- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2000

Christopher Lowell, on his self-titled home-decorating show, makes it look so easy. A dab of sponge paint here, a few yards of fabric straight off the bolt there, some quick flicks of the wrist with a glue gun or a heavy-duty stapler and voila a bedroom is transformed from an empty shell or worse, a tackily furnished shell into an inviting retreat.

Mr. Lowell does it all twice every weekday 60 new episodes each season on the Discovery Channel with a flamboyant sense of humor. In any given show, he might dress in drag, tickle the ivories or invite a fan in the studio to assist on a project. His show has a carefree quality that is the antidote to the Martha Stewart method, which seems to set lofty goals and then dare viewers to achieve them.

His whip-it-up-in-an-afternoon style belies the sharp businessman behind Discovery's No. 1 daytime program and its two latest franchise extensions. Those extensions are a new book, "Christopher Lowell's Seven Layers of Design: Fearless, Fabulous Decorating," and a just-released line of home furnishings and paints, the Christopher Lowell Home Collection, available only at Burlington Coat Factory stores.

We caught up with Mr. Lowell recently at Burlington's new Fullerton, Calif., store, where he was shooting a segment for his series and giving the new CL department a once-over. The flamboyant persona was stowed at least while the cameras weren't rolling as he talked about the planning he had put into becoming a home-decor maven, applying 20 years of experience in advertising and merchandising other companies' products.

"We did not even go on the air five years ago until we had a firm marketing plan," he says. "We decided early on we wanted to have an educational slant.

"There were some things lacking in some of the how-to shows already out there. The biggest one was self-esteem, which became one of the core elements of our show, especially with our use of comedy."

Mr. Lowell's on-air mantra, "You can do it," allows viewers the freedom to make mistakes and to break out of decorating ruts with, say, anything-but-white ceilings.

It also seems to have driven his carefully considered business plan. The Christopher Lowell Home Collection was many years in preparation including five years spent selecting a range of paint colors that, he says, won't clash with each other because of their precisely formulated base tones. The entire line was whipped into production and delivered to 280 stores nationwide less than five months after he signed the deal with Burlington.

Mr. Lowell is the latest in a growing number of personalities who have put their names on home-furnishings lines.

The pioneers have included fashion designers Bill Blass, Liz Claiborne and Laura Ashley, who focused on bed and bath goods, as has Calvin Klein. Ralph Lauren, whose name is on one of the most successful department store brands, took that notion a step further with paints. Donna Karan is set to join the fray next spring with bed, bath and storage products.

Then there's Mrs. Stewart, adviser to millions on when and where to prune and how to puree and plump. She launched her Martha Stewart bedding and bath products at Kmart in 1997 and since has expanded into paints, window treatments, kitchen linens, gardening gear, baby basics and now cookware, utensils and dish ware 4,000 items in all, worth $1 billion a year in sales.

"Martha changed the rules completely," says Warren Shoulberg, editor of the home-furnishings trade newspaper HFN. "The license programs traditionally had been through department stores. Martha Stewart was really a groundbreaker in saying you can do this at a good price point. Her impact has been monstrous."

Although Mr. Lowell's line is limited to bed and bath, accent pieces, draperies and paints, he has taken Mrs. Stewart's concept to another plateau.

He has established his own one-stop section of the store, with special lighting, flooring, display cabinetry and sample bedding arrangements designed top to bottom by his team. Mr. Lowell's bearded, balding likeness beams from backlit signs and from every picture frame on the shelves. Towels are not merely stacked, but rolled together in bundles of complementary hues, then set around on wicker tables with a pleasantly scented pillar candle or a $10 pineapple-shaped stone-look finial.

His pre-mixed paints are named for edibles, such as cookie dough, eggplant bisque, apple skin, mint julep and dried blueberry, for the sake of easy visualization. ("We know that women and men both have to eat," he says.) The paints are displayed beside packaged paint rollers, pans and sponges and a $6 set of three trim brushes.

"We're sort of the anti-Martha approach," Mr. Lowell says, noting that Mrs. Stewart's products are mixed in with those of her competitors and scattered across various Kmart departments, while his are grouped in a "destination" in the Burlington stores.

Mr. Shoulberg says Mrs. Stewart's and Mr. Lowell's affordable pricing appeals to impulse buyers, apartment dwellers with modest incomes and homeowners inclined to re-nest every few years.

"One of the things we're finding is price point is still important, but not as important to a woman as feeling secure in her decision-making," Mr. Lowell says.

Mr. Shoulberg agrees. "I think most consumers do not trust their ability to pick the right fashion product, and that's the gist behind any of these [merchandise] programs," he says, noting that the concept of mixing florals, stripes and plaids on the same bed intimidates many buyers. "If you see Ralph Lauren's name on it, it must be OK. Someone else has made the decision for you. It is validation."

Mr. Shoulberg says shoppers may gravitate toward a celebrity-named home product so they can "live vicariously by buying a Ralph Lauren sheet or a Martha Stewart frying pan."

What's in it for the celebrities?

"A royalty check," Mr. Shoulberg says without hesitation 3 percent to 5 percent for a lesser-known figure to the midteens for a high-profile one. Another benefit is the publicity boost from cross-branding. "If you like somebody's sheets, you might go out and buy their shirts," he says.

"People who know me know I'm not motivated by money or by fame," Mr. Lowell counters. "I could do without it, but I enjoy seeing people learn to do something like this for themselves and feel good about themselves for having done it."

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