Life on the beach with Tommy Bahama

Style: The clothing line brings Hawaiian-shirt drape and ease into fashion.

May 23, 1999|By Michael Quintanilla | Michael Quintanilla,los angeles times

If life is a beach, you can bet that Tommy Bahama is there. Toes in the sand. Palm-tree-printed shirt blowing in the breeze, revealing his sunbaked torso and biceps.

That's our hunky Bahama man; our kahuna of khaki.

Maybe you've seen his comfy clothes: deck shorts, double-pleated plantation pants, polo and camp shirts in subdued solids, others with tropical flower-power star bursts and vintage-inspired island prints -- all in muted motifs, all in soft, draping, relaxed fabrics that feel like favorite clothes worn over and over.

For sure, the chic paradise sportswear is as fashionable as anything by Giorgio Armani.

But unlike Armani, Tommy Bahama -- the man -- is a fictional island boy. He doesn't exist -- except in your head, which is fine by his creators. But his duds are very real -- classy clothes that are bringing sophistication to traditional in-your-face Hawaiian shirts.

The guava guy is the mythical creation of Tony Margolis, Lucio Dalla Gasperina and Bob Emfield, friends who, like Bahama, always dreamed of getting away from the high-stress, fast-paced business world, if just for an afternoon to stylishly lounge under a coconut tree.

The three -- all with previous fashion industry experience -- came up with the hugely successful Bahama concept not on some island paradise but in the Midwest -- Minneapolis to be exact, home to Emfield, who whipped up the Tommy Bahama name.

In most men, there is a bit of Bahama, say his creators, who founded the private company in 1992. The menswear line, designed by a team in Seattle and manufactured in Asia, is sold at Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and in resort, hotel and pro shops.

"The fabrics and the cut of the garment make it special," says Susan Jacobsen, manager of the Wilmington Country Store in Ruxton, which carries the line. "It's not really trendy. It's different, but it's not something that will go out of style." (It's also available locally at stores including J.S. Edwards Ltd., Cohen's Clothiers and South Moon Under.)

Margolis, 56, who is company president, says: "It's all about the Tommy Bahama lifestyle." Gasperina, 42, is design director, and Emfield, 57, handles marketing.

The whole Tommy Bahama thing started with Margolis and Emfield vacationing with their families in Florida in the late 1970s when they both worked for Britannia as sales reps. "We'd be looking at each other during the last couple of days before going back to work and say, `Wouldn't it be nice to take some of this back with us to the job?'"

With Gasperina, formerly of the apparel company Union Bay, they did, and created a company with annual sales of about $100 million, according to Margolis. "When we started the company, obviously we began as a men's apparel firm because that was our background," says Margolis, a principal in Generra, another menswear line, before joining the Bahama team seven years ago.

Since then the company has branched out. Recently, it introduced a women's sportswear line taking its cues from the oversized, draping elements found in the men's line. This spring and summer, an array of accessories from ties to belts to footwear are being added as well as a variety of home furnishings such as hula girl lamps, coconut-scented candles and bamboo picture frames.

A new retail-only shop opened this spring in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Add to that four Tommy Bahama "compounds" or shops equipped with full-scale Tropical Cafe restaurants.

The first one opened in Naples, Fla., in 1996 and proved to be the company's big breakthrough. More than 250,000 diners visited the compound -- and also shopped. That same year, Kevin Costner golfed on the silver screen in "Tin Cup" swinging clubs in Tommy Bahama silk ensembles. "We got a lot of press with that," Margolis says, adding that since then many other celebs -- and customers -- have caught the Bahama fever, especially with the line of washable silk pants that only get better with each washing. "But the idea really was to just invent this Tommy Bahama character and flesh out his lifestyle," Margolis says. "What does he eat? Who does he date? What kind of a car does he drive?"

And, of course, what does he wear?

To get that answer, Margolis and his pals shared their Tommy Bahama idea and philosophy with friends and co-workers and came up with a marketing version of His Bahama-ness in model Andy Lucchesi -- "not too young, not too old, virile, adventurous, sexy," Margolis says.

The Bahama concept, he says "is a joint vision" shared by his partners. "We all have our area of expertise. We certainly allow each other into our world whenever they choose to enter it, but we're not in each other's face every day," he says, adding that's the beauty of each guy working in different cities: Margolis in New York, Gasperina in Seattle and Emfield in Minneapolis.

The Bahama customers cover a broad demographic spectrum, but Margolis says the younger baby boomers, 35- to 45-year-old-guys, "have challenged some of the fashion trends and mores of the older group, the 45- to 65-year-olds."

The younger boomers, he says, "are the ones who have said, `You know what? You don't have to follow the rules. You can go to the club in a pair of shorts and a nice soft-collared shirt. You don't have to wear an ascot. You don't have to be formal to be in good taste.' "

Sun staff writer Tamara Ikenberg contributed to this story.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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