By Barbara Thau
Lillian August is a specialty home store with lots of specialties. The Norwalk, Conn.-based, five-unit chain with an eye on expansion features an upscale home furnishings mix with styles ranging from old world to traditional to modern glamour.
An artist and textiles designer by trade, founder Lillian August’s licensed home goods, such as furniture, lamps and fabrics, pepper the store.
The Lillian August home brand is also marketed at independent retailers and interior designers via manufacturer partnerships, such as one with Hickory White furniture.
“My philosophy is to make it beautiful—an elevated vision that is not terribly commercial,” August said.
Lillian August’s buyers travel the world—from Asia, Europe, Brazil and South America—to unearth home finds.
“We’re flea-market guys,” said Dan Weiss, president of Lillian August and son of the founder. “We give them [shoppers] a lot of design information and break it up by lifestyle. It’s like walking through a magazine.”
Lillian August is geared toward large decorating projects, with a staff of 25 interior designers.The shoppers work directly with designers.
“We’re one-stop shopping for high-end interior design,” Weiss said.
The store also does a robust business with the interior design trade.
A walk through the flagship store in Norwalk is like an international tour and a primer on home styles.
The stores are organized by lifestyle vignettes, rather than by home merchandise category.
A Cottage Home section features sun-washed furniture, hand-painted wood pieces and floral fabrics. The Notting Hill area evokes English formality with items like mahogany bookcases and silver candlesticks, while the Zanzibar section offers a taste of the open markets of southeast Asia and Marrakech, with looks that range from rustic to ornate.
Another nook in the store features tongue-in-cheek, retro kitschy looks.
While most of Lillian August’s home goods are sourced from around the world, merchandise from American suppliers and designers such as Barbara Barry, Barclay Butera and Henredon to Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren are sprinkled throughout the mix in design galleries.
The stores’ mix includes furniture, rugs, luxury mattresses, home decor, tabletop, bed and bath, lighting and garden merchandise, as well as antiques and reproductions.
The retailer also does a big custom upholstery and window-treatment business. The store also boasts a fabric center stocked with special-order goods from big-name, high-end suppliers.
In addition to playing up its design acumen, Lillian August stokes an arty edge.
The Norwalk store features an art gallery with a revolving collection of works by local artists and a jewelry counter with handmade pieces.
Although the home furnishings retail sector has taken a beating from the double blow of a struggling economy and the housing crisis, “We’re still seeing growth,” said Bob Grayson, who serves on the board of directors of Lillian August and is a major investor in the company.
The former CEO of The Limited is president of retail consulting firm the Grayson Co., and a principal of executive search firm Grayson/Hughes.
Although store traffic is off somewhat, “We’re still seeing growth—comp-store sales are up somewhat,” Grayson said. And the accessories business “is off the charts.”
Lillian August is now mulling expansion.
The retailer sees growth opportunities in the New York metropolitan area. For potential new store sites, the company is looking for affluent communities in high-traffic neighborhoods.
Executives said Westchester, New Jersey and Long Island are ripe for expansion next year. A Manhattan unit is also a possibility.
The plan is to open a store per year with the goal of 10-plus stores.
“It’s a great opportunity to open new stores,” said John Weiss, Lillian August’s chief operating officer and son of the founder.