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Sisters Have Designs on Clothes Market

SAN DIEGO COUNTY BUSINESS EDITOR

Would-be entrepreneurs daydream about turning their hobbies into lucrative businesses, but two Clairemont sisters have converted the dream into reality.

In the cramped confines of an apartment living room near Sharp Memorial Hospital, Susan Dolfo and Evelyn Tait work up to 16 hours a day churning out gaily painted baby clothes that are eagerly snatched up by well-known retailers, including Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Trademarked Be-Be Wear, the clothing features bears, bees and other creatures painted onto the all-cotton fabric by the sisters. They expect to sell about $100,000 worth of their clothes this year--up from $1,000 in 1988--with volume growing to as much as $400,000 next year.

The clothes are the brainchildren of Susan Dolfo, a 28-year-old mother of three who first started making salt-dough bear ornaments and figurines for friends in 1984. At the friends’ urging, she began selling the items at school and church crafts fairs in 1986.

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She soon realized that the real money was in selling clothes, so she began producing her animal designs on baby T-shirts.

Demand was so hot at the crafts fairs that her sister, Evelyn, talked her into producing samples to show to retailers, including Bellini’s and Saks Fifth Avenue earlier this year.

The sisters were then approached by San Diego sales representative Miki Schorr, who offered to peddle the clothes to regional retailers. The orders have been pouring in ever since, and Be-Be Wear clothes are now sold in 35 stores--two in Hawaii, two in Las Vegas and the rest in San Diego County.

The sisters recently signed up four more sales representatives in other parts of the country, hence their expectations that sales will quadruple next year.

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The fast growth has not been without cost. The sisters, aided intermittently by relatives and friends, still produce all the clothes themselves, working sweatshop hours. Hiring outside labor has not worked out, Susan said, because others “find it hard to live up to our standards.”

Profits so far have been slim because they have plowed all their capital back into the company to buy paint, cotton fabric and other raw materials. Susan’s husband, Rick, who has a full-time job as an IBM engineer, does all the bookkeeping.

The sisters say they are reluctant to make long-term, big-dollar commitments to their budding business, such as leasing a warehouse. But they say its not for fear of failure.

“It scares me more to be successful than to fail, thinking how the heck I’m going to get the merchandise out and fill the orders,” Susan said.


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