Basics Instinct : B.U.M. Equipment Finds Success Making Comfortable Everyday Clothing With Reverse Snob Appeal


Morty Forshpan had no doubt he would be rich and powerful one day. He just never imagined that fortune would come in the guise of cotton sweat shirts and pull-on shorts.

“I dreamed of being an architect and making a lot of money,” he says from his office in a rundown section of downtown. But, “I was discouraged by some architects, who told me it’s very difficult to make money unless you have a real strong connection or a family background in the industry.”

So Forshpan turned to building of another kind: He is the architect of Chauvin International, parent company of B.U.M. Equipment, one of the most successful young men’s sportswear brands in California fashion history.


What started out in 1986 as one simple, cotton-knit sweat shirt featuring an oversize puff-printed B.U.M. logo on the chest has snowballed over the past seven years into a massive collection--more than 300 new items a year--of cotton, athletic-inspired knitwear, including printed sweat pants and jackets, pull-on shorts and screen-printed T-shirts. The B.U.M. label is widely distributed, with garments selling from as little as $9 (cotton Ts) at T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s to as much as $180 (stone-washed denim letterman’s jackets) at the Broadway, JC Penney and Robinsons-May.

Forshpan admits the collection is not exactly revolutionary. “We, for the most part, really get inspired by other sources,” he says matter-of-factly. “Do we ever copy an exact garment? . . . Yeah, if it’s a real basic. We’re not always that anxious to start a trend. We’d just as well sit back and see what the market needs and then do it better than everybody else.”

Whether Forshpan, 50, masterminded B.U.M.’s ascent or merely stumbled onto a label already destined to succeed is open to debate. Some industry analysts say the B.U.M. fashion concept--classic athletic styling paired with a simple logo--was established by its founder, a young man from Seattle named Derek Federman, almost a year before Forshpan took over as majority shareholder and chief executive officer of Chauvin. But Forshpan does get full credit for exploiting its potential.

“In the beginning it was kind of an underground thing. The name alone (B.U.M. is not an acronym) represented something negative to most people,” explains Harry Bernard, a fashion industry consultant and partner in San Francisco-based Colton Bernard. “But when Morty latches onto something that makes money, he commits to it. And he was entrepreneurial enough to understand B.U.M. was really the beginning of the whole street look.”

Forshpan, who dresses in suits and ties, agrees that the name has an edge of rebellion. But he believes the clothing, not the label, ultimately attracted young shoppers. “We didn’t spend time trying to figure out what a product line with a name like B.U.M. should look like,” he says. “At the time, in the mid-’80s, everyone was offering stripes and prints and a lot of overdesigned sportswear. And we just thought that kids might relate to something a little more simplistic.”

After a series of clashes over how quickly the company should grow, Forshpan and Federman parted company in 1988. Forshpan has since steered the B.U.M. creative staff--a design director who oversees a dozen merchandising specialists--toward a trendier clothing mix. That move helped boost sales in the late 1980s, as consumers were beginning to tire of basic sportswear. As a reward for the company’s influence on street fashion, Forshpan has twice accepted nominations for the CaliforniaMart’s West Coast designer of the year award, although he acknowledges he’s never picked up a sketch pad.


Design director Trina Turk says Forshpan likes to see colors and initial sketches but otherwise tends to the company finances. Forshpan adds that he also edits the line, narrowing a large collection to a manageable size.

“The Marty (Award) recognizes the business contribution and overall worth of the collection,” says David Stamper, media relations manager for the CaliforniaMart. “It’s broader than just ‘Wow, what a great design.’ Especially in the case of lines like B.U.M., where a lot of people have questioned what’s so special about what they do.”

At a time when the West Coast fashion industry is struggling, B.U.M. remains one of the few basic, brand-name apparel lines retailers can count on to sell. Burned out on the idea of paying top dollar for the privilege of wearing a designer label, many American shoppers have returned to classic, no-frills sportswear by such labels as B.U.M., Guess and Levi’s--once the layman’s notion of fashion.

Forshpan, a Canadian who operated an L.A.-based dress-shirt company for 10 years before latching onto B.U.M. in 1987, quickly recognized that the label had no place in the designer market. “I frankly didn’t feel I could compete in dollars and media,” he says.

Rather than build the brand as a status label, he followed the lead of shoe companies like Nike and Converse, which achieved name recognition partly through their celebrity ties. Actor Jason Priestley, hockey pro Wayne Gretzky and boxer Larry Holmes were among those who adopted the label. “The customer can identify with these people,” Forshpan says, as he shows off a Billy Ray Cyrus concert program featuring the singer in a B.U.M. sweat shirt.

Forshpan acknowledges that the popular L.A.-based hip-hop labels Cross Colours and Tag Rag have recently stunted B.U.M.’s growth. The company leaped from $120 million in 1991 sales to $175 million in 1992. Sales this year are expected to be $200 million.


Forshpan attributes B.U.M.’s slowdown to “label fatigue,” in which consumers temporarily tire of a label, then later rediscover it. B.U.M.’s sales have picked up over the past few months on the East and West coasts, he says.

Some industry analysts, however, suggest it has more to do with the label’s massive foray into discount chains and low-price clubs.

“When a label ends up at that level of distribution, it’s basically saying that it’s peaked,” says analyst Bernard. “It tells the consumer that the owners are going to get the very last drop out of it that they can.”

Forshpan counters that the company unknowingly sold its clothing to “diverters,” buyers who claimed to represent stores overseas but actually unloaded merchandise on discounters. B.U.M. hopes to remove all of its products from discount stores by year’s end, and plans to replace them with a new, yet-to-be-named collection of sportswear exclusively for distribution to discounters.

Whether sales rebound will ultimately depend on the label’s fickle core of customers--8- to 12-year-old boys and girls and 16- to 24-year-old young adults--and presumably their parents.

“I think the label is still valid and the quality is good,” says Meg Rottman, a Whittier mother who recently bought B.U.M. clothing for her 8-year-old boy. “It’s stylish, it makes him look like he knows what’s happening fashionwise and it’s not that huge, oversized stuff the school will no longer let the kids wear.”


“It’s still pretty cool stuff,” adds 14-year-old Carlos Juarez, who was recently spotted cruising the Plaza Pasadena in a yellow B.U.M. sweat shirt and denim cut-offs. “It’s not real trendy. It’s just cool, comfortable. I like to wear this when I ride my skateboard.”

For now, department stores remain enthusiastic as well. “The success we have with B.U.M. is enormous,” says William Podany, executive vice president of merchandising for Carter Hawley Hale, parent company of the Broadway, where B.U.M. hangs in the young men’s and junior departments. “We became their largest account sometime last year, when we were selling thousands of units of basic fleece crew necks weekly.”

Podany says that when sales of basic items--T-shirts, shorts, sweat shirts--fell off, retailers began asking B.U.M. executives to add trendier items. “Today, it’s more of a (complete) look than it is a (single) item business for us.”