A Lacey importer and distributor of naturally dyed clothing could soon be included in the Port of Olympia’s Foreign Trade Zone.

Commerce Place light industrial park, where Blue Willi’s is located, as well as surrounding commercial areas, are included in a major boundary modification request that has been made by the Port to the federal government. The 200-acre area could be added to the South Puget Sound Foreign Trade Zone #216 by spring, according to Port marketing Director Kari Qvigstad.

The biggest benefit for Blue Willi’s would be duty deferral while merchandise is being readied for sale throughout the United States, says Troels Engholm, president of Blue Willi’s USA Inc., which moved to Lacey from Dublin, Calif., last June. Engholm says he’s glad he made the move to South Sound and recently solidified the company’s presence by moving around the block to a location that will give it more visibility.

The biggest reason the company moved to South Sound in the first place is that it was more cost-effective for the company than operating out of the more expensive San Francisco area, Engholm explains. Lacey is just an hour from Sea-Tac International Airport, one of only three airports on the West Coast that have direct flights from Denmark, where the company’s clothing is made. And the labor pool is better-suited to the company’s needs, says Engholm.

“The EDC (Economic Development Council of Thurston County) was very helpful,” Engholm says. “They were very unbiased.”

Blue Willi’s moved from its original location at 8605 Commerce Place Drive Suite A to its new 10,000-square-foot location at 2601 Willamette Drive Suite A in January.

The new space features a larger, 600-square-foot showroom that will showcase the company’s newest offerings, Engholm says. He began holding sales meetings there last month with sales representatives as well as retailers.

“We’ll have a constant flow of large accounts fly in and buy lines here,” Engholm explains. “In the past, we were forced to do that at trade shows in Las Vegas and New York. Now, we can bring in important customers to show our line here.”

The front of the new offices also will have display windows with mannekins sporting samples from the naturally dyed, natural-fiber clothing collection to give the company a greater presence, Engholm adds.

“Next time you go to the golf course nearby, you can take a look on your left.,” Engholm says. “People won’t miss that.”

When it comes to using natural fibers such as cotton, silk and wool, and natural dyes, such as indigo, ecru and the natural tones of silks, flax and wool, including black, Engholm says it’s not just a marketing niche for him but a mission.

“A lot of businesses attempt to deal with the hardware of the issue—my product is this-and-this—instead of the underlying value proposition of the product, the intangibles,” Engholm says.

Businesses must keep in mind how they offer value to the customer, he says. That’s why Blue Willi’s makes every effort to educate retailers as well as consumers about the steps it takes to produce its clothing lines.

“I think it’s unique that we stay true to our concept,” he says. “It’s not good enough for us to be the showroom and say, ‘Here’s the 2000 collection and it looks like this.’ Before we bring out a single mannekin, we talk about the use of nature’s own products, we talk about how people relate to the use of natural resources. Then we bring in the product—and then we say if the product has certain characteristics for the season.”

Engholm points out that colors chosen for the showroom reflect the colors of the company’s products.

“We kept it to earth tones,” Engholm says. “No plastics.”

The colors for 2000 will be anything but plastic.

“We took the ecru cotton color and washed it a lot,” says Engholm. “Then, just like your jeans, you know how indigo gets a very light blue. Well, it becomes white. That was our theme for spring, a bright new millennium. Everything’s pure.”

In addition to the up-close and personal opportunities afforded by the showroom, the company relies on its website the videos it gives to retailers, postcards and catalogs to educate retailers about its products in hopes they will pass the information on to consumers.

“Like anything else, it’s a chain reaction,” he says.

The company has 11 sales representatives nationwide and four other showrooms—in Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami—but Lacey, with its nine employees, is its sole distribution center.

Business in 1999 was brisker than expected by more than 15 percent, Engholm says.

“The company has been growing 50 percent a year since it opened in the spring of 1996,” Engholm says.

Northwest-based retailers such as Nordstroms carry Blue Willi’s lines, Engholm says. But many clients are smaller clothing boutiques.

Local retailers that carry Blue Willi’s lines include Bon Ton in Olympia and Bartels in Chehalis, as well as Panache in Tacoma. The clothing lines are considered high-end, with sweaters retailing in the $225 to $275 range.

By Kamilla K. McClelland, Business Examiner staff