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Weatherproof soft goods add comfort to outdoor living

Courtney Mueller -- Casual Living, September 15, 2005

With the popularity of outdoor living still on the rise, designers are taking note, adding accessories once thought primarily for the indoors to the back yard, including throw pillows, blankets, tablecloths and more.

During last year's Casual Show, it was hard to miss Elaine Smith's colorful pillows, both classic and fun.

   Elaine Smith returns to the Casual Show this month with new designs for her line of pillows, throws and tablecloths. From whimsical umbrellas and flamingos to classical designs, Smith's outdoor-friendly pillows are sure to catch the attention of consumers.

Laurie Jenkins came onto the casual scene a few years ago, decorating manufacturer's showrooms with a smart soft goods collection that caught the eye of many buyers.

Soft goods that are Mother Nature-friendly are making their way into retail stores, generating talk among customers and salespeople because of the wow factor, and developing into sales.

"The outdoors are moving forward, you can have a chandelier and bring your crystal outdoors," Smith said. "Everything is expanding and we have to adapt. We are on the forefront in a growing industry."

 Textillery Weavers and Sunbrella partnered for a line of outdoor throws.  

For those retailers who jumped on board with Smith one year ago, all have reported success, she said.

With a background in interior design, Smith worked frequently with fabrics and furniture, but had difficulty finding pillows to suit her tastes. Often making her own pillows, it was at a fabric show when she stumbled upon outdoor fabrics, and her idea to move outdoors was born. Her company, Elaine Smith Pillows, or ESP, originated from there while she visited mills and started developing the line that she debuted in Chicago in 2004.

"There was a huge gap in the market," Smith said. "But reception was great. Not only were the fabrics new, the way I had put them together was new."

Decorative fringes dolled up the pillows and added an upscale twist, while her fabric lines catered to both clean-cut and contemporary looks and whimsical and novelty designs. Throws and tablecloths round out Smith's line.

"You are able now to take an entire room and bring it outside," she said. "I'm not a barbecue girl, but I will sit down to a nicely dressed table and have a dinner party."

Jenkins' company, Laurie Bell Outdoor Occasions, has moved forward since its inception a few years ago. No longer working with manufacturers or inking licensing agreements, Jenkins has discovered a niche by working for herself.

She has found great success working with specialty retailers like The Greenhouse Mall in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar, Calif., and catalogs Charleston Gardens and Horchow.

Home Depot Expo added her line this year to phenomenal sales. Her current focus is working with designers and developing her line of fabrics, graphic designs inspired by the 1960s.

"Deep seating is so hot right now, and you need pillows to soften it up," Jenkins said. "I tell retailers to use more subtle colors on the cushions and use the pillows to add the pizzazz."

   Smith's most recent introduction is the Azure Collection, featuring softer pastels in paisley designs.

Karen Galindo, manager of The Greenhouse Mall, worked with Jenkins to coordinate a cushion lineup for the high-end casual furniture, garden and barbecue retailer. Galindo also decorates the furniture with Jenkins' throws and pillows.

"It helps merchandise," Galindo said.

Companies in the home accents and gift industries have decided to go outdoor, too. Textillery Weavers introduced a line of outdoor throws, while Taylor & Coultas recently introduced its third collection of outdoor pillows during last month's New York International Gift Fair.

 Taylor & Coultas introduced two additional lines of outdoor pillows at last month's New York International Gift Fair and will exhibit for the first time at the Casual Show this month in Chicago.  

Roger Deem, executive assistant of Taylor & Coultas, said owner Debbie Bartz noticed the growing interest in outdoor furniture and the lack of accessories to go along with it. Bartz developed the first line of hand-stitched pillows for the outdoors to positive feedback. The Summer Splash and Sea to Sea collections followed last month.

Textillery Weavers teamed up with Sunbrella about three years ago to debut a line of outdoor throws at the urging of the company's casual customers.

"Many retailers would say it would be a great fit to have a throw on the furniture," owner Judith Rose said.

Since then, Rose has had most success in the design and hospitality markets, but still feels there is untapped potential in the marine industry. At a high price point, many retailers wonder why they need something like a throw in their stores.

"It takes time to find the right fit, but we know there is huge potential," Rose said.

Smith will return to the Casual Show this month in space 7-6034. Jenkins' collections can be found at the show in booth 8-6100. Taylor & Coultas' outdoor line will debut at the Casual Show in booth 7-7081. Textillery Weavers will display its Sunbrella outdoor throws in the Lloyd/Flanders showroom, 1650.

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