Making Clothes a Little Different at Life's a Beach

Thieves recently crept into Hamel Action Sports in Mission Beach during the early-morning hours. They ignored thousands of dollars of expensive merchandise and left with almost $5,000 of Life's a Beach clothing and surf accessories.

"It almost looks like they were told to come in and take Life's a Beach clothes, stickers, jackets, everything," said store co-owner Ray Hamel. "Somebody must like the stuff."

In fact, a lot of people like the stuff, primarily the average "rad" surf- or skateboard-oriented teen.

Started three years ago by three self-proclaimed beach bums, Life's a Beach grossed $3 million last year. The company is headed for at least $6 million in sales this year, and it's doubtful anyone over the age of 21 has ever purchased one of its products, except perhaps a few blackmailed parents.

The Carlsbad-based Life's a Beach is the "Bad Boy" of the booming surf and skateboard clothing industry. Its most well-known logo--adorning T-shirts, stickers, posters, surfboards and a half-dozen other items--is a snarling, crewcut punk with a spiked 1wristband. Skeletons, skulls and crossbones are familiar decorations for their outrageously colored, loose-fitting clothes.

"It's the look the kids want," said Hamel.

Four years ago it would have been ludicrous to think that anyone would want to steal clothes from Jeff Theodosakis and brothers Mark and Brian Simo. The Simos worked as tree surgeons, Theodosakis in the restaurant business.

Motocross Riders

Chicago was their home beach. All three also traveled the motocross racing circuit, which took them to Florida for a few months every year. Theodosakis was good enough to be ranked third in the nation in one class in 1979, but none of them made much money in the sport.

"We were basically bums," said Theodosakis with a laugh. "We had no jobs really; nothing to occupy our time execpt training and riding."

One typically stressful afternoon in Florida the three became annoyed at men strolling the beach in Euorpean-style bikini bathing suits. "We hated that," recalled Theodosakis, who happened to be dating a clothes designer at the time.

They decided to play a joke on the bikini-clad men. Using old tablecloths and curtains, they slapped together three pairs of drawstring baggie shorts that stretched down to their knees. They created quite a stir strolling down the beach the next day, but not in the way they expected.

Instead of laughing or complaining, people actually wanted to buy the shorts. They produced 20 more pair, from the same hodge-podge of fabric, one size fit all. Soon they started selling shorts on the motocross circuit.

Spring Break Revival

The three met with little success when they first attempted to market the shorts to stores in Florida, until a Fort Lauderdale surf shop began selling the shorts during spring break, when Lauderdale is overrun by college students.

The time of decision had arrived. They sold their motocross bikes and bought sewing machines. Working out of their Chicago home, distributing mainly in Florida, the business grew.

In 1985 they packed up the sewing machines and moved to Carlsbad, where they continued to operate the business out of their home. They did more than $750,000 in sales that year.

"We had the sewing machines set up in the living room and stored clothes under our beds," said the 29-year-old Theodosakis. "We were pulling stuff out of our closets to sell to Nordstrom."

The following year they moved into 2,000 square feet of space in Carlsbad and hired their first full-time employees. After a short stint in a slightly larger facility, earlier this year they transferred into 18,000 square feet of office and warehouse space off Palomar Airport Road and increased their staff to 55.

More Than 1,600 Stores

Their clothing and accessories currently are in more than 1,600 stores nationwide, with shorts usually selling for $22 to $36, the median range for the market. All of the products are manufactured locally, except for the shoes and watches made in Korea.

Life's a Beach's success in the surfwear industry is not unprecedented. Well-established Ocean Pacific and Hang Ten each grossed more than $200 million in 1986. Six-year-old Maui and Sons of Irvine chalked up more than $8.8 million in sales last year and was rated as the fastest-growing private company in Orange County by Inc. magazine.

