Designer Casts a a New Line


Holly Sharp has a new friend, and she can't stop talking about her.

Or writing about her.

On the desk in the Costa Mesa studio of the 39-year-old fashion designer is a biography of sorts titled "Who is Lucy Love?" It is a litany of honorable and fun qualities that describe the fictional muse of Sharp's latest fashion foray: an apparel line targeting the much coveted 15- to 30-year-old women's market.

When Sharp discusses Lucy Love, she does so with the conviction that this is a real individual. She talks about what Lucy Love likes or doesn't. She becomes increasingly animated, even a little teary-eyed.

"Lucy Love is pro-active and she has power. She's the first on the dance floor and the last to say goodbye. She surfs. She is the entertainment of the party. She strives daily to achieve her personal best. She's really magical," Sharp gushes. "Lucy Love loves life."

Beginning this weekend, Sharp will find out if young women--in the form of retail buyers--will love Lucy as well. The 80-piece collection will be unveiled to retailers, investors, competitors and the fashion press at the Action Sports Retailer Trade Expo in San Diego that began Wednesday.

For Sharp, the four-day show may prove to be the most important ever in her 18 years as one of the most prominent designers in the Southland apparel industry.

Her custom-made dresses are in demand by the hip and well-to-do. The Holly Sharp Boutique in Corona del Mar is a favorite personal stop of East Coast fashion magazine editors. And the GirlStar juniors label she directed for Irvine-based Gotcha Sportswear International got off to a meteoric start in late 1995, only to plateau as internal bureaucracy limited its growth.

Apparently there's only one thing left for Sharp to prove in the world of fashion: that she can cut it as a businesswoman.

The prospects for a new young women's apparel brand in a saturated marketplace hardly appears favorable. But industry experts believe Lucy Love could succeed on Holly Sharp's name alone.

"She's an outstanding designer and I don't think you'd ever want to bet against her," said Tony Cherbak, an apparel expert at Deloitte & Touche in Costa Mesa. "She's up against a very competitive market, but there's always room for new ideas."

That was made startlingly clear four years ago when Quiksilver Inc., the Costa Mesa young men's surf apparel company, launched its Roxy line of board shorts and other surf apparel aimed at young girls. Today, Roxy is the company's fastest-growing division and is on a pace to do $65 million in sales this year. The brand is widely considered untouchable by retailers and is held up as a model to aspire to, rather than compete against.

Still, there appears to be plenty of potential in the 15- to 30-year-old women's market, which numbers 27 million in the U.S. and is growing at twice the rate of the overall population, according to 1996 Census Bureau statistics. On top of that, teen and twentysomething females love to shop--three to four times a month, at $44 to $59 a trip, according to Stillerman Jones & Co.

To crack into that market, Sharp and her partner, husband Michael Sharp, 46, for the first time have brought aboard a financial advisor. He is Andy Purmort, a 43-year-old managing director in the Newport Beach office of Creative Business Strategies, a Boulder, Colo., venture-capital firm whose clients range from medical groups to Internet firms. He will be acting chief executive of Lucy Love, despite the fact that much of his business background came in the water-filtration industry, where he spent six years making acquisitions for U.S. Filter Corp. in Palm Desert.

Beyond impressing the trade show attendees this weekend, Sharp's top priority is to get the Lucy Love name before consumers. She plans a print ad campaign in teen and twentysomething magazines and sponsorship of female athletes and scholars.

It is Purmort's job to finance and organize that growth. He plans to sell a 10% stake in the Holly Sharp Co. to venture-capital investors this fall. As Lucy Love grows, proceeds will be used to acquire fledgling manufacturers. By fall, the Sharps and Purmort plan to have a formal board of directors in place. And in three to five years, the goal is an initial public stock offering that will launch Lucy Love onto the international fashion stage.

It would be a long way from Sharp's start in Newport Beach, where she cut dresses for her girlfriends at the kitchen table, as well as funky shirts for her guitar-playing husband and his bandmates. When an apparel sales representative spotted them in Holly's designs at a Hollywood nightclub, he begged them for a meeting the next morning at the California Mart in downtown Los Angeles. The Sharps and an entourage arrived wearing their outfits from the night before and left with a $50,000 order for '50s-inspired party dresses from a major department store. Holly's mother, Betty Stussy, co-signed a loan and the then-newlyweds entered the fashion business with Sharp Designs.

The good times ended with the economic downturn in the early '90s and the Sharps supplemented operations by designing private-label apparel for the Limited and other retailers. They also decided that their future lied in Holly Sharp boutiques and within two years they opened three shops.

But Sharp wasn't able to translate her creative vision to a financial statement. Two of the stores closed leaving only the Corona del Mar location.

For Lucy Love to work, the challenge will be figuring out "life after board shorts," said Randy Hild, the Quiksilver vice president who oversees Roxy.

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