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Martha's Growing Empire

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2000; Page H01

NEW YORK—Hold on to your hedge clippers. Brand Martha is branching out again. Coming in April to a Washington-area Kmart is Martha Stewart's latest effort to add zing to the lives of mass-market shoppers: stylish outdoor furniture, garden tools, live plants, seeds and barbecue gear--right down to the mesquite wood chips.

The 1,000-plus items in the Martha Stewart Everyday Garden collection, unveiled at a flower-filled press lunch here earlier this month, reflect their namesake tastemaker's legendary attention to detail and zeal for perfection. "I hate it when I go into somebody's property and see ugly green hoses," Stewart told the group of 100 reporters and magazine editors gathered at posh restaurant Daniel (invitations had arrived printed on Martha seed packets). "They don't have to stick out in the landscape. That's why mine are gray or olive green."

There she goes again. The woman who turned domestic arts into the spectator sport of the 1990s is now into beautifying middle America's patios and decks. This time, the focus is on creating an outdoor oasis lit by romantic low-voltage lanterns and furnished with "Montecito" sling chairs and "peat"-colored oval-domed grills (that hold a whole turkey). The 350 varieties of seeds in the collection were test-grown and the plants photographed in Martha's Connecticut garden.

The Kmart collection--from the faux-terra-cotta urns to the basket-weave wicker chairs--is inspired by Martha's Own Stuff. The "Norwood Sprinkler" was named after one of her gardeners.

"Like everything Martha does, it has to reflect her taste and sensibility," says Terry Sutton, a vice president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. "It's more classic. Go back to what is old and new and try to get the best quality, better fabrics to last longer in the sun, to push the industry to work harder."

"I've done inventory in almost all of her properties," continues Sutton (at last count: five homes and one fab New York apartment). "A lot of the furniture she buys is old. We take elements and re-create them."

Like other Stewart endeavors--her successful Martha Stewart Living magazine, her best-selling books, her Emmy-winning TV show, her Martha-by-Mail catalogue, her Web site--the collection had to pass exacting standards. You'd expect nothing less from the billionaire executive who handed out flaky brioche and fresh-squeezed OJ to Wall Street traders on the morning her company went public last October.

Geraniums have been bred to eliminate what she calls that "acrid" smell (hers have a minty or lemony scent). Outdoor cushions that sell for $8.99 have been plumped with poly-fill. A $3.99 hand trowel colored a soft sage green is tagged with specific care instructions: "Wipe free of loose dirt after each use; oil occasionally."

Kmart never had it so good. Stewart has been a part of Kmart since 1987, when she signed on to be a company spokeswoman and home-fashions consultant. Three years ago, she became a powerhouse presence on Kmart shelves with a major introduction of affordable sheets, thick towels and stylish paint colors.

Company executives credit Stewart's upgrades and creativity for bringing the buzz back to the former home of the lowly Blue Light Special. Last year, the mass-market giant sold $1 billion worth of Stewart-branded products. "She's brought us customers we had alienated before, and customers who had never been there," said Kmart President Andy Giancamilli, between bites of cannelloni filled with winter greens, tomato confit, wild trumpet mushrooms and Parmesan. "As Martha says, 'It's a good thing.'"

At the lunch here, Stewart, 58, looked ever chic and in theme dressed in pale sage green heels and light blue dress and matching coat--shades Martha groupies recognize as taken from the color of the eggs laid by her prized Araucana chickens. She set forth her high expectations for the new line: "We want to change the way you garden in the U.S."

The dining room of French chef Daniel Boulud's hot eatery was cleared of its tufted red velvet chairs and round tables covered with Italian linen yellow cloths. From a 48-foot semi-truck emblazoned with a "Martha Blooms at Kmart" were carted in green wrought-iron oval tables and matching chairs from the new collection. The waiters' usual black double-breasted jackets were swapped for Martha Stewart canvas gardening aprons and--by decree--a fresh crop of napkins were passed out for the dessert course--white with embroidered trim.

The garden collection carries out Stewart's pretty pastel theme. There are pale bluish-green goatskin gardening gloves ("thorn resistant") and the chartreuse charms of the "Envy" zinnia, identified as "Martha's Favorite" on the seed packet.

At the lunch, Stewart worried aloud about how her little ivy plants and hydrangeas would survive languishing in the hot sun in 2,200 Kmarts across the land. Would the thousands of employees have the time to spritz and sprinkle them to satisfy the media mogul's standards?

"Let's raise our water glasses to the CEO of Kmart," said Martha, flashing a big smile and toasting Kmart's head honcho, Floyd Hall. "Please keep our plants alive."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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