Seeking career heat at tropical Tommy Bahama

Times Staff Writer

The last place you'd expect to find the corporate headquarters for Tommy Bahama, the beachy lifestyle brand, is here in the polar fleece capital of the world.

And yet, in a nondescript glass building just blocks from the Space Needle, 625 people are hard at work, designing the artifacts of an imagined tropical life that has entranced American consumers and made the company a $300-million-a-year business.

And it is here that Christian Francis Roth, once a rising Seventh Avenue star, is sifting through swatches of hibiscus print fabric in his quest to put some zing in Tommy Bahama's women's wear line, which now runs the bland gamut from unflattering, boxy camp shirts to balloonish drawstring pants.

"We're trying to be more fashion aware and to create an identity for the women's line that's as clear as the men's," said Lucio Dalla Gasperina, executive vice president of design and one of three partners who own the privately held company. "We didn't want a high-profile designer who would just go off and make it his own. We wanted someone who understands what we are about."

But Roth, 33, once had a very high profile. And in some ways, his uneven trajectory during the last dozen or so years has mirrored the evolution of American fashion.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Roth dazzled the fashion world with such fantastical runway fare as trapeze dresses with trompe l'oeil crayons for sleeves, full skirts fashioned after Amish quilts, and blazers in newsprint and "scribble" patterns.

A protege of Dutch-born New York designer Koos van den Akker, Roth launched his own collection before he was out of his teens. In 1988, Lynn Manulis, an owner of the exclusive Martha boutiques, took a chance on the young designer, buying several of his pieces and putting them in the store's Park Avenue windows in New York. The clothes sold immediately, and it wasn't long before Roth's line was carried at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and I. Magnin, and his runway shows were hot tickets.

In 1990, at 20, Roth won the Perry Ellis Award for new talent from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Women's Wear Daily dubbed him the "Doogie Howser of fashion." And he was hailed as the next Franco Moschino for the childlike whimsy of his designs, which included wine corks and bottle caps for buttons and M&M; packages for appliques.

Although he was a hit with critics, Roth was never able to sell enough clothes to secure the kind of financial backing that would ensure the survival and growth of his business. He'd come of professional age at a time when Seventh Avenue "name" designers were being one-upped by cheap and chic offerings from chain stores headquartered in L.A., San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. Although the stock market was booming, women seemed to be rebelling against seasonal hemlines and $2,500 suits. Consumers were interested in lower-priced "bridge" lines, and factory outlets were all the rage. The groundwork was being laid for a thousand casual Fridays outfitted by the Gap, Banana Republic and, indeed, Tommy Bahama.

Roth closed his designer business in 1995.

After that he was something of a nomad: He designed for Nordstrom's private label, for Esprit, for Zoran. He even had his own bridge line, CFR, which was sold in department stores. But he never quite found his niche, not the way his friends Marc Jacobs and Todd Oldham have.

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Showing his team spirit

So now Roth has crossed the continent to design for the mass market, which he once described to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter as "a sea of mediocrity." If he's disappointed at all, he doesn't show it.

"My interest now lies in the business aspect. I know I can be creative, but can I manage a team? With the foundation and financing in place, can I make a success of this women's brand? That's more than enough stimulus for me right now," said Roth, who has the same boyish charm as Jacobs and Oldham.

Van den Akker, reached in his studio in New York, is proud of his protege's latest move. "I'm sure that in his heart of hearts he'd rather be on his own. But he's a man for group work. He's good for the corporate setup," said the designer who now sells mass-market sportswear on a QVC show titled "Koos of Course."

So far, Roth's bosses are giving him a qualified sort of freedom. "We're going to drive and steer, but Christian's the one who will finesse the product," Dalla Gasperina said.

Founded in 1992 by Bob Emfield and Tony Margolis, Tommy Bahama was originally a menswear label aimed at the 35- to 55-year-old walking-shorts set. The two garment business veterans met in Seattle in the 1970s, when they were sales reps for Brittania Sportswear Ltd. The company is named after a character Emfield and Margolis invented after buying houses on Florida's Gulf coast, where they dreamed of spending time, living life as one long weekend.

