A Legend in the Rag Trade

by Michelle Saxton
September 2017

Anne Ludvigson, vice chairman and president of Swedish textile company AB Ludvig Svensson, was in Charlotte in April for a business trip. While traveling to America she came to Wilmington to see Randy Trull first.

An executive with a textile company meeting with one of the world's foremost fabric designers makes perfect sense. Except that Trull no longer represents AB Ludvig Svensson. This was strictly a personal visit.

"He's part of the family," Ludvigson says. "I add on a private visit to Randy whenever I am in the United States."

The relationship did start as a professional one. But it evolved to the point where Trull spent Christmases from 1975 to 1985 with the Ludvigsons at their home in Gothenburg, Sweden. "Then we'd go somewhere we'd never been before -- Cape Town, South Africa, China, Brazil. Last year we went to L.A., then the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, the Getty Museum for New Year's," Trull says.

"Uncle Randy" and Ludvigson travel the world together.

"He's extremely outgoing, very social," Ludvigson says. "He has a very, very high EQ, and gets involved with absolutely everybody. He's a great storyteller, lots of fun."

Not everyone he does business with becomes a life-long friend or an honorary family member. But 60-plus years of over-the-top talent and innovation that have made Randy Trull a household name in the world of fabric design combined with his engaging personality make him someone that is impossible to forget.

"When Randy grabs on to something, he takes it full-bore," says John Miller, Trull's business partner for his newest venture, decorative jobber fabric company MFANO and its manufacturing and sewing subsidiary, Pender Creek Design Workshop, located near Wilmington International Airport, where they create their own fabric line and finish goods from their own fabrics. "He applies a lot of intensity because he takes it seriously."

Trull, now a well-seasoned 87, can't remember a time when he didn't have that intensity. Early in his life he began to look at everything as a challenge to be overcome.

"I would conquer it," he says.

As a preeminent fabric, clothing and home furnishings designer, he still brings that passion, enthusiasm and inspiration to his work. His face lights up with a smile while talking about plans for MFANO.

"My mind never stops spinning away at some way that I can do something that's just a little bit different," Trull says.

During an interview at his patio home near Wrightsville Beach, his bichon frise, Queeni-Bee, watches patiently in a room decorated with colorful furniture upholstered in Trull's fabric designs, such as a monkey and red flower-patterned chair.

"I have this idea," Trull says, pausing to laugh. "Here we go again."

Looking Back

Born in the 1930s in the middle of the Great Depression, Randolph Holand Trull -- "always Randy" -- began designing as a child growing up in the Hayes Barton district of Raleigh.

"I am old North Carolina," he says.

It all began with dollhouse furniture.

"I'd go to the dime store, to Woolworth's, and buy the plastic furniture -- sofas and chairs and lamps -- and I was building little rooms before I was 10 years old," Trull says, adding he would use aluminum foil to turn buttons into silver plates and golf tees into candlesticks.

Trull credits his mother, Mabel Trull, who collected antiques, for being a creative influence.

After graduating from Broughton High School and Campbell Junior College (now Campbell University), Trull attended the Parsons School of Design in New York and then in Europe. Even then, he was driven to be the best.

"At Parsons, I thought, 'How do I get ahead of the rest of my class?'" he says.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, to gain experience, Trull began his career answering the phones part time in the adjustment department of a store that belonged to Lord and Taylor in New York.

"New York was the place to be, back then," he says.

Lord and Taylor offered him a job as a designer for $35. He turned them down and took a position as a fabric converter and sample boy at $60 per week for Kandell Fabrics in New York.

He rose from working on the floor as a samples boy to designing showroom displays. He would work for the next 35 years in curtain, drapery, linen and domestic linens.

Soon after Trull decorated a duplex apartment for Jerome Kandell and his second wife, "Mr. Jerome" began asking his opinion of collections. He liked Trull's answers and his designs.

"At Kandell, one of the fabrics I did for him sold over 3 million yards," he says.

This was in the 1954-1960s era. It launched his career in textiles.

Kandell gave him no bonuses but did send him for six weeks a year of paid vacation in the south of France.

"Everybody would be there," he says. "I was so young. I never thought it was a big deal. But when I look back on it, it was a big deal. When you are that young and that busy, you don't really think about who you are."

He met Yves Saint Laurent, the Rothschilds, and the Duke and Duchess of England. He enjoyed many visits with Italian princess Donatella Colonna at her summer palace in Ancona, Italy. He became friends with Rosita Fanto of Monte Carlo.

