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Originally published Sunday, December 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Tommy Bahama clothing line grows up

A dozen Tommy Bahama designers, many of them drinking coffee, contemplate the 18 pairs of assorted shorts displayed in front of them during...

Seattle Times business reporter

Tommy Bahama

Slogan "Life is one long weekend."

Founded In 1992 by Tony Margolis and Bob Emfield, former sales executives at Seattle-based Generra, and Lucio Dalla Gasperina, who designed clothes for Unionbay Sportswear in Seattle.

Owned by Oxford Industries, a publicly traded company based in Atlanta. It bought Tommy Bahama (and its parent, Viewpoint International) for $325 million in 2003. Oxford also owns Ben Sherman, a London sportswear brand aimed at men and women ages 19-35.

Top-selling products Men's short-sleeve, button-down camp shirts for $110 to $148 and a $450 leather bomber jacket. Popular women's items include $225 cashmere hoodies and a half-zip cashmere sweater for $195.

Target market Men and women between 35 and 55 years old, with an annual household income above $150,000.

Source: Company information

A dozen Tommy Bahama designers, many of them drinking coffee, contemplate the 18 pairs of assorted shorts displayed in front of them during daylong preparations for a presentation of next fall's fashion line to salespeople from all over the country.

Where their inspiration comes from is obvious.

It's not from the cups of coffee, which were bought at a cafe a short walk from their six-story office building in South Lake Union. And it's certainly not from their walk in 40-degree temperatures.

Their inspiration is represented by a poster-size photograph propped on an easel next to the shorts. The picture is of Positano, a romantic Italian village perched above the Amalfi coast.

"Our tried-and-true Tommy Bahama customer doesn't just travel to Las Vegas or Scottsdale, Arizona," said Joey Rodolfo, the company's chief designer of men's apparel. "He's a worldly guy. He goes there, puts his feet in the sand, and wears some great shorts and shirts."

The building, next to a tire shop on Westlake Avenue, happens to be two blocks from where Pearl Jam once practiced in a rental warehouse, helping to popularize plaid flannel shirts and chunky worker boots in the 1990s — a mindset and style incongruent with Tommy Bahama's.

The company targets men, and to a lesser extent women, who are between 35 and 55 years old and have an annual income above $150,000. It sells shorts for $80 and up, shirts for $200, and a $500 dinner jacket, among other things.

Advertisements in Wine Spectator, Esquire and Cigar Aficionado feature a handsome Italian man with salt-and-pepper hair and a roguish smile.

"The Tommy Bahama lifestyle is a dream for men sitting in front of a computer screen," said Tom Hermann, a Tommy Bahama alum who is president of Redmond denim-line Jag Jeans. "It's Bob Marley kind of stuff — I close my eyes, and all of a sudden I'm on a tropical island under a palm tree."

Training ground

Tommy Bahama is headquartered in Seattle, rather than fashion centers New York or Los Angeles, because of its relative proximity to apparel manufacturing sites in Asia, and because it has long been a training ground for clothing designers, said chief operating officer Doug Wood.

Many of the company's designers cut their teeth locally at Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, Unionbay, Generra and Cutter & Buck. (Rodolfo helped start Seattle sportswear company Cutter & Buck.)

In the 1980s, Tony Margolis and Bob Emfield, then in sales at Seattle's Generra, began to wonder what it would be like to plant themselves on the beach and never return to work.

While vacationing on Florida's Gulf Coast, they pictured a graying guy who had more than enough money to live well without ever having to put on a suit and tie again. They named him Tommy Bahama.

In 1992, they enlisted longtime clothing designer Lucio Dalla Gasperina, previously of Unionbay Sportswear in Seattle, to create the Tommy Bahama line.

Consisting mostly of silk Hawaiian-style shirts, it was sold at vacation resorts and upscale specialty stores for the first few years, until department stores such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus also began to carry it.

Today, the company operates 70 Tommy Bahama stores in the United States — its first was in 1996 in Naples, Fla., — and has nine licensed locations in Canada, Dubai and Australia. Annual sales top $450 million.

Margolis works in Tommy Bahama's New York office as CEO; Emfield handles sales and marketing from Minneapolis; and Dalla Gasperina oversees design and merchandising at the South Lake Union headquarters, where the company employs about 250. (It also has a 90-employee distribution center in Auburn.)

Tommy Bahama for the most part has been on an upward trajectory, though it is coming off one of its toughest financial quarters since being bought by Oxford Industries, a publicly traded company in Atlanta, in mid-2003.

Tommy Bahama posted a 5 percent year-over-year decline in sales for the June-through-August quarter, citing waning consumer confidence and depressed home values in Florida, California, Arizona and Nevada, where about two-thirds of its stores are.

