Fresh Produce marks 30 years of 'vacation' casual

For those who revel in the "life's a beach" aesthetic, casual women's wear brand Fresh Produce offers an enticing prospect: the chance to feel like you're on a permanent vacation. The brand, which turned 30 this summer, has staked its reputation on simple cotton sundresses, pedal pushers and drapey tunics.

"Color's what put us on the map," co-founder Mary Ellen Vernon said in a recent phone interview. She and husband Thom — then Long Beach residents — got their start selling screen-printed shirts outside the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. While their souvenir-hawking competitors went the red, white and blue route, the Vernons sold shirts in pale aqua, green, orange and yellow — the same punchy, vibrant colors used to design the Olympic Village. Those same debut colors were revived recently for the brand's 30th Birthday Legacy Collection.


The Vernons went from banking $40,000 in sales as rookies to reporting $50 million in annual sales.

The couple now operate out of their home base of Boulder, Colo., but much of the production — from fabric production to dyeing to sewing — is still done in the Los Angeles area. Fresh Produce has 26 retail boutiques in such leisurely spots as Laguna Beach; Key West, Fla.; and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; and can be found at Macy's in Hawaii.

A first-time visit to Fresh Produce's Pasadena store feels like walking into a beach bungalow, all hardwood floors and rattan lounge chairs. Über-mellow hits by Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat bounce off sherbet-colored walls. Seashell chandeliers hang overhead, while bath salts, scented candles and books about the joys of tea crowd the shelves. Shoppers are bombarded by the concept of comfort.

On the racks, cotton jersey hoodies and matching elastic-waist capris hang near loose-fitting tank tops festooned with Adirondack chairs and tropical fish — all retailing between $30 and $80. These comfort-focused looks appeal to what Vernon calls the brand's "classic customer."

One such customer, Karen Ryan, has been buying these laid-back styles for 20 years. She figures she owns at least 15 of the brand's loose-fitting T-shirt dresses. "On my weekends, this is all I wear," said the La Jolla public-relations specialist who was visiting Pasadena for the day. "And as soon as I get home from work, that's what I put on every day."

Brand loyalty runs in the family too; she says her sister and niece are fond of the matching mother-daughter looks. Ryan deems the prices — those dresses range from $50 to $75 — "reasonable" compared with Eileen Fisher and Façonnable, two brands that she lumps into the same casual category.

When discussing the company's competitors, Vernon declined to name names. She did, however, posit that the 45-and-older consumer "is not very thoughtfully taken care of. When you go into a lot of these bigger brands' chain stores, I feel [they're] not inspired, not original, not authentic, and I feel too tucked in."

But what's so inspired or original about a cotton V-neck with a screen-printed beach umbrella? What's kept shoppers coming in for decades, buying what looks like little more than leisurewear basics? Vernon attributes the brand's devoted following to its careful attention to shaping, color and fabrics, most of which are cotton jersey and stretch broadcloth. "You can get so comfortable that you look too comfortable. So our job is to help you be more thoughtful."

That "thoughtfulness" (one of Vernon's pet words) includes mixing in more contemporary styles as well. The stores also carry dark-rinse bootcut jeans by Kut from the Kloth, maxi dresses in tie-dyed and ikat prints, global chic embroidered tops and even fashion insider-approved Soludos espadrilles.

The pieces that Vernon describes as "on trend, just not trendy" are what attracted polished Pasadena elementary school teacher Nancy Gadel on her recent visit. She pops into the Old Town store on occasion, and this time a sleeveless cotton tunic with a boho print caught her eye. "My students love to see me not looking like the usual schoolmarm," Gadel quipped.

Looking forward, Vernon plans to expand the "lifestyle" aspect of the brand. She just launched Radio in Color, a handpicked selection of songs — from Steve Winwood to Alicia Keys — that conveys the Fresh Produce vibe, which can be heard in stores or streaming online. Also in the works is a "lab" pop-up in the Boulder store, which will act as a community center of sorts, welcoming anything from charity gatherings to book clubs. The brand is also courting a new department store partnership, though Vernon declined to name names.

"Stay tuned," Vernon teased. "We are becoming a year-round lifestyle brand."