Tommy Bahama has since become a lifestyle empire that includes clothing and licensed accessories, and home products such as rugs, bedding and upholstered furniture. But the women's wear, thus far designed by a team, has been like a margarita without salt: It gets the job done, but not with much zest.

Initially, Tommy Bahama merchandise was sold only in department stores and resort shops. Then, in 1995, the first Tommy Bahama store opened in Naples, Fla., with a restaurant serving island fare and fruity drinks. A nearby Ritz-Carlton would refer guests to the boutique, which stayed open until 11 p.m., and sales for the first year topped out at $2 million. Twenty-five more stores have followed, mostly in sunny spots such as L.A. (the Grove) and Newport Beach (Fashion Island). The stores' decor is tropical colonial (white shutters, straw chairs, antique hula girl cocktail shakers), and they have a Disney feel, with $24 brass palm tree candlesticks, $275 silk blazers, $475 golf bags and $130 beach sandals. With six more stores planned to open this year and dreams of Tommy Bahama resorts and vacation packages, Dalla Gasperina is the first to say, "We'd like to be more like Walt Disney than Tommy Hilfiger.... It's about apparel, but it isn't."

Industry analysts consider Tommy Bahama a bright spot in an otherwise bleak retail landscape. "The first thing one has to recognize about the brand and its performance is that it's all about lifestyle, which is one of the most important growth segments in retail today," said Marshal Cohen, co-president of the market research firm NPD Fashionworld in Port Washington, N.Y.

"It's one of the few companies that has a successful formula," said Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group, a market research firm based in Charleston, S.C. "It's also interesting because it doesn't have a direct competitor, which to some extent explains why it has been so successful." In today's tough economic climate, niche retailers like Tommy Bahama and Chico's stand out to shoppers whose chief complaint is that merchandise is same-old, same-old, Beemer added.

But most retail watchers agree that to keep from alienating customers, the company must tread lightly when changing its formula. "Tommy Bahama is commercial; it's not designer-driven," said Harry Bernard, a partner at San Francisco-based apparel consulting firm Colton Bernard Inc. With Roth rethinking the women's line, he said, "the chances of it being successful are quite high." However, he added, "if he's allowed to deal with it as though this is Christian Francis Roth for Tommy Bahama, I see trouble ahead."

Roth says that at this point he's only interested in one thing: building on the already successful Tommy Bahama women's business. Sales now account for a respectable 35% of the total $300-million volume, but the company founders think women's clothing is their largest growth area. And someday, maybe Roth will even be able to take the line to New York's Fashion Week. The runway, he concedes, holds a lot more allure when one is not relying on it for actual sales.

"It's very difficult to have a profitable business based on the runway," said Roth, in brown cords, a brown wool sweater and red Converse high tops -- the staple shoes of all young male designers from New York. "I was always broke. I remember I had the cover of W magazine and the Fifth Avenue windows at Bergdorf Goodman, and I had to walk because I had no money for a cab.... Fashion is one of the only businesses where you can be famous and broke at the same time."

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A shift from the shapeless

At work for just over a year, Roth and his 15-person team have made subtle changes. For spring, he took inspiration from the 1950s, creating a patio floral-print wrap dress with an empire waist that's a far cry from Tommy Bahama's old shapeless shifts. Instead of drawstring pants, he has introduced stretch cotton capris in a sun-bleached yellow check. And rather than dousing the collection in loud prints, he uses florals more subtly on the border of a sleeveless top or in the lining of a relaxed jacket.

Although the brand is associated with warm climes, in future seasons, Roth hopes to focus more on knits, perhaps designing sweaters with a pineapple pattern in the cable, and Fair Isles with palm tree and shell details. "Sometimes I think I scare these guys," he said. "But it's my job."

Roth splits his time between Seattle and New York. His wife, Hannah, who works for Jones Apparel Group, and his two daughters still live in a loft in TriBeCa. He admits that turning around such a huge operation as Tommy Bahama can be a frustratingly slow process. "These young guys come into these couture houses and drop these bombs, like Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, but that's because they are not selling much of the actual product. They are selling what it represents, so they can kind of go crazy," Roth said. "Here, all I have is a shell product, so it's a more gradual process.... But I appreciate the foundation laid out for me. Now I don't have to think every season, 'Who am I going to be?' "

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