It's not unusual these days for major department stores, such as Bullock's in Grossmont, to devote special departments to surfwear. Life's a Beach is also in Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

"It becomes like a cult in the store," said Avril Port, divisional manager for the Grossmont Bullock's, which also carries Life's a Beach clothing. "Word gets around that it's in the store. One kid tells another. It's a fad."

Although stores are now crowded with surfwear from different manufacturers, from Gotcha to Billabong, Life's a Beach merchandise still manages to stand out.

'A Little More Radical'

"Their stuff is a little more radical, hard-core, skateboard-type look," beach store owner Hamel said. "They come out with stuff before it is the in thing."

Much of Life's a Beach's distinctiveness comes from the wild illustrations and characters produced by the company's two staff artists, Mark Baagoe, whom the three met surfing in Florida, and Doze Greene, a former graffiti artist in New York.

"The man is incredible with spray cans," said Thoeodosakis.

It was Baagoe who developed the Bad Boy caricature, the line drawing which best characterizes the company's attitude.

"Bad means pretty aggressive, a good competitor, not necessarily something negative," said Mark Simo, 28. "It's more of a statement than the basic Hawaiian tropical look. It's an image we like."

The artists work in a small, well-littered space in the bowels of the Life's a Beach facility. Their skateboards are handy, the music blasts and a wide variety of toys are their disposal.

Hamel remembers the first time he visited the plant to pick up some merchandise. The first person he saw was wearing a women's running bra on the outside of his shirt, two cigarette packs rolled up in his T-shirt and a cut-off sleeve for a hat.

"They've got some pretty wild people working for them," Hamel said. "They are the most aggressive outfit I deal with. They're into their own world."

Skateboarders Are Different

That wildness clearly has quite a bit to do with the company's success. Instead of catering only to surfers, Life's a Beach is more popular with skateboarders, who apparently like a slightly different look.

"We didn't come from the beach feel. The palm tree thing was never our bag," Theodosakis said. "We weren't tainted by the way the industry does things or the way things should be. We had no clue."

More than once the three heard that T-shirts illustrated with bombs exploding, crazed punks or skeletons wouldn't sell. But they believed they were more in tune with the young market, and they were willing to stick by the designs they liked and enjoyed producing.

"We never said, 'Skulls aren't selling, we'd better go to flowers,' " Theodosakis said. "If there are 10 people in the market, we realized eight may not be for us.

"We want to keep things a little exclusive, a little out of reach, so it's still a novelty. We don't want to whore it."

They've resisted all offers of outside capital that might intrude on their style or independence. They want to be able to work on their classic car collection, stage an impromptu in-shop skateboard contest, or take the whole staff surfing for the afternoon without worrying about outside interests.

"We like to not only create a life style with our fashions, but to live it," Mark Simo said. "We don't want somone to tell us how to present ourselves."

They do show flashes of mainstream sensibility, albeit with their own flair. They've licensed various cartoon characters, including Felix the Cat, the Three Stooges and the Jetsons, their biggest seller last year. The company also sponsors motocross riders, such as national champion Rick Johnson of El Cajon, surfers, water skiers and various skateboarders. They stress a drug-free life style.

"We look for role models for the kids and get the clothes on them," said Theodosakis, although he added that they avoid much of the standard surf promotions used by many surfwear companies.

The three also understand the realities of their chosen market. The teen surf fashion scene may be booming now, but, as with all fashion trends, it may soon fade.

"I see (the market) as something trendy," said Sarah Stack, retail analyst for the Los Angeles-based Bateman, Eichler, Hill Richards. "It's a look. It's got a pretty high growth rate, but I don't see what the ultimate size of the market will be."

Life's a Beach has been rapidly expanding into other areas, including ski accessories, shoes, watches, hats, belts, running gear and even underwear.

"The skate market is peaking," Theodosakis said. "We don't expect it to be here forever."

As long as there are kids willing to pay for the outrageous look, though, life will still be a beach for Theodosakis and the Simo brothers.

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