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When Lucy Mackall Suggests Her Customers Tie One On, She Means Her Fancy Shoelaces

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After designer jeans, eyeglasses, automobiles, sheets and even chocolates, what was left? Shoelaces. As Lucy Mackall gaily adorns them, with multicolored sailboats, hearts, stripes, frogs, rainbows, ice-cream cones and unicorns, they are certainly fit to be tied. And the way they’re walking out of stores, the only wonder is nobody dreamt them up sooner.

Though priced at no more than $2 a pair, Lucy’s lively laces are bringing in up to $600,000 a month. From her Cambridge, Mass. headquarters, she shipped four million pairs last year to some 6,500 outlets in the U.S. and Europe, Japan and South Africa. Lucy’s wares are not for the indecisive—they come in 40 colors and 80 designs. The bright bows are flapping many fashionable feet (Cathy Lee Crosby, Barbi Benton and Nancy Sinatra) and some of the largest (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

A shrewd eye and a fanciful imagination brought Mackall, 34, her bonanza. While prowling a trade show two years ago for items to stock in her Lucy’s Canvas gift boutiques, she spied a dusty display card of patterned shoelaces. Mackall persuaded the manufacturer to make her a batch imprinted with tiny hearts and to sell them to her cut-rate. “The laces just flew out of the door,” she recalls. “I sent the company more money with the instruction, ‘Don’t stop printing until I tell you to.’ ”

She hasn’t stopped the presses yet. There was one setback. General Mills, which owns the Izod/LaCoste alligator trademark, sued Mackall last November for copyright infringement. Lucy agreed out of court to banish the beast from her products.

Only a few loyal friends banked on Lucy when she started her first enterprise in 1974. Her initial idea was to sell canvas log carriers. When they didn’t catch fire, she converted the carriers into bright tote bags and sold $4,000 worth in a week at a crafts fair in Rhinebeck, N.Y. By 1976 she had parlayed that success into the first Lucy’s Canvas boutique in Boston’s newly renovated Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Her stores are now located in eight cities, mostly in Massachusetts.

Mackall grew up in a wealthy household in Greenwich, Conn. “People like a rags-to-riches story, not a riches-to-more-riches story,” she admits. “But what do you want me to tell you, that my father was a plumber?” He was a steel sales executive who until recently thought his daughter should have been a secretary. Instead, after graduating from Wheaton College in 1969, she moved to the Boston area. There she waitressed at Anthony’s Pier 4 restaurant and later built models for an architectural firm until “my brain started to rot.” Eventually she struck out on her own and went, as she amends, “from bags to riches.”

Lately Mackall has begun franchising Have-a-Heart stores, which are stocked with an array of heart-festooned T-shirts and knickknacks. Her own heart could be busier, though. “The list of men who don’t feel threatened by me is getting smaller and smaller,” she laments. Keeping busy, Lucy oversees work on a house she is having built in Cambridge, and is toying with having big hearts embedded in the concrete driveway. Voilà, designer macadam. It seems that designers, even more than nature, abhor a vacuum.