Aaron Stewart, Home Products '02, could lie down on the job - and just be testing the merchandise
by Alexander Gelfand
Entering the Sferra showroom at 26th St. and Madison Ave. is a bit like wandering into the lair of the sand man. Five plump beds kitted out in fine linens – long-staple Egyptian cotton sheets, embroidered pillowcases, and richly textured matelassés – practically cry out for test-napping. Despite the polished hardwood floors and nearby midtown hubbub, the room is hushed, the silky bedding and fluffy towels that line the walls undoubtedly serving as some kind of upscale soundproofing. The entire space would act like a giant sleep chamber if the colorful, elegantly designed goods on display didn't demand close attention – and if Aaron Stewart, the bed and table linen company's creative director, weren't such an engaging tour guide. Whether recounting the history of the 115-year-old firm (one of the founders survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915), or explaining how to launder fine bed sheets (remove from the dryer while still moist to avoid pilling), Stewart is a veritable fount of linen knowledge.
"This was the first new collection that I designed for Sferra from top to bottom," Stewart says, gesturing toward the luxurious assemblage of linens that greets you as you walk in the door. "It was a little more fashion-forward that what we'd done before, the kind of thing you'd have seen in a Hollywood starlet's boudoir." And it's true; Stewart's Wilshire Collection, with its delicate floral jacquard, tasseled Euro shams, and cool aqua tones, is as glamorous as linen can be.
Stewart is no stranger to high-end home textiles. He founded his own company, Sové, while still a student in FIT’s Home Products Development and Marketing program (he graduated in 2002). Within three years, Stewart was selling nearly $1 million worth of pillows and duvets to luxury outlets like ABC Carpet and Home. When the terror attacks of 2001 resulted in a spate of order cancellations, he went to work for Martha Stewart on her Signature Collection, an upscale interiors line comprising paint, flooring, and furniture. "I loved my job there," Stewart recalls. "Martha was terrific, and the company was a magnet for the most creative people." When Martha's legal travails put the Signature Collection on hold, Aaron landed happily at Sferra. (A few months later, he recruited fellow Home Products graduate Mary Shields '02 to serve as the company's marketing manager.)
Founded in Italy in 1891 by Gennaro Sferra, the company built its reputation by supplying fine Venetian lace to Fifth Avenue aristocrats. By the late ’70s, Sferra specialized in table linens, but the focus since then has shifted to bed linens, tracking a trend in the home textiles industry. "It's the casual living that everyone's doing," Stewart says, as he absently fingers the damask tablecloths artfully arranged on a small corner table in the showroom. "People are afraid of tablecloths, of the wear and care. But they aren't nearly as fragile as you'd think. You can wash all of these in the washer and dryer."
When Stewart joined Sferra three years ago, he saw an opportunity to re-brand the venerable company and expand its base demographic, which at the time was weighted heavily toward those aged 45 and older. "We didn't want to alienate our existing customers," Stewart says, "but we also wanted to get that young person who just got a year-end bonus and wants to buy some awesome sheets." (The most luxurious Sferra sheets come in a staggering 1020 thread count, and sell for roughly $1000.) Hence the Wilshire Collection, with its cool Art Deco elegance, and the Mensware Collection, which features masculine touches like a pinstriped, herringbone pillowcase design. "I'm always trying to evolve the brand and keep it fresh," says Stewart, "rather than just re-coloring last year's hits."
Copyright ©2006 Alexander Gelfand