Smart, flexible, innovative, nimble. These are traits we’ve come to understand as essential to the success of a modern-day business. They are not often teamed with other traits such as cautious, manageable and reserved, but when they are, and when you can use all of them to describe one company, then chances are you’ve really got something.
Curtain & Drapery Fashions, Inc., Lowell, NC, fits this enviable description.
Begun in 1980 by an enterprising former high school teacher with drafting and
merchandising experience, the company grew rapidly over the next 10 to 15 years
by offering 100 percent ready-made, in-stock window treatments and bedding. Curtain & Drapery
Fashions grew to 250 employees, six factory-owned stores and $18 million a year
in sales during its hey-day. For four years it ran a national mail order business,
Caroline Country Ruffles.
Then came the late 1990s, and particularly the years following the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That was the time during which North Carolina saw
its number of sewing plants drop from 600 to three. It also saw a tremendous
influx of imports.
“When they passed NAFTA it opened the trade for importers to send ready-made
products into this country,” says Kelly Nichols, co-owner and daughter
of company founder Johnnie Nichols. “We couldn’t go to our suppliers
and dye goods for X amount of dollars per yard and turn around and make it into
a window treatment. We couldn’t buy cloth as cheaply as we could buy something
in a bag with an insert ready to hang.”
Clearly, something had to change if Curtain & Drapery Fashions were to stay
in business. What changed was the company itself. With Kelly and Johnnie Nichols
running the family owned business, they refocused its main programs, invested
in new equipment, relocated, dropped the mail order business and pared down the
company to a smaller, more manageable size. It would not be a stretch to say
they reinvented the business and saved themselves. “We beat the odds .
. . over and over,” says Kelly Nichols.
Beating the odds means more than survival. The company has 300 independent specialty
retail stores as customers, primarily located in the Southeast but stretching
from Maine to Florida. From its 18,000-square-foot facility in Lowell, it produces
window treatments, bedding and all the coordinated accessories including shower
curtains and toss pillows. It also has a 12,000-square-foot showroom to showcase
all of its products.
At the heart of its successful makeover is what the company calls its “Almost-Custom” program,
which Kelly Nichols describes as “semi-custom window treatments where the
customer chooses the face fabric, lining and trimming but the sizes are pre-set.
The dimensions that we have chosen will fit virtually 95 to 99 percent of the
windows that are out there. We don’t skimp on cloth.”
This program, along with the company’s Topper on a Board program makes
up 95 percent of Curtain & Drapery Fashions’ business today.
The Almost-Custom program was started in 1997 as a reaction to what was happening
in the market. “We had to slowly get away from doing ready-mades and grow
our custom program,” Nichols says.
“We brought in 13 coordinated fabric groupings in a hanger sample. Where
just about everyone else in the industry gives you a little book with samples
of about 10- by 12-inches, we give the customer a full 27- by 27-inch pattern
repeat. We go so far as to coordinate on that hanger a plaid, a stripe, a print,
a non-textured solid and so forth. So the customer doesn’t have to choose
all these fabrics, we take all of the work out of it for them. It makes it very
easy to sell our program when they can see the floral as the bed top, the stripe
as the dust ruffle and shams, the small check as a toss pillow and panels on
the window, then go back to the floral as the primary window treatment.”
From the original 13 hanger samples, the company has grown to offer 60, which
are updated every year in colors and patterns to reflect what their customers
want and what their fabric suppliers are offering.
“Customers simply fax in their orders and we go over it and fax it back
with a ‘received’ stamp on it for confirmation,” Nichols explains. “We
put it into the computer, it goes to the cut floor and it goes out the door in
two to four weeks—four weeks being the busiest times of year.” Their
dealers love the program, she adds, “They look forward to new product samples.”
As Curtain & Drapery Fashions downsized to its current 40 employees, it invested
in new equipment to keep up production. “We bought a CAD-driven cutting
machine that enables us to match our patterns,” Nichols says. “It’s
a quarter-of-a-million-dollar machine. We cut all of our toppers on this machine.
There’s no way we can do what we do without it.”
Kelly Nichols traveled to the Atlanta, GA, office of the equipment manufacturer
to learn how to operate it. During a six-month period that followed she drew
some 30,000 patterns to enter into the computer. This is when she realized she
had a knack for design and style and after having grown up in the business and
having done every job from sweeping the floor to sewing on different pieces of
equipment, Nichols became the buyer for custom fabrics and worked side-by-side
with her father to develop the Almost-Custom program.