"Everybody was somebody, but me," he says.

He was never happy doing just one thing. He had an antique shop, and from there he launched his own fabric company, Tressard. Not wanting to be called simply a designer, he was a founding member of the National Society of Interior Designers (NSID).

He was an innovator from the beginning. For an NSID luncheon fashion show, Trull presented ready-to-wear designs in furniture fabrics. He asked actress Carol Burnett, who was performing in the off-Broadway production of "Once Upon a Mattress," to model his Tressard mattress ticking.

"She said, 'You've got a deal if you won't tell anybody my measurements,'" Trull recalls, calling Burnett "Miss Once Upon a Mattress."

"It launched my company. She was just a wonderful lady, just super nice. The character you saw on her TV shows that made her so famous was her," he says.

Trull became a consultant for Heritage Furniture in High Point, doing fabric selections and designing their showroom.

He designed two menswear lines before going back to home furnishings. His dance card reads like a who's who of design and fabric. He rattles off names: a stint with the curtain and drapery business Croscill/Kahn, Fieldcrest Cannon, Bates Bloomcraft, Larry Kravet. Kravet Fabrics is the biggest decorative jobber in America, he adds. Luther Travis, Trull/Travis, Sears of Canada, Spiegel, Cameo Curtain Company, Montgomery Ward.

Every endeavor benefitted from his creative touch. Tufted bedspreads were common until Trull pushed Bates Manufacturing to make printed bedspreads.

"I was head of their design department; I went to Japan and did a whole series of bedspreads on those wide looms," Trull says.

He put printed designs on corduroy jeans. He pioneered the trend of layering pillows and shams across a bed because he thought it looked more luxurious.

"They let me do anything I wanted because everything I touched turned to gold," he says.

By the time he was 32 (1962), he had an apartment on Park Avenue, complete with a live-in housekeeper and chauffeured limousine. He did a lot for House of Fraser, which owned most of the major department stores in England except Harrods. He still maintains an apartment in New York, at No. 60 Sutton Place South, and a house in the Hamptons. Trull kept a London flat for 25 years, finally giving it up two years ago.

He started a new design chapter in the late 1980s when his home state's Glen Raven Mills approached him to consult for the company's Sunbrella fabric line.

Beyond Solids and Stripes, Canvas and Awnings

Glen Raven, a family-owned business founded in 1880 in Alamance, North Carolina, as a cotton mill, introduced Sunbrella fabrics in 1961 for awnings and later for boat canvas. The popular water-repellent, stain-resistant and bleachable performance fabric expanded to the outdoor furniture market and eventually to interior design.

"You can actually have a white sofa or a white dining chair, and if you do spill red wine on it you're able to get it off quite easily," says Greg Rosendale, residential market manager for furniture fabrics at Glen Raven.

Sunbrella was offered in solids, stripes and checks when Trull came aboard. He designed different print patterns and proposed new textures.

"Randy is conceptually a very, very bright thinker," says Glen Raven CEO Allen Gant Jr., grandson of founder John Quinton Gant. "He has the capacity to walk into a room and see it in a homogeneous way that allows him to put different colors and patterns together that make the room sparkle and come alive. Randy has an incredible ability to understand and coordinate color. His styling and design pushed us to use more color and more design than we probably would have."

In 1994, Trull proposed including jacquard fabrics, which would allow for even more detailed, intricate patterns.

"I felt we needed a jacquard offering in Sunbrella, which had never been successfully done before," he says.

He floated the idea by close friend Mark Grigalunas, design director for Sunbury Textile Mills, a high-end custom weaver in Pennsylvania.

"When I first presented the idea of a Sunbrella jacquard to Sunbury management, they thought I had gone insane," Grigalunas said in a 2014 press release celebrating the 20th anniversary of the partnership between the two companies. "Glen Raven had mastered the cleanable and durable parts, so all we had to do was make it beautiful, which I knew we could do."

As it grew it was a very viable relationship for both companies.

In "An American Success Story - Celebrating 50 Years," a book published by Glen Raven, the company credits Trull's visionary idea for starting "a whole new chapter in the life of Sunbrella. ? The brand was suddenly elevated to an entirely new level and given access to premium markets."

Suddenly price was not an object. Trull brought Glen Raven an opening order from Kravet Fabrics for $526,000.

