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Family-run business has a leg up at Halloween

The gig: Melody and Amy Tsai help run Leg Avenue, their family’s costume and lingerie business in the City of Industry that had $87 million in sales last year. Amy, 42, is in charge of merchandising, while her sister Melody, 30, leads the creative team that designs hundreds of Halloween costumes, including cute bumblebee, sassy sheriff and sexy zombie.

Beginnings: Originally from Taiwan, the Tsai family immigrated to Southern California in 1984 in search of financial stability. They started out buying cheap toys, hosiery and other odds and ends in downtown Los Angeles and reselling the goods at swap meets and flea markets. It was a family effort, with Amy helping out on weekends and Melody tagging along. “I remember when I was 2 or 3,” Melody said, “as soon as we set up the tables at the swap meets, my mom would cut open a box, throw some blankets in there and I’d go to sleep. That was our weekend.”

First came the stockings: Tired of competing solely on price, Amy pushed the family to create unique products that would sell at higher markups. Their first success: thigh-high stockings with biker zippers sewn up the back, for about $8 a pair. That was followed by other stocking variations, and then a bustier inspired by Madonna’s iconic cone bra. “I never went to design school, but I did go shopping a lot,” Amy said. “Eventually I started telling our factories, ‘Add this strap, cut this off.’ We started making our own line, and it did pretty well.”

Sexy scare ware: On the advice of a customer, Amy went to a Halloween trade show in 1996 and brought along samples of the family’s multicolored fishnet stockings. They were a big hit with vendors. “At that point, I didn’t even know what Halloween was,” Amy said. “But I went back home and told my dad: ‘Wow, Halloween. One day a year. People buy a lot.’”

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Leg Avenue began adapting for Halloween the risque, role-play outfits they were already producing. “The general mentality for women at the time was that you were either taking the kids out trick or treating or opening the door at home,” Melody said. “The costumes were really conservative.

“But coming from the lingerie business, we knew how to fit women. And as women, we know that there are parts of you you always want to hide, there are parts of you you always want to show off.”

Dr. Melody?: As the fortunes of the Tsais rose, Melody was urged to pursue a medical or law degree at UC Davis instead of joining the family business. She lasted a year. “I don’t like school. I told them, ‘Look, I’ll work. Just give me a job and I’ll do it and go to community college,’” Melody said. The family started her at the bottom, in customer service.

Family matters: Leg Avenue is still a family-run company. One brother, Mike, 41, is the chief operating officer, and the other, Dietrich, 49, runs the warehouse. Melody and Amy say that running a business together can cause friction, but that loyalty is also guaranteed. “We can yell and scream at each other, but at the end of the day we’ve still got to face each other at the dinner table,” Melody said. “If we’re still mad, my dad will be like, ‘All right you two, make up now.’”

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Advice for aspiring designers: “Listen to your customers,” Melody said. “That’s the most important.”

shan.li@latimes.com


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