They've got you covered

Home: Versatile slipcovers protect furniture while instantly transforming the look of a room.

April 09, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

It's happening all over town, in dwellings as diverse as rowhouses in Hampden and McMansions in the Valley. Furniture is going under cover.

And it's not to stop a crime spree by coin-stealing cushions. It's a way to change, brighten, customize, season-alize and protect upholstered pieces.

Once purely the perquisite of middle American housewives, slipcovers are making a comeback among the young and the affluent, says Liana Toscanini, director of communications for Sure Fit Inc., the company that manufactures many of the ready-made slipcovers you see today in stores, on the Internet and in catalogs.

"Our average customer is about 40, with a household income over $50,000," she says.

Older folks may recollect some horrific examples of slick brown and orange polyester or sticky, unforgiving plastic.

Forget about them. Contemporary slipcovers come in many moods and a number of styles, and in fabrics from cotton and linen to "suede," chenille and velvet. There are solids, prints and geometrics, and dozens of textures, from denim to damask to tweed to ribbed velvet.

That's because the slipcover industry today is driven by the same trends that drive most enterprises, from automobiles to household accessories: changing lifestyles, fashion and technology.

"There are a couple of reasons for how this all happened," says Warren Shoulberg, editor of HFN, a weekly trade journal of the home furnishings industry. "First, Sure Fit, which probably makes 75 percent of all slipcovers sold in stores, sort of woke up and said, 'Let's make slipcovers that don't actually give people a rash.' They brought some fashion to it. Second, the Shabby Chic look made slipcovers very popular."

Shabby Chic -- an idea, a store and a style -- was created by former movie set designer Rachel Ashwell in the late '80s, and was further popularized by her book, "Shabby Chic," published in 1996 (Regan Books, $30).

Besides these two fashion factors, Shoulberg says, was the development of a more useful product. Many a child recalls Mom struggling to stuff the cushions into summer slipcovers. "Most consumers had a lot of trouble getting a slipcover to look like it was supposed to. They were a product with a very high return rate. Sure Fit developed a [one-piece] product that was easier to put on."

Sure Fit's ready-made products are also inexpensive without being cheap-looking: Most sofa covers range between $100 to under $200; chair covers are less than $100, and fabric by the yard is around $20.

Practicality, of course, is important: Slipcovers, after all, are meant to be taken off and washed.

Technology developed in just the last couple of years has made the array of slipcover fabrics much broader. Jonathan Hosler, a sales representative for Microfibres Inc., a fabric maker based in New Jersey, says, "Our emphasis is on cleanability and durability -- our goods wash and they just bloom. That's unusual for a velvet. But these products stand up to home care, which really adds to the life of the item."

Many of his firm's products are made with du Pont nylon -- a modern but hardly revolutionary fiber. But Hosler says Microfibres and du Pont have developed ways to make nylon softer, and give it a better "hand," or drape. (This is why the old el-cheapos never fit.)

"There's a resiliency that nylon has always had," Hosler says. "It's surprisingly soft but very, very durable -- [qualities] that have not been fully exploited in the past."

Who's benefiting from this now? People with children and pets, says Toscanini, of Sure Fit. When the company did an informal survey recently, half the 780 respondents reported having dogs. In addition, she said, more people are redoing older furniture instead of buying new items -- and not just sofas. Slipcovers are also draping themselves over dining chairs, ottomans, recliners and wing chairs. Sure Fit is introducing a line called Rounds and Squares with mix-and-match table linens, so people can further coordinate their looks (all entirely washable, of course).

Of course, slipcovers have always been around. Kathleen Jeschke, a designer whose retail showroom, the Purple Door, is in Ellicott City, recalls her mother every year putting on the "summer" slipcovers.

"When everybody started their spring cleaning," she says, "they took down the 'drapes' and put up 'curtains,' rolled up the rugs and put down straw mats."

She thinks there are enough people out there who have the same memories to make nostalgia a factor in the new popularity of slipcovers. But she also thinks there's a new generation of nesters who are just discovering the concept of "seasonal dressing" for the house -- white denim, perhaps, or a floral print, for summer, and red or green velvet for winter.

Jeschke notes that slipcovers can change not just the color in a room, but also the style. There's a trend lately in custom-made covers to such dressmaker details as buttons, fringe, pleats and even swags.

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