Behind the Brand: Peacock Alley

Faux woodland feathers Bella throw ($585) and pillow ($300)
from Peacock Alley's fall 2011 collection.

Dallas-based, globally coveted . . . when Mary Ella Gabler started making patchwork throw pillows as gifts for friends from her Preston Hollow house in the late 60s, she never imagined that it would grow into a multi-million dollar luxury linens brand. In 1971 a buyer from Neiman Marcus spotted the handmade pillows after coming to the house for dinner and requested 250 for an upcoming Fortnight. Orders for bedskirts, pillow shams, and bedspreads soon followed.

"At the time, there was a real void in the linens market. The domestic mills were only making sheets, nothing else," and often in undistinguished fabrics like polyester, says Gabler, who hails from southeastern Pennsylvania Dutch country, which nurtured a love of quilts and antique fabrics. Collaborating with many of the major sheeting mills, Gabler began designing fashionable bed accessories and sheets in natural fabrics like cotton and linen. In 1973, Peacock Alley was formally incorporated -- its name was inspired by the Waldorf Astoria's Peacock Alley restaurant in New York, where Gabler was having a business breakfast meeting to seal the deal.

Mary Ella Gabler shown in a magazine ad from the 80s
promoting Peacock Alley and the Dallas Junior League

In the late 80s and early 90s duvets and duvet covers became all the rage, radically changing the way they dressed the tops of their beds, says Gabler. "There was a big transition away from blanket covers and bedspreads, and now people were piling beds with lots of pillows and big, fluffy duvets." It was a boon for linens manufacturers, and Peacock Alley focused on what would become the foundation of their business: classic white and ivory bedding, towels, robes, and matelasses, all made from the highest quality Egyptian cotton, woven by the world's top mills in Italy, Turkey, Portugal, and the UK.

The Giovanni matelasse collection, a modern interpretation of the
peacock feather, from Peacock Alley's new fall 2011 collection

A pioneer in business, Gabler was not only instrumental in establishing a specialty linens market in the United States, she had been one of the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street during the 60s. "When I got out of school and went into the financial world, there weren't any women in the stock market. I didn't think about it, because it was a matter of survival to make it work," she says. "My father and his brothers had owned a furniture retail business and I grew up in a family that took risks. Starting a business in the 70s as a woman was hard, but I've always tried to develop the best product for the best price. I feel so strongly about that, because that's how you build a reputation and build repeat customers."

The Peacock Alley restaurant inside the Waldorf Astoria, circa 1970.
The whimsical name and imagery inspired founder Mary Ella Gabler
to name her new linens company after the restaurant.

Persistence and a quest for quality turned Peacock Alley into one of the leading linens manufacturers in the country. The collection, along with their private label designs, are carried in dozens of specialty stores including Bergdorf's in New York, and Neiman's remains one of its biggest clients. Gabler credits the company's loyal employees for much of its success. Sylvia Guerrero, who was the company's first hire and its sewing and production manager for 38 years retired a year ago, but most of the team she trained is still there, says Gabler. "The people you work with make it all work. From the beginning it's been one big family."

Josh Needleman, Peacock Alley's VP of business development,
with the Steel Magnolia, a renovated vintage Airstream trailer
he uses for cross-country sales promotions and events.

A year and a half ago, Gabler handed the day-to-day operations over to her two sons, Josh and Jason Needleman. As a kid, Josh spent his summers working at Peacock Alley to learn the ropes. "I've worked in every department and gotten fired and rehired more than anyone at the company," laughs Josh, who is now the vice president of business and product development. When he's not flying to Europe to the mills, he hits the road in a sleek silver Airstream trailer filled with Peacock Alley samples, visiting stores and attending gift markets around the country. "The trailer's so much fun. I invite people in to have a drink with me and get educated on Peacock Alley," he says.

Peacock Alley's Calypso (left) and Duet II collections

After years of working in marketing and management in a variety of industries and sitting on the board of Peacock Alley, brother Jason joined the family business as president and CEO in 2009. "Jason's an introvert, the kind of guy who walks into a meeting with a calculator. We are like night and day, but we compliment each other," says Josh, who as a kid interning in the summers got into mischief, usually for all the right reasons. "I was always concerned about taking care of everyone, making sure they were okay," he says, so when one of the workers at the company mentioned that she was hungry and lunch was still several hours away, young Josh called 911 and made a bomb threat, hoping to shut the offices down long enough for the woman to get something to eat. "The police showed up, they cleared the building, and I said, 'now you can go get your lunch." The stunt got him fired until the next summer, but it forever endeared him to other employees.

