one great night’s sleep in europe inspired this red bank entrepreneur to rethink the way americans slumber
By JENNIFER VIKSE • Photos By Robert Nuzzie
At 22, Susan Fowler did what many young adults do after college: she and some friends bought Eurail passes and toured the continent. Little did she know that one of those experiences, a cozy night’s sleep in Switzerland, would shape her future.
“What followed was a lucky story. I have been blessed,” said Fowler, who has owned and operated the Down to Basics store at the Galleria in Red Bank for 25 years, which specializes in luxurious down comforters, pillows, and linens, supplied to customers, designers, linen shops, hotels, and medical centers.
Actually, Fowler’s interest in bedding began even before that trip to Europe, in large part because of her grandmother.
“When I was a little girl, we used to make those hand-tied wool comforters,” she recalled, noting that her own patented design is a version of that concept, but with a removable tie-down cover. It’s practical in that it holds the cover in place, puffs the comforter, and is removable, washable, and replaceable. It’s also, she added, thrifty—as it extends the life of anything it covers.
When Fowler was 12 years old, she suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed for a time. She feels the effects to this day.
“I have used a cane ever since,” she said. “So comfort, to me, is very important. Just to get under these comforters is like a cocoon—you just feel good.”
Combine these experiences, and a career was born.
When Fowler returned from Europe and that spectacular night’s sleep, she approached The Company Store (at the time it was making down coats for Bill Blass) and suggested that it make down comforters. A positive response convinced her to leave a teaching job, and she started designing comforters and duvet covers for the company. She did similar work for Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Schweitzer Linen, Scandia Down, and E. Braun.
In 1984, she opened her own store, The Upstairs Down Shop, in a space above the Blue Stove Antique Shop in Fair Haven, New Jersey—a business that focused on down comforters and pillows. An ad Fowler placed in Town & Country magazine created buzz, and caught the attention of an investor who ended up buying a controlling interest in the store. This all happened at a perfect time for Fowler, who was then expecting her first son.
“We opened four stores together—on Madison Avenue; Great Neck, Long Island; Princeton, New Jersey; and one in the Grove [in Shrewsbury, New Jersey]. We ran those until 1991,” Fowler said.
When the investor decided to move back to Saudi Arabia, it was time for a business rebirth. Fowler opened Down to Basics in 1991, which soon became a fixture in Red Bank’s beloved Galleria. In addition, since she and her husband, David, and their two sons spent time in Cape Cod and Boston, she also opened a store on Bean Town’s famed Newbury Street, which was in business for four years.
Down to Basics is built on pure business principles, but also important to Fowler is that down (a by-product of geese raised for food) is sourced sustainably. Her comforters are luxurious and durable, and wash very well as long as they’re dried properly and thoroughly, she explained.
“We wanted comfy, puffy, and practical. For those who have ever slept under a down comforter, you get it,” the owner said. Besides carrying such designers as Yves Delorme, Sferra, Fino Lino, Bella Notte, Matouk, and Home Treasures, Fowler has her own Down to Basics line of down products and linens.
And of course, she has that signature tie-down design, which she says makes for the puffiest comforter on the market. “The puffiness and loftiness really set us apart.”
In addition to selling to high-end linen shops (customers include Home Boutique of Greenwich, Connecticut; Sallie Home in St. Louis; and Leron Linens in New York City), hotels and spas have become a big part of the business. It’s a win–win for hotels and guests, Fowler said. The hotels provide a luxury sleep experience, and their guests can order the bedding that provided that memorable rest.
“We started with the Charles Hotel [in Cambridge, Massachusetts] over 30 years ago,” she said. “They are still ordering from us. It was one of the first hotels to put down comforters and duvet covers in its rooms.”
Today, many other high-end properties have followed suit, including The Breakers (Flagler Club) in Palm Beach, Florida; the Miraval in Tucson, Arizona; the André Balazs Chiltern Firehouse Hotel in London; the Sunnyside Resort Lodge in Tahoe City, California; the Blue Bay Inn in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey; the Garden Court in Palo Alto, California; and others.
“In addition, the Stanford University Medical Center [in California] and other hospitals order our personal comforter/pillow (travel comforter) and our boudoir pillows with their logos to give to their VIPs instead of flowers,” she said.
“It’s a gift of comfort.”
The hospital has ordered more than 2,000 each of the pillows and personal comforters, she added.“They really care about the comfort of their patients.”
When asked about trends in the linen world, Fowler said whites are decidedly in right now.
“People are going back to white because it fits with everything. Then it’s the cleanliness—wash it, bleach it, and it feels and looks really clean,” she said, adding that when it’s washed every week, there is no need for flat sheets, and that dogs and children on the bed are no problem either.
Right now, Fowler is excited about a new duvet cover the store is having designed in Portugal. It will feature a six-inch flange, offering coverage for deep mattresses without the unnecessary weight of a larger comforter.
The shop itself and its staff of 20 to 25 years are Fowler’s second family.
“Jane, Christl, and Mary are totally phenomenal! I couldn’t do it without them,” she beamed.
“It’s been a great ride,” Fowler said. “Isn’t it interesting how things work—a night in Switzerland can change your life.”
As for her clients, she said, “People come back to me years later and thank me for all that comfort. It’s been very rewarding.”
Down to Basics
2 Bridge Ave in The Galleria, Red Bank / 732.741.6800 / 800.822.2135 / downtobasics.com