Artists draw excitement, sales for catalogs

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Bricks-and-mortar retailers like H&M have received lots of attention for inking deals with fashion designers to create exclusive, limited-edition lines for their stores. With so much sameness in what's available for consumers these days, several of these promotions have been hugely successful.

Part of the appeal is the American consumer's passion for artisans and desire to own a piece of their handiwork, something that direct merchants long have understood. Catalogs such as Sundance, The Artful Home and Femail Creations were created as vehicles to promote the work of artists discovered by the respective firms' merchandising teams. More recently, even catalogs with a wider audience such as Chadwick's of Boston and West Elm have embraced relationships with emerging artists as a way to drive excitement and sales. "I think people are rebelling against the Gap and Pottery Barn- ization of the world where everything starts to look the same," said Andrea Syverson, president of marketing consultancy IER Partners, Black Forest, CO. "Brands such as Sundance are working with designers to try to appeal to customers by saying, 'Pay attention, we have something different.' " Featuring a designer or artist also puts a story behind a product, something many consumers respond to, Ms. Syverson said. Best of all, "catalogs are the best venue for telling a story because of the use of the printed word," she said. "In a store, shoppers may not take the time to read about a designer, but in a catalog people will take the time to read the story."

That kind of engagement is one goal of a recent competition for young fashion designers held by Chadwick's of Boston. On Jan. 18, judges from Redcats USA, New York, parent company to Chadwick's of Boston, selected a designer for the catalog from students in the fashion design program at MassArt in Boston. Competing students designed a complete ensemble for the Chadwick's customer. The winning design goes into production for one of Chadwick's fall catalogs. The winner, MassArt junior Peter Buer, also received tuition for a year. "Our customer will be very happy to see that Chadwick's is supporting local talent and the local design community," Christophe Gaigneux, executive vice president of Redcats Boston Apparel Group, said of the competition.

In part, this is because of Chadwick's New England heritage and that the competition was built around a Boston school. But the competition also is an extension of a strategy put in place last year to focus on exclusivity, Mr. Gaigneux said.

"It's really important and new for us" to have our own design team and to capitalize on those artists, he said. Last year, the Boston Apparel Group created an in-house design team for the first time, and the competition was created to build awareness of this fact in the design community.

West Elm, San Francisco, is doing something similar with a recent promotion of limited reproduction prints by emerging artists from the Savannah (GA) College of Art and Design. The prints were featured in a two-page spread of a recent catalog and promoted via an e-mail blast. This is the second time the modern home furnishings multichannel retailer has spotlighted emerging artists from the college. By highlighting "emerging" artists, catalogers deliver the message that they are scouring the world for the best things to bring to customers, Ms. Syverson said. Some consumers find this sense of being ahead of the curve or of having helped discover a new talent immensely appealing, she said.

Highlighting women artisans who lack a forum for their merchandise is exactly what 10-year-old Femail Creations is all about. The catalog tries to give women a way to support other women through their shopping dollars. The formula seems to be working. The Las Vegas company's sales totaled $7.5 million in 2005, reached $8.5 million last year and are projected to break $10 million in 2007. Every issue of the catalog profiles several of the artisans whose products are on display, a feature founder Lisa Hammond calls "the heart and soul of the catalog." Customers love these profiles because they illustrate that not every successful businesswoman has a master's degree, she said.

"A lot of them have a passionate idea, are really creative and made it work," Ms. Hammond said. "Often, we are a featured artist's first big national exposure to the marketplace. It's fun to watch them evolve from a one-woman show and have to add employees and see their business grow."

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