Peacock Alley's All Seasons blankets (left) and Overture collection

Josh's unconventional take on things translates well into the products he helps develop for Peacock Alley. "Whatever way the market is going, I go the opposite way. It's not the common thing to do, but we have to differentiate ourselves," he says, and while competitors come out with collections that are discontinued after a season, he says Peacock Alley strives to produce new pieces each season that compliment older collections, allowing customers to build on purchases made years and even decades ago. "Our sheets are not disposable. I hear from people who bought their sheets 15 or 20 years ago and they still love them," he says.

Peacock Alley's paisley Tivoli collection, from the fall 2011 line

Sticking to what sells best has helped Peacock Alley succeed in a competitive luxury linens market. "Everyone said you had to have a rainbow of colored towels to be marketable and merchandised right," says Josh. "We went in the opposite direction and chose six colorways that sold well for us. Instead of a wall of colors, we did a wall of textures," he says, referring to the way Peacock Alley displays samples of its goods on hooks along the walls in its showrooms. We have about 8 or 10 textures, or jacquards, all complimentary, but all different. We've done that with blankets, sheets, and duvets."

A vintage 70s Peacock Alley bedspread and pillows, left;
Polaroids of some of the original patchwork pillows
that launched Peacock Alley.

Even for a company with as confident an identity as Peacock Alley, the difficult economy has instigated reassessment. "When I first came into the company, we were catching the tail end of the economic depression," says Jason. "Like most luxury businesses did over the past three years, we saw our revenues go down. The first thing I did was to try and reduce expenses. Then I looked at what key things we needed to implement sooner rather than later, because at some point the economy will bottom out and when it does, you have to be ready for opportunities." Peacock Alley recently revamped its website to be a better marketing tool for its products, and created a strong e-commerce component to make it easier for consumers to buy online. Retail stores saw their clunky sales binders replaced with downloadable PDF files showcasing beautifully photographed products, which can be easily emailed to customers.

Peacock Alley's newest collection of luxury linens includes
Napa's woven, washed duvets in an all-over geometric pattern
that mimic the natural striations in wood or bark.

They also wanted to be more accessible to local interior designers and their clients. In May, Peacock Alley opened a design studio on Slocum Street inside the Dallas Design District, geared for the trade, but open to everyone. "That location gave us the opportunity to have a more relaxed, loft feel," says Josh. "It speaks to a younger generation, and we can be modern or traditional -- you create what you want to create within our line."

From Peacock Alley's fall 2011 line, the Corsica collection
is a ginger-hued, yarn-dyed contemporary herringbone

The new showroom dovetails nicely with Peacock Alley's manufacturing facility located in Dallas, and makes it easy to do custom work, says Jason. "We recently invested in a sophisticated monogramming machine that downloads tiff and jpeg images and turns them into embroidery. It's been great for designers, because it's such a trend right now to personalize everything." For example, the computerized machine can take complex images, such as a brand for a ranch, and embroider it onto pillow cases or towels.

Peacock Alley's Vienna collection was designed more
than a quarter century ago.

"Jason has been a huge advocate of listening to the consumer," says Josh. With the Internet's growing e-commerce presence and the bad economy shuttering so many luxury outlets that once carried their products, "our customer base has changed a lot over the past five years. People are wanting to communicate directly with us," he adds. Still, the luxury market is the luxury market. "You will still have Donald Trump walk in and ask for 10 sets of sheets, but he'll also ask for a discount. People want to feel like they're getting extra value, even as they're pulling out their black AmEx cards to pay for it," says Jason.

Peacock Alley's new floor pillow, from the fall 2011 line

Peacock Alley's fall 2011 collection introduces new colors and patterns, such as a yarn-dyed updated herringbone in earth-based ginger and flint colors, and a peacock feather design with a mid-century modern edge to it. There are some clear departures from anything Peacock Alley has ever done before, including Sloan, a menswear-inspired houndstooth woven into a yarn-dyed color combo of driftwood and linen; Bella, a woodland-inspired faux feather throw and pillow; and an oversized woven cotton floor pillow that doubles as a chic dog bed.

Photographer Greg Blomberg captured members of the
Peacock Alley family at the opening of their new Design Studio
in May, 2011. From left to right, John Bitzer, chairman of the board;
Mary Ella Gabler Bitzer, founder; Jason Needleman, president and CEO;
Jason's wife, Leslie; and Josh Needleman, VP of business development.

As the company gears up for its 40th anniversary in 2013, all hands are on deck, including Gabler, who officially retired last year but finds it hard to step back. When reached by phone at the Javits Center for the New York gift market where she's been showing Peacock Alley wares every year since 1975, she'd already logged in a full week of 12-hour days. "I have such a passion for the business and he industry, and I have a historical perspective that I think is necessary," she says. Too, having her sons working at the company is nice. "I love it. Everyday when I can go into that office it's a huge thrill for me," she says.