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New Ownership for Organic Fabric Pioneer Coyuchi

by Clark Merrefield
Point Reyes Light

Coyuchi, a luxury organic bedding company with a social conscience and a showroom overlooking Main Street in Point Reyes Station, was sold this spring to Organic Style, Ltd. The company's name and mission will not change, though its warehouse will move to Petaluma.

"I didn't have the fire in the belly anymore to want to keep investing tremendous amounts of energy into commerce," said Coyuchi founder Christine Nielsen, 65, a former West Marin School teacher who now lives in Montana. "The part of the business that's been the most appealing to me over the last few years has been the philanthropic work."

Coyuchi's sale was the culmination of nearly two decades of Nielsen's victories, epiphanies, and mistakes. The first company to embrace commercial fabric made from organic cotton, Coyuchi has flourished in the last three years with the rise of ecocapitalism. Global organic cotton sales are expected to breach $5 billion next year, up from $1 billion in 2006, according to the 2007 Organic Cotton Market Report from the non-profit Organic Exchange.

"We were doing organic cotton way before it was cool," said Lorna Lambert, Coyuchi's director of product development, who lives in Inverness Park.

The inspiration for Coyuchi's product line and mission stems from Nielsen's friendship with cotton innovator Sally Fox. In 1989, Fox developed her own breed of naturally occurring red-brown and green cotton on a farm near Bakersfield. Though naturally colored cotton is older than weaving itself, Fox's was the first strong enough for spinning through industrial machines. Calls soon streamed in from buyers asking about finished fabric. Though her answering machine was filling up fast, Fox wasn't interested in entrepreneurship.

Nielsen heard the messages firsthand in the early 1990s after an afternoon spent working in Fox's cotton field. "What do you do with those messages?" Nielsen asked. "I just delete them because I don't have anything," Fox said.

Where Fox saw only the potential stress of running a business, Nielsen saw an opportunity.

"She viewed investors as supporters, not as people who were going to expect to make money. And indeed when I invested in her company I was thinking of it more as a loan," Fox said.

Coyuchi originally supplied fabric for home furnishings. The textile market had never seen a venture that dealt solely in organic cotton, let alone by someone like Nielsen, who had no business experience.

"In the beginning I didn't really know a payable from a receivable," Nielsen admitted.

But because the market was so small, mistakes were not magnified. And Nielsen was able to spend time at organic industry conferences and trade shows to spread Coyuchi's brand name and message of sustainable agriculture.

"We were out there telling the story," Nielsen said.

In 1996, two other organic cotton suppliers were founded that were able to produce large quantities of organic cotton fabric. "It became impractical to try to compete," Nielsen said.

Nielsen was forced to look for a new direction for Coyuchi. She asked her friends in the green movement if there were any gaps in the organic market her company could fill. They told her there was a need for an environmentally-friendly alternative in bedding. By 1997 Coyuchi was producing sheets, pillowcases and other linens.

Today, Coyuchi's Point Reyes Station outlet store is up a flight of white stairs off of Main Street in an airy, open loft flooded with light. On the left and right are two beds with beige and white striped sheets and soft pastel blankets for customers to touch and inspect. There is not much space for a warehouse, but cleanly folded bed linens organized by style and color are squeezed into shelves along the left wall. All sound is absorbed by the many yards of fabric and it is calm like a library. Further back in the loft are a handful of desks where the mostly female administrative staff sits mostly quietly. The outlet store will remain open for business in Point Reyes Station, while the warehouse items will be moved on June 25 to a larger space with a loading dock in Petaluma.

In 2002, Coyuchi began a partnership with India-based RajLakshmi Cotton Mills, which was able to satisfy Coyuchi's relatively small orders and which gets its cotton from farmers that are purportedly paid a living wage and are not exposed to toxic chemicals. For Nielsen, environmental responsibility and social responsibility are linked.

"A great deal of what Coyuchi was about was a mission, it was a cause," Nielsen said. "It was having the fabrics, and having the business was an opportunity to educate."

For now, San Rafael-based Organic Style, Ltd. is focused on Coyuchi's growth, with an eye toward further acquisitions in the growing green luxury market. There are no plans to cut or replace any current Coyuchi staff, said Organic Style, Ltd. founder and CEO Gerald Prolman. More products in bedding and bathwear will be offered under the Coyuchi brand and the company will continue courting boutique spas and hotels.

"You've got six thousand growers in India that are counting on us to sell their goods," Prolman said. "I'm going to scream the Coyuchi message as long as I'm running this company."

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