On a freezing cold morning, a coat factory seems like the ideal place to be.
But during a recent visit to Maralyce Ferree’s Scarborough warehouse, the racks were packed with spring jackets in shades of melon, periwinkle and pea green. There were warm fabrics to be found, but those were on the sample rack and spread out on the cutting table in the design room for next fall’s line.
“We have to be six months ahead,” Ferree said, running her fingers over a coat made of gray Italian wool with contrasting twists of color woven into the fabric. “We do a lot of different weights. It is not always a warm, heavy winter coat.”
For Ferree, who has designed coats in the Greater Portland area for more than 18 years, novelty is the name of the game. She and designer Annie Lindsay are constantly hunting for great fabric, whether it’s Ferree’s signature polar fleece, next fall’s Italian wool, or last fall’s highlight – a fluffy synthetic fabric that looks like poodle fur used in a line of coats called “Pedigrees.”
“I can always rely on Maralyce to release some wonderful, fabulous fabric that’s never been seen before,” said Judith Oster, who owns Caravans boutique in Rockland. “She has a great eye for fabric, for color, for design. Her designs are outstanding.”
Because her customers tend to be a bit more conservative, Oster skipped the Pedigrees line last winter, but she loved it nonetheless.
“Customers and buyers smile when they see it,” Ferree said, sitting in a large office that looks like a hurricane just passed through. “They may not wear it or buy it, but they smile.”
Though the Pedigrees line attracted quite a bit of attention, Ferree is best known for her stylish, practical fleece jackets. She started using fleece long before everyone else did – and in ways no one else imagined.
Eighteen years ago, Ferree was working at a handwoven rug company, Arriba, in Portland. She was out shopping for textiles one day when she came across a bolt of polar fleece. She liked how soft it felt. She loved the fact that it didn’t unravel at the edges. So she bought some and stitched up a pullover for the man she was dating.
“He liked it. People commented on it. I made a few and sort of found myself in business,” Ferree said.
At the time, the only companies using polar fleece were outdoor outfitters. Ferree took advantage of the fabric’s lightweight warmth, but she gave it a fresh, modern look.
“It was taking technical and marrying it with style and people really liked that,” Ferree said. “It worked.”
During her first year in business, Ferree worked with a friend in a very small apartment – so small that she had to set up a ping-pong table in the driveway to cut fabric on. Fortunately sales picked up in the fall, so she moved to bigger digs before the weather got cold.
“It took me a little while to get going,” she said, laughing.
Once she got going, though, it was hard to stop her. Over time, she grew the business, and she recently moved from a Portland warehouse to a full-scale factory in Scarborough’s industrial park. She now employs 20 people, including seven full-time sales reps who service Ferree’s 500 boutique accounts throughout the country. Her designer, Annie Lindsey, has been with the company five years, and the rest of the employees have worked for Ferree between seven and 15 years.
“For me, it’s been an incredible opportunity to be in Maine and be able to design clothing and work for someone who I enjoy so much,” said Lindsey, a Fashion Institute of Technology grad who worked for Portland-based knitwear designer Kirsten Scarcelli before joining Maralyce. “She has a lot of integrity as a businessperson.”
That integrity has allowed Ferree to build a substantial and loyal customer base of “busy, active women who want a coat to fit their lifestyle.” Her coats are all made in the United States out of comfortable, machine-washable fabrics. And she tries to keep her prices competitive – most of her coats cost between $100 and $200.
“Giving customers a good product at a fair price keeps them coming back,” Ferree said.
So do the company’s semi-annual warehouse sales (the next one is in April), which have increased Ferree’s visibility in Maine. Up until recently, most of her business came from out of state, even though her coats are perfectly suited for the Maine lifestyle.
“We tend to be more practical here because you have to be,” Ferree said. “We’re not caught up in trendy stuff. Our stuff is not edgy stuff that’s gone in a matter of months.”
They may not be trendy, but Ferree’s designs are fashionable. The company’s motto is “comfort with style,” which rings true even with the simplest of fleece jackets. And because she only sells her coats at boutiques, people who wear them don’t see themselves coming and going.
“They’re different,” said Cindi Dixon, buyer for The Grasshopper Shop in Bangor, which sells Ferree’s coats. “They’re not what you’re going to find anywhere. They’re cool. They’re fun.”
For more information or a list of retailers, visit www.coatsusa.com or call (800) 752-7707.