By  on March 10, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Boutique owner Jill Roberts can’t get the beach off her mind.

Roberts, who owns two stores in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, has added designer to her résumé with the launch of Seaton, a new clothing line aimed at the surf sophisticate or seaside loller.

Self-avowed “sun-chasers” and surfers, Roberts and her husband, Mark Freeman, said the market was ripe for a resort line that’s less muumuu and more sleek boardshort and aimed at the Roxy and Billabong graduate, who could be a single hipster or a hottie of a mom aged 24 to 48.

“It’s not a surf line; it’s a beach line,” Roberts said.

The couple has partnered with longtime surfwear designer Lissa Zwahlen to head up the creative direction of the line in collaboration with Roberts. Zwahlen was a designer for much of the last decade at Quiksilver Inc., first working on the men’s collection, then spearheading the Roxy juniors’ line as well as the now defunct, more contemporary Alex Goes collection. Most recently, she was managing the design team for Mossimo Inc.

She said the goal of the line is to pick up where Alex Goes left off.

“This is what we should have been doing at Alex Goes — using more sophisticated prints and colors and staying true to that grown-up Roxy gal,” Zwahlen said.

Named for a waterfront town in England, Seaton offers a 14-piece summer collection, which ships May 1, in fluid pieces, such as T-shirts, shorts and cropped pants, in sporty silhouettes designed for the après-surf lifestyle. There’s a sundress in cotton sheeting mixed with vintage fabric, drapy linen pants and hoodies, boardshorts in leopard-printed poplin and side taping, tunics with plunging necklines for sexy cover-ups and baggy cuffed shorts. Shirting fabric, oversized banana-leaf prints and vivid stripes give the line a jaunty feel. For fall, the line will add velour