman” — that god-awful label — are often boring or baggy or both. Women want something interesting and unique but don’t want to hear their daughters say, “Mom . . . really?”
South Street Linen aims to fill the gap. As Ryan, the business and marketing manager and voice of their Tumblr blog, puts it, the focus is clothing that is “flattering, wickedly fun to wear, austere, utilitarian . . . unusually stylish and practical, taking everyday up a notch.” They didn’t have to look far to know their customer. With a median age of 63 and years spent as working professionals and then as successful artists, they are their demographic. “I’ve literally spent my whole life looking at women in clothes and thinking, ‘Oh, I couldn’t wear that,’” Hedstrom says. “I was always searching for something that would work for me.”
“As artists, we were accustomed to having consistency in terms of a design idea,” says Krauss, the firm’s extrovert who dresses and manages the cozy Portland shop, does all designs for ads and the hand blocks, and chats with phone customers. They continued their geometric theme with linen weaves in checks and stripes, in different textures and weights, in blacks and whites and a few striking colors like chartreuse, burgundy, hot pink, maple-leaf orange, and sea-sky blue.
Inspiration came from 19th-century European work clothes, the Japanese minimalists, the Finnish designs of Marimekko, as well as from patterns created in the 1990s by the installation artist J. Morgan Puett.
Moving slowly, they test-drove patterns on themselves. First came the Pinny, a sleeveless wraparound dress based on a pinafore and worn over a striped jersey. It made its debut in a pop-up store on Vinalhaven Island in the summer of 2012, then in a New Yorker ad. Soon they created a long-sleeved, mid-thigh “work tunic”; a twirly striped skirt; a long duster coat; a peplum top with a stand-up collar; and a bias-cut trapeze dress, among others. The clothes were ample in places where older women need plenitude, and often layered with slimming pants. Women around the country and as far away as Australia began calling and e-mailing their enthusiasm.
The trio made it a priority to keep all the business in Maine and pay their workers a living wage. Metrey Am of Golden Thread Designs, a family-owned Scarborough contract sewing company founded 20 years ago by Cambodian immigrants, produces part of South Street’s line. Zelia Lima, veteran of a Biddeford factory, supplies the rest. Both subcontract sewing as need demands. Master printer Chris Clarke at Engine House Press on Vinalhaven does the company’s hand blocking; Saco River Dyehouse, its custom dying. Heidi Porter, manager of Portland’s Rosemont Market, handles the three-times-weekly Facebook posts. A Maine College of Art (MECA) student does the shipping. The website — 75 percent of sales come via the Internet — was designed by Krauss, Krauss’ son, Nick, Ryan, and Ryan’s husband, Ren Wilkinson, the proprietor of Ivy Lane Web Design.
The face of the company is Theresa Mattor, Ryan’s next-door neighbor in Hollis, who models the clothes in casual poses for South Street Linen’s ads and website. A landscape designer (and co-author of Down East Books’ Designing the Maine Landscape), Mattor, with her gray hair and seemingly attainable good looks, embodies South Street’s spirit. “I’m not really a person who thinks a lot about how I look,” Mattor says. “It’s all Jane’s vision, and we just laugh the whole time.”
The only thing that can’t be made in Maine is the linen itself. South Street’s initial commitment to a specific textile, says Anne Emlein, chair of the new Textiles, Apparel & Fashion program at MECA, has contributed to its success. “They were very intelligent,” in how they went about the business, she says. “You can’t really know fashion without knowing textiles.”
Small-scale quality manufacturing means that customers may have to wait a week or more for delivery if a particular size or color is not currently in stock. Using a high-end fabric increases the prices. To reach patient women willing to part with $159 for a scarf, $169 for a French work tunic, or up to $329 for a duster coat, South Street uses both social and traditional print media. A side-column ad in The New Yorker, whose readers famously cling to their back issues, acts like a time-release pill; orders trickle in for months afterwards.
Selling directly to customers, South Street has more than doubled its gross every year since the beginning. The trajectory is promising: January 2014 sales grossed five times more than the same month in 2013. The partners now draw salaries, though they say, “we still pay ourselves less than our workers.”
“We may still be doing this from the retirement community,” says Krauss, only half-joking.