The success of this program is due to the quality of the dealers Curtain & Drapery
Fashions works through and that this programs is exactly what consumers are looking
for. “To me you have three different kinds of customers out there today.
You have the customers that are low-income and buy their window treatments at
discount outlets. Then you have a middle market, which we all know is forever
shrinking. Then you have your customer with money to spend.
“The middle market has figured out that they don’t want to buy ready-made
curtains at a discount store, but they can’t afford custom. So that’s
where we fit in. We offer a quality product at an unbelievable price.”
WORKROOM OR NOT?
Because of its Almost-Custom program, Curtain & Drapery Fashions has become
a hybrid company—somewhere between a mass producer and a custom, one-at-a-time
workroom. “We stock fabric and cut and sew it in a manufactured manner,” Nichols
says. “In one sense we are a workroom because we cut one item at a time.
However, a lot of dealers like to stock our product and so they will buy in sixes
and twelves and so forth. We produce 2,500 to 3,000 individual pieces a month—that’s
ordered-one-at-a-time goods,” she adds.
Working one at a time allows the company to concentrate on doing each piece right. “Quality
is one thing that sets us apart above and beyond any one other competitor out
there. Our quality is in another realm as far as how good our stuff is. We have
less than half of one percent in returns,” Nichols says.
To handle that kind of production, however, the company must stock goods from
major mills. “We buy a half-million dollars or more worth of cloth a year,” Nichols
says. “We stock over 600 different fabrics from these vendors, and we keep
it in stock.”
That kind of inventory carries its own risk, especially because fabric styles
and colors change seasonally. It’s a much bigger risk, Nichols admits,
buying 2,000 yards of a fabric as compared to one to two rolls. To offset that
risk, Nichols is careful, cautious and reserved when selecting fabric.
“When we go to pick our fabric selections, we first and foremost like to
pick what we call the chocolate and vanilla, which would be the florals, stripes
and plaids, and then we pick the other 52 flavors.
“We also pick goods with continuity. We don’t buy anything unless
it’s going to be around a couple of years. We listen to our customers very
carefully when they ask us for yellow-blue combinations or whatever. We’re
very sensitive to what our people ask us to do especially in color and style,” she
“Our industry is driven by apparel in one sense: What you see in apparel
today you’ll see in window treatments, we feel, in anywhere from four to
“We have watched designs and trends change. When everybody jumps on a look,
we’re a little bit more reserved. We listen to our fabric sales reps very
closely because they are the ones that put the cloth in front of us and say, ‘Hey,
this is going to be good.’ I even buy goods a season old instead of trying
out the brand new stuff because I know the older stuff is more proven.
“We’ve very shrewd and careful in our business decisions.”
Constantly changing market forces also require companies to be flexible, lean
and nimble enough to follow where business leads. As interior fashions and home
building styles have changed, so too has Curtain & Drapery Fashions.
It’s Topper on a Board program, for instance, began by offering finished
product from 30 to 110 inches wide in two-inch increments with three returns.
To accommodate today’s larger windows, it offers hinged mounting boards
for 160- to 180-inch widths. The company also charges a flat fee to make patterns
for larger window treatments. “It’s not just the Florida homes anymore
that have huge windows. The other thing we’re seeing is longer windows,” Nichols
Downsizing got a bad name in the 1990s, but companies that ran lean and efficiently
have been the ones to prosper. As Curtain & Drapery Fashions pared down,
it dropped most of its ancillary products. One of the first to go was the mail
order business “because it didn’t’ pay,” Nichols says.
But the company never lost the importance of excellent customer service. “It
used to be, back in our hey-day, we were a one-stop shop. We had everything but
the kitchen sink for window treatments and bedding: we had the hardware, we stocked
it, we had lamps, we had rugs, we had everything.
“Now we help customers by giving them all the sourcing information we can.”
In the near term, Nichols sees Curtain & Drapery Fashions growing cautiously
(they are looking to expand into the Midwest, for example), but only while maintaining
excellent delivery and quality and keeping current customers happy. That last
part may be getting a bit more difficult, Nichols admits, with what she refers
to as today’s “ever-so-picky, change-her-mind-and-got-to-have-what-she-wants-when-she-wants-it-exactly-how-she-wants-it
Still, consumers need choice, and so be it, Nichols says. “We have to develop
ways and means to be able to provide that.”