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My Turn

Outside, Looking In

Lori-Jo Shea, design director of Richloom Fabric Group’s Solarium® Division, is one of those rare individuals who is actually working in the field in which she studied. Shea majored in textile design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, with a concentration in home furnishings.

She has over 25 years of experience as a designer, including senior-management positions with such noted fabric companies as Covington, Robert Allen and John Wolf. She has been with Richloom Fabric Group, New York, since 2001, when Richloom acquired John Wolf. In 2004, Richloom created the Solarium Division (one of nine within the company), which focuses on outdoor fabric.

Shea’s first mission is to anticipate industry trends, along with her team of designers, while keeping an eye on the product’s marketability. “As much as I want to be trend-forward, I also have to make sure the trend is saleable for the Solarium brand,” Shea says.

One of the latest fabric developments that is sure to meet both requirements is a new group called Solarium Performance Fabrics, a collection of solution-dyed wovens. Shea explains that, in the solution-dyeing process, the fiber itself is dyed and the critical ultraviolet protection is actually injected into the fiber. This advance will increase the fabric’s UV rating, durability, fade resistance and, ultimately, overall market value.

Solarium Performance Fabrics also have a stain- and water-repellent finish, along with the high abrasion factor that is especially important to the hospitality industry. For comfort, the fabric has a more luxurious hand. “There is also a bit of a luster to the fabric, which marries nicely with the newer frame finishes we’re seeing,” Shea says. The fabrics come in two color groups in beautiful patterns of paisley, medallions, starbursts and textured solids.

Two other recent products that Shea is particularly excited about from the Solarium Division are Vantage and Montage, labeled body-cloth fabrics. Both creations were first shown at the Casual Pre-Market in Chicago in July 2007 and officially introduced at the Chicago Inter­national Casual Furniture & Accessories Market™ in September 2007. These innovative fabrics are just hitting retailers now.

Vantage is a piece-dyed solid fabric with the look and feel of chenille and a luxurious hand. It is available in a fashion array of colors. “It has a soft, plush, velvet-like feel, much like a true chenille fabric,” Shea says. “It’s absolutely gorgeous, with the look of an indoor sofa.” In fact, Vantage is so similar in texture and appearance to an indoor fabric that when it was first shown to manufacturers at the market, they initially thought that it was an indoor product, Shea explains.

Montage is a piece-dyed solid that is also available in an array of colors and that has the look and feel of microfiber suede. “It is almost identical to what you can order on an indoor sofa, except it can stay outside year round,” Shea says. “If you closed your eyes and sat on a sofa done in Montage, you wouldn’t know it belonged outside.”

Both fabrics have been wonderfully received, and both manufacturers and retailers see the value in them. These innovative new lines are a true bellwether in the outdoor-fabric industry. “We haven’t seen anything else like them in the outdoor market,” Shea says.     

To meet the challenge of providing the most up-to-date, high-quality outdoor fabrics, Shea and her team focus their efforts on styling, fabric construction, color palette and trends. Most important, they want to design fabrics with originality and flair. “We’re about designing products that we haven’t seen anywhere else before and that are trend right,” she says.

Solarium also works directly with outdoor-furniture manufacturers to design customized fabric for their pieces. “Many of our projects are working one on one with our manufacturers, which is a very important part of this industry right now,” Shea says. This gives manufacturers the ability to distinguish their groupings from each other’s and, in turn, to work directly with retailers on what they desire.

A key component of the creative process for Shea comes from working in the Richloom Fabrics Group environment itself. Richloom, founded in 1896, is still a family-owned business, and Shea explains that there is a passion for the fabric industry that comes from the top. “It’s contagious and trickles down through the entire company,” she says.

Another important element of the design process is the sharing of thoughts between design groups. “Because of the number of divisions within our company, there is a lot of versatility in our product lines and we all share ideas,” Shea says.

Richloom’s different divisions meet on a monthly basis to discuss trends, what’s selling and customer feedback. Since much of what is seen in the interior furnishings of a home eventually moves to the outdoors, Shea can apply many of the current trends reflected in the designs of her indoor partners to the Solarium Division.

Shea notes that Richloom, as a company, also had the foresight to participate in global sourcing and has had an office and employees on the ground in China since 2004. This gives the company the advantage of directly ensuring quality control at mills, as well as tapping into textile innovations coming from the overseas market.

While outdoor-furniture manufacturers are Richloom Fabric Group’s direct customers, the company always keeps the independent retailer in its sphere of design. To that end, throughout each of its price groupings, Solarium offers a diversity of coordinating fabrics.

“It’s important to walk into a retailer that shows a furniture grouping with a coordinating fabric on a pillow, a chair or an ottoman accent, even in something simple like a beautiful cabana stripe with a solid or textured coordinate,” Shea says. She hopes that the Solarium collection, with its breadth of eye-catching colors, textures and coordinates, will inspire retailers to take a chance in their displays.

One of the biggest changes in the outdoor-fabric industry that Shea has seen in her career, especially in the past five years, is the sophistication of the consumer. “The customers who ultimately look at our product have become better educated,” she says.

Shea surmises that outdoor-room consumers have probably become better informed after spending their time and energy decorating the interiors of their homes. “Now, they are expecting the same quality and style when they shop for their outdoor rooms,” she adds. “We’ve notched up our styling, construction and color palette to meet those expectations.”

Shea is still enthusiastic about her career choice and thrilled to continue working in the textile design industry with Richloom Fabric Group. “It’s very exciting and amazing that I’m still doing this,” she says.

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