"What he has been good at is seeing opportunities which other people have not," Ludvigson says. "He's taken known businesses to new areas. Look at what he's done for the casual furniture market, which wasn't designed before. He's certainly been a big part in establishing and developing Sunbrella into a more design-oriented brand. He takes his knowledge and puts it into a new type of business."

With Trull's designs, Sunbrella's interior fabrics also include boucle, chenille and terrycloth textures.

"My whole life has been not seeing things the way everyone else sees it," he says. "My whole career has been based on thinking outside the box."

Trull continued to consult for Glen Raven until 2000. At his retirement party, Gant told the crowd that Sunbrella products were 10 percent of the company's volume when Trull came on board. Gant credited him for raising it to 90 percent.

"Randy is one of the most creative individuals I've ever known," Gant says. "He pushed us really hard to open our horizons. He opened a whole new avenue of fabrics and ideas that we didn't have. I can't say enough good things about Randy."

Setting Sail for New Adventures

Still working in New York, Trull moved back to North Carolina in 1995, settling in Wilmington to be near the water. His latest boat, a 52-foot Hatteras motor yacht, the R Holland, which once carried Trull between New York and Florida, is docked in Southport. He chose Southport because of its proximity to the number of locations that are a short trip from home base.

Trull set up a European antique shop, Classic Designs of Wilmington, around 2000. He then added textile retail. He sold the shop earlier this year to devote more time to MFANO. However, Classic Designs is still is a showroom for Trull's fabric line. Customers include local interior designers and homeowners shopping for decorating project materials, says owner Matthew Lappin. Most of the fabric displayed is Sunbrella.

"It's soft enough for inside, it's tough enough for outside," Lappin says.

Meanwhile Trull and Miller are growing MFANO and Pender Creek Design Workshop.

"The way his mind works and the way he's able to come up with things that we can translate into textile design, it's like nobody I've ever seen," Miller says.

MFANO offers about 200 items of its own proprietary line of Sunbrella fabric designs, as well as more than 1,000 items of stock open line Sunbrella, Miller says.

Six decades into a career marked by creativity, Trull still looks at what for him are the trades. He routinely peruses fashion and home-furnishing magazines to keep up with style trends, which can lead to creative sparks of his own. When he sees something he likes, he tears the page out, and ideas come.

"I take every fashion magazine, always have," he says.

New colorways can be inspired by what he sees. He saw a picture of a woman wearing a cheetah-patterned coat in beige. He tore the page out. MFANO already had a cheetah pattern in black and beige, and Trull introduced it in other colors, including a vivid blue.

"We can't keep it on the shelves," Miller says.

A colorway is any of a range of combinations of colors in which a style or design is available.

"Most have five colorways," Miller says. "Our Prisma pattern has 15 colorways; that is unusual. Trull designed Dupoine for Glen Raven. It comes in 23 colorways; it is their bestselling fabric."

Prisma became his big show in Las Vegas at the Casual Furniture Show in the World Market Center in July.

"Prisma is the hottest thing going, that's Randy's prediction. He always picks the winner, stay with him," Trull says speaking of himself in third person, which he often does.

Before this, Trull designed a new pattern called "Windows" after being drawn to a magazine photo of a city skyline. His inspiration continued after seeing the fabric in woven form and how different yarns came together in the multi-color windows.

"He considers that Glen Raven's next Dupoine," Miller says.

Trull has seen much of the world during his career, and he still travels to visit clients and friends. He has no plans to retire.

"I don't even like the word," he says. "If you love what you do it's not work. It's almost therapy. I simply adore what I do. I enjoy it. Everything is a challenge for me to do, create something new, something different -- that's exciting for me. That is my retirement."

In early August Trull was showing off his Prisma pattern inside a polka dot, and the fabric is reversible.

"I'll be sending this to all the buyers in October," he says.

Like the Sunbrella fabric used for his patterns, his enthusiasm and inspiration for his work could be labeled fade-resistant.

"He's still good," Ludvigson says. "He still gets it. He's very curious; he's very up to date. He tries new things."

Afterword: Trull put Glen Raven together with Sunbury Textile Mills in the late 1980s. Thirty-seven years later, on July 28, 2017, CEO Allen Gant Jr. called to tell him that Glen Raven purchased Sunbury.

"He called, they all called me to tell me, 'You started it and now we own it,'" Trull says.

Pat Bradford and Simon Gonzalez contributed to this story.

 


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