Nancy Talbot dies at 89; co-founder of women's clothing store Talbots
By By Valerie J. Nelson
Sep 05, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Nancy Talbot, who co-founded a women's clothing store with her husband in 1947 that catered to a "country club" set and oversaw its growth into a catalog powerhouse and retail chain, has died. She was 89.
Talbot died Sunday from complications of Alzheimer's disease at her home in Boulder, Colo., said a daughter, Polly Talbot Donald.
When Nancy and her husband, Rudolf Talbot, inherited his father's cramped clothing store in the Boston suburb of Hingham, Mass., they renamed it "The Talbots." They also stocked it with classic women's apparel that reflected Nancy's affinity for color and personal style.
Eventually, the store became known as Talbots -- and as a trend-setter for the suburban set.
"Talbots was like a brand. It stood for something," Susan Rolontz, a New York City-based fashion analyst, told The Times on Friday. "She came up with a lifestyle approach to dressing that worked very, very well. The clothes were more or less traditional with a twist."
In their second year of business, the couple circulated a precursor to their pervasive catalog when they distributed 3,000 fliers to potential customers culled from the New Yorker magazine's mailing list. Officially launched in 1952, the catalog is responsible for much of the chain's revenue.
The company, which expanded into California in the late 1980s, has almost 590 retail locations in the U.S. and Canada. But when the Talbots sold the business for $6 million to General Mills in 1973, it had five stores.
Her husband retired, but she stayed with the company as a vice president until 1983. When she left, Talbots had nearly 30 stores and mailed more than 10 million catalogs each year.
Nancy once attributed their success to "luck," but she revealed a discriminating approach to fashion merchandising in 1980 in an internal company publication:
"We look for clothes that are timeless because they are ladylike, simple but not contrived, gimmicky or extreme, smart but not faddy, fashionable but not funky -- chic and understated, the hallmarks of good taste."
Talbot succeeded because "she created real clothes for real people," said Marylou Luther, who was The Times' fashion editor in the 1970s and '80s. "They met the needs of a lot of women, especially women who were not a size 0 or 2. Their clothes were proven classics that worked."
She was born Nancy Orr in 1920 in Charlevoix, Mich., and grew up in Chicago.
After a year at Radcliffe College, she left to work with the American Red Cross during World War II. She met Rudolf, an intelligence officer, and they were married in 1945.
By 1950, their business had outgrown its first location, and they moved two blocks to an old, white clapboard house that remains the mother store. They painted the front door a custom bright red, an architectural touch that became a signature of Talbots stores.
Her daughter Polly recalled using the store's mail chute as a slide when she was a child and playing hide-and-seek among the clothes with her sister, Jane.
The same zest for color that Talbot brought to her clothing company was apparent on the walls of houses that she built and renovated, including a former church in Rockport, Maine. Bedrooms were painted bright green or yellow while the dining room was a deep red.
"Color was something that she always loved," Polly said, "It was certainly reflected in the store, her life, in everything she did. . . . She was warm colors."
Talbot's husband died in 1987.
In addition to Polly, of Boulder, she is survived by her daughter Jane A. Winter of St. Louis; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.