Softline Pushes Hard Into New Markets

The Gianni collection of tailored window panels has a grommet finish.  softlineonline.com

The Gianni collection of tailored window panels has a grommet finish. softlineonline.com

 By David Gill

A small warehouse in Gardena, Calif., was the birthplace of Softline Home Fashions, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in business last month.

Softline has evolved over the years from a small vendor of fabrics into a resource for both fabrics and finished home textiles. It will be showing the latest introductions to its line of window treatments and decorative pillows later this month at the New York Home Fashions Market, in its showroom at 230 Fifth Ave. in New York City.

The company was founded by two brothers from Montreal, Jason and Rodney Carr. For the first three years of its existence, Softline’s stock in trade was fabrics. “We would buy discounted and promotional fabrics and try to resell them,” said Jason Carr, who is Softline’s president. “We had to look for closeouts and for opportunities on the buy side, and make our margin on the sell side.”

Eventually the brothers began to accumulate more samples to show prospective customers. The company’s first large order came from Jo-Ann Stores in 2003, for voile fabric.

The following year, Softline ventured for the first time into finished products. “We started with very simple curtain panels,” said Rodney Carr, Softline’s director. “We also began showing at all the trade shows. We’ve always been very proactive with our marketing, doing 36 trade shows a year.”

In window treatments, Softline established its first position with polyester fabric. “We wanted to offer a high-end look at an affordable price, and polyester allowed us to do that,” Rodney Carr said. “We began buying programs for our jobbing business. Instead of one item in three colors, we’d buy items that coordinated with each other. From there, we got into different sizes of panels including designer lengths that other companies weren’t doing.”

Jason Carr described the years from 2004 to 2007 as “amazing years for us. Every quarter, we had a double-digit gain. Our business was escalating month after month, where we were hitting everyone we went to.”

The economic downturn beginning in late 2007 began a deceleration in Softline’s growth. “Once the economy bombed out, we decided two very important things,” Rodney Carr said. “We continued to market aggressively and launch product. We also took a chance and opened a division in Canada in 2008.” This division has had “explosive growth,” he said, and has established partnerships with major chains and distributors in that country.

In the United States, Softline has used technology and social media to expand its online presence, including connecting with customers’ websites and providing drop-shipping for many of the online retailers.

Softline has invested much capital into product development, and will continue to do so in the years ahead. “Our mantra is to have fresh product for every season,” Jason Carr said. The company is also applying more of its weight into brands. “We now have Evidence of Evolution, our ‘green’ line of eco-friendly fabrics and window treatments,” he added. “Energex is our brand of blackout fabric, which blocks the light from the sun. Over the next five years, we’d like to establish Softline as a meaningful brand as much as possible.”

The next few years also present opportunities for international expansion. “We have a nice potential to export to South America, Central America and Australia,” Jason Carr said. The company has already established a global foothold in Asia. “Most of our goods come from there,” Rodney Carr said. “We’ll continue to push our goods there, attending trade shows, establishing ourselves with sales representatives.”

In the United States, Softline has a presence on the shelves of mass merchants, specialty stores, department stores, fabric stores, catalogs and online retailers. “We want to grow with our existing business and have Softline relied on as a brand that means good fashion at affordable prices,” Jason Carr said. “We have many SKUs to offer. There shouldn’t be one retailer out there that isn’t carrying our product.”