Annie Hurlbut’s Ethnic Apparel Boutique is for Nomads and Romantics
Annie Hurlbut co-founded Peruvian Connection with her mother Biddy over 35 years ago from the family home at Canaan Farm in Tonganoxie, Kan.
Garments like the Q’ero Alpaca Poncho ($498), made using traditional motifs from Andean Q’ero weavings, reflect the beauty and lineage of Peruvian Connection’s ethnic apparel. Handmade goods in Andean marketplaces first captured Annie’s interest on her anthropological travels as a young woman years ago and led to a lifelong vocation.
“As an anthropologist studying women selling in Andean marketplaces, I was exposed to the extraordinary patterned shawls, called mantas, that women wore in the marketplace,” says Hurlbut. “The patterning of each woman’s shawl revealed her native village. Intrigued, I began to learn about and collect antique mantas and ponchos that had found their way into the handful of shops that offered such things. You could say, I became a junkie for traditional Andean textiles, and since I couldn’t bear to part with any of my collection, I had to figure out a way to support the habit. Sweaters knit of luxurious native alpaca fiber provided the answer.”
Hurlbut brought home a gift for her mother in the mid-seventies that provided additional motivation to expand on this newfound love of Andean textiles. She says, “Halfway through my year of research in the Andes, my grandmother sent me a ticket to fly home for my Mom’s fiftieth birthday. I knew my mom wouldn’t have much interest in the old textiles I had begun to collect, so I searched instead for a beautiful alpaca sweater.
“In truth, I couldn’t find a really well-made one, so I opted instead for a soft, hourglass- shaped sweater knit of alpaca yarn and trimmed with glamorous, long-haired alpaca fur. I was hoping it would make her feel sexy at 50. I think I succeeded because when she showed it
off to her friends at a birthday party a couple of days later, they all cried out that I should import them.”
After the party, the mother and daughter discussed the idea and decided to forge ahead. “I headed back to Peru with $400, borrowed from a life insurance policy, in my backpack,” says Hurlbut. “My mom famously said later, ‘I didn’t care if we were selling erasers, I just wanted to be in business with my daughter.’”
They founded the company in 1976, sold their luxury wares to a few high-end specialty stores in New York and developed a mail-order business. Peruvian Connection caught a significant break three years later when a New York Times writer interviewed Annie for a Style article that led to thousands of catalog orders.
“I was stunned at first when the article appeared, as the writer had only mentioned that she was interested in taking a picture of me in one of our sweaters for the Times,” she recalls. “Afterwards, she asked if I had time for a cup of coffee. We talked for probably an hour, but I had no idea that I was being interviewed. When things I told her over that cup of coffee, like how hard it was to watch my dad as his corn crop shriveled in all-too-common Kansas drought years, turned up in the article, I thought my parents were going to kill me. The article must have hit a chord though because the article hit the wire services, and three months later, between the NY Times and newspapers across the country, we had received 5000 requests for a catalog.”
The international brand has since grown to include six exclusive stores across the U.S. with its first expansion into London. The retail growth complements Peruvian Connection’s online boutique and catalog filled with seasonal collections. Since her mother passed away, Hurlbut continues to lead the company with an undying passion that celebrates the ancient tradition of ethnographic textiles reimagined as modern fashion brand.
“What I’ve always loved about being an entrepreneur is that any idea can be realized if you have enough energy and capital and if you surround yourself with talented, dedicated, positive individuals,” she says. “Peruvian Connection has been blessed with such people in all phases of the operation throughout its 37-year history.
“When the news of the unification of Europe first surfaced in the ’80s, we headed to England to explore the possibilities. Our English version catalog was launched in 1994 and our German version in 1997. When people started complaining of ‘the catalog glut’ in the early ’90s and response began to wane, we reinvented ourselves, hiring top talent in all phases from design to photography, stylists, hair and makeup and models and sought out locations to reinforce our unique, ethnographic, textile-based identity.”
When business writers warned that online retail would be the demise of catalogs, Peruvian Connection built a website and took further steps to grow as a company.
“It wasn’t pretty at first, but we now have a state-of-the-art ecommerce site that has been rated among the top 500 in the nation by Internet Retailer,” says Hurlbut. “When the classic market that we had built our business on began to erode with the onset of mass communication and overnight, celebrity-fueled labels [think Sex in the City, Manolo heels and Prada bags], we invested in design talent, hired top stylists, subscribed to trend services and headed to Paris.
“More recently, we noticed that designer labels were beginning to open freestanding stores instead of relying exclusively on traditional department stores. In 2007, we hired a retail consulting firm, the same firm that had supplied the brilliant strategy behind Anthropologie’s extraordinary store concept, to help us visualize what Peruvian Connection would look like in three dimensions.”
Six years later, the company has launched stores in old shopping districts located in Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Santa Fe, Kansas City and Boston. Hurlbut adds, “In October, we’ll open our first European store on Kings Road in London.”
For her personal wardrobe, Hurlbut’s most treasured clothing item from Peruvian Connection is not what she wears most. She explains, “I travel constantly and live in our print jersey dresses, our long, lean pima and lycra tops and our tailored alpaca jackets that double as coats over dresses and polish a pair of jeans. Some of my favorites are years old. My
most treasured sweater is one we’re planning to bring back for our upcoming 40th anniversary, the original hour-glass, fur trimmed alpaca sweater I gave Biddy on her 50th birthday.”
With a major anniversary on the horizon, Hurlbut remains true to the company’s roots. Today, skilled Andean textile artisans still use native luxury fibers to transform the company’s original designs into luxurious sweaters, coats, jackets and other clothing.
“Our tag line says it pretty well: Artisan apparel for nomads and romantics,” she says. “Our luxury fiber collections are for women whose imaginations draws them to handcrafted, contemporary designs based on ethnographic textile traditions. Though our pieces are undeniably influenced by trend, the quality and restraint with which they are executed will never go out of style.”