For almost 50 years, Jan Nelson has provided upscale stylish clothing and accessories to women, turning Workshop into one of the best clothing stores in the Northwest Corner.
Forty-eight years ago, Janus Nelson opened a retail store on South Street in Litchfield and named it The Workshop. She was 19 years old and had been a student at the Modern School of Fashion Design in Boston for one year. The rent was $20 a month, and with her own line of clothing, a successful business was launched.
In 1983 Jan moved The Workshop to a larger space on the Litchfield Green. By then she had a loyal customer base and the business continued to grow. In the winter of 2013, Jan bought and renovated the former historic horse stables of Cobble Court which is the current home of Workshop Inc.
Jan has a great sense of style and her taste is reflected in the vast selection of items in her shop. Whether you lean towards jeans and a t-shirt or you prefer a bolder, graphic look, you will be sure to find what you need at Workshop. We spoke with her about her fabulous store and discovered she has always been ahead of the trends.
Where did you grow up? Tell us a bit about your background?
I am the youngest daughter of two adventurous intellectuals. My first home was in Hopkington, Massachusetts. My family started summering on Bantam Lake when I was three and moved here year-round in my seventh year. Since my parents were world travelers, I have come to know a wonderful and diverse group of people.
Where did you attend college? Have you always been interested in fashion and retail?
The Modern School of Fashion Design in Boston put me on a fifty-year odyssey in the fashion world. I opened my store in 1970 and have never looked back.
Why did you choose Litchfield as the place to open your shop 48 years ago? Why not New York City?
I’m in New York all the time and a presence here in Litchfield provides the best of both worlds.
How would you describe Workshop and the merchandise you carry?
Since the beginning, my goal was to bring to Litchfield styles that had not previously been available. All we had were tweeds. At 19 I chose Indian printed clothing and throws, Chinese cloth shoes and colorfully died twill shorts and T’s. In 1976, I discovered SOHO and brought in African clothes, Ethiopian straw hats, fans and baskets, coin silver and beads. I never wanted to be just a clothing store.
Today I offer the most diverse selection in Connecticut. I carry many lines made in the US and Canada, and we are the only store in the state offering Japanese designer, Issey Miyake. We also import Spanish T.ba and Situ Murt, Italian Maliparmi and Australian Elk.
What are some of the more popular brands you carry?
Comfy USA, Margaret O’Leary, Johnny Was & Bryn Walker from California, Lisette L & Lysse from Montreal, Kinross Cashmere, 360 Skull & 360 Cashmere, Porto, Planet, Ronen Chen, Ecru, Beyond Threads, Damask, Alembika by Roni Rabl, Komarov, Fridaze, Nic & Zoe, Jag, NYDJ, Yoga Jeans, Tractr, Jill McGowan shirts (which are made in Maine), Foxcroft, and Mycra Pac.
Is your clientele mostly local or from the city as well? Working women or casual country gals? Both?
We are proud to serve local women of all ages and visitors from around the globe.
You also carry shoes, bags, and jewelry, scarves and shawls. Any other accessories?
Bao Bao Bags by Issey Miyake, leather bags and wallets by Hobo, hand beaded totes and clutches by Maliparmi; Arche shoes from France, Charleston Shoe Company, Steve Madden, Tamaris Shoes;
Amy Kahn Russell, a Connecticut jewelry designer, Sara Cavender Metalworks, Fahrenheit by Connie Bates, Nikaia French Jewelry, as well as new and antique Native American and Asian jewelry, and piano wire jewelry by Sea Lily.
Have the tastes of your clients changed over the years?
Our tastes have certainly evolved through the years. Always been edgy and sophisticated. I have to compete with stores in New York and online options.
What is your secret to sustaining a successful business like Workshop for almost 50 years?
The Workshop has had to reinvent itself many times over the years! Working women who once wore suits every day are now dressing more casually, jeans and leggings becoming the normal, etc. And, of course, a couple of major dips in the economy required some rethinking.
In 2013, you moved the shop to its current location — a historical building on Cobble Court, down a small lane from the Litchfield Green. What year was it built and what is its background?
It was originally the livery stable for the Catlin House Hotel in 1800 to 1801. Then, in 1849, the hotel and livery changed hands and was renamed The Mansion House Hotel. All of the buildings were originally made of wood and the fire of 1886 destroyed them. They were all rebuilt in brick in 1889.
Do you have any plans or goals for Workshop’s future? Is there anything you would still like to do?
I’m hoping to find one or two new people who would be interested in keeping my store going. And we will need to develop our online presence.
10 Cobble Court
(off of the Litchfield Green)