Dick Outcalt, a principal of Outcalt & Johnson: Retail Strategists in Seattle, described the Tommy Bahama look as "terrific, but optional."

"It's not something a lot of people would wear everyday, and it's somewhat susceptible to things like the housing downturn," Outcalt said.

Tommy Bahama is managing its inventory more cautiously to avoid the kind of price slashing that cuts into profits and runs counter to its upscale image, said Don Kerkes, president of the men's division.

Also, it's introducing more expensive "price points," since the upper-end of the market seems to be holding up, and for the first time has begun selling merchandise on its Web site.

"There was a time when our woven shirts were right around $100," Kerkes said. "Today, our woven shirts are anywhere from $100 to $175, and they sell as well at $150 to $175 as they do at $100. Our customers certainly are willing to spend the money if the product is right."

Company's challenge

Selling clothes under the mantra that life is one long weekend seems a bit of a no-brainer. After all, who doesn't like to dress from time to time as if they're on vacation? But Tommy Bahama's challenge is to sell a sun-and-surf lifestyle at wine-and-brie prices.

"There's a thin line between upscale island lifestyle and Margaritaville," Wood said. "You just can't afford to fall on the other side. There are so many examples of people just taking it kitschy and not doing well."

The company oversees four brands under its namesake Tommy Bahama label: Relax, for "patio kings," or men who like to barbecue in their backyard by the pool (think cotton rather than silk); Indigo Palms, which sells jeans for $88 and up; Island Soft, a dressier, more expensive offering; and TB 18 Golf, for the country-club set.

It also has a whimsical side, demonstrated by a $45 "anger management" T-shirt, with a print of a cigar-smoking tiger holding a martini glass, and a $28 "marlin patch" cap, featuring a martini recipe etched inside.

"We don't sell the really lightweight or tropical-print part of the line. It just doesn't fit in Seattle, so we sell their sweaters and half-zip sweat shirts," said Paula Bennett, of Yankee Peddler in Seattle's Madison Park neighborhood, a longtime seller of Tommy Bahama apparel. "They have a pretty steady following."

Ten of the company's 70 stores include white-tablecloth restaurants, where coconut shrimp, macadamia-nut-encrusted snapper and piña colada cake are among the top sellers. An 11th restaurant is set to open Feb. 14 in Las Vegas.

The restaurants "romanticize" the Tommy Bahama brand, Wood said. "You're able to expand people's vision, so that they feel like they're not just buying a man's shirt, but a whole lifestyle."

Tommy Bahama's stores with restaurants ring up an average of more than $1,000 a square foot in sales annually, compared with a target of $800 to $900 at stores without restaurants, he said.

Kemper Freeman, whose Kemper Development company owns Bellevue Square, said he hopes to persuade Tommy Bahama to open a store and restaurant at the mall. "I think it would be wonderful. You could remind people of nice weather," Freeman said.

So far, though, Tommy Bahama has limited its restaurants to warm-weather locales. "I would never say never," Wood said of Freeman's proposal. "But we don't want to become people's kitchen on the corner, where it isn't special to go there anymore."

Sales to retailers

Sales to other retailers account for about 45 percent of the Tommy Bahama business, matched by sales at its own stores. Licensing fees make up the remaining 10 percent. Manufacturers pay Tommy Bahama fees in exchange for permission to sell products under the palm-tree logo.

Licensed products run the gamut from furniture and ceiling fans to watches and sunglasses. Earlier this year, Tommy Bahama added another: Barbadian rum created with Sidney Frank Importing. Someday soon, Tommy Bahama might introduce vacation packages and possibly its own vacation resort, Wood said.

"They're trying to say that if you like our clothes, you'll like our taste in all these other areas," said Pat Johnson, principal of Outcalt & Johnson: Retail Strategists. "They've figured out what their customer wants and how to deliver that in a complete package."

On a recent blustery day in Seattle, Tommy Bahama's University Village store was something of a refuge for Jill Yates, an interior decorator from Olympia. Scented candles made her think of coconuts and mangoes, and Latin-inspired tunes played overhead. Yates had been in the store just a few days earlier to buy a couple of T-shirts for a Hawaiian vacation in June.

"I always stop in when I'm in the area, even if I don't need anything," she said. "It just reminds me of being in Hawaii."

Donald Baptiste, 53, of Seattle, figures he visits the University Village store at least once a month.

A real-estate broker, Baptiste likes Tommy Bahama's shorts and shirts for vacationing in Southeast Asia, as well as its pants and sweaters for going out to dinner in Seattle.

"It's a casual elegance where you're not over the top, and you're very comfortable," Baptiste said. "I don't wear the really loud island-themed shirts."

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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