An Eye for the Finer Things

Susan Colby’s design career still thrives

By Rae Sanders | Photographed by Sunny Frantz

Elegance and artful functionality define Susan Colby’s approach to life and her clothing design business, Avedon & Colby International Outfitters, her latest venture after a lifetime of design industry work for top-tier brands.

Colby, 74, helped pioneer the women’s executive clothing line at the upper crust Paul Stuart, and later launched a women’s performance clothing line at Willis & Geiger, the predecessor to Avedon & Colby that ultimately was sold to Lands’ End.

At Willis & Geiger, she met Burt Avedon, who eventually became her business partner in design consulting. The two founded their eponymous brand, which Colby continues to shepherd. Avedon died this year at age 94.

“You can be very outstanding, if you have the right pieces, the right fabric, the right details, even down to the button is very important,” Colby says. “The definition of our brand is ‘Outfitter,’ meaning the right stuff needed to get you there and back, whether it’s safari, mountain climbing, aviation, you need gear that works.”

The line is famous for its meticulous construction, durability and ease of movement.

Colby runs the business out of her home on the outskirts of Verona and Middleton. Her perfectly disarrayed workshop holds garments from past and present, as well as design specs for future lines.

Her creativity is also obvious in her French country-style home, which she designed herself with the input of Avedon’s wife, Silvana.

Drenched in natural light, the home features curvy, arched entryways, wide plank floors, exposed-beam ceilings, a rustic tin sink, iron chandeliers adorned with crystals and a sprawling stone fireplace. Even her lovely red fox lab Bracken—who Colby affectionately calls “The Flooze,” adds a comfortable canine vibe to the home.

Susan Casey, the former creative director of new business development for Lands’ End, gushes about Colby’s design chops.

“Pretty much any of the businesses she’s been involved with, or clothing she’s done, is exceptional in its class. And, if somebody is lucky enough to be able to buy it, they love it,” Casey says.

Wisconsin, says Casey, is fortunate to have Colby. “I’m a very big believer in meritocracy, so I think excellence shines regardless of where it comes from, and the fact that she came to Wisconsin and continued to do this amazing work that she had always done…she just continues to work and inspire.”

Colby, who got her early start as an art teacher and gallery director, is also a skilled painter of abstract impressionist pieces. She uses mediums like cray-pas, waxed crayon with turpentine and gesso to create palpable texure. Over the years, she has shown and sold her art at local galleries, and she will be showing her art again at an upcoming show at Convivio in Spring Green.

A self-described workaholic, Colby believes anything is possible for women at any age. Older women, she says “should begin to realize that they have a collection from life, and they have a value.”

“Have great faith in your own self, and that there are things that you will learn or can learn,” Colby says. “You’re not dead yet.”

 

Read about another entrepreneur featured in our Thrive After 55 series who’s only gotten better with age: Micca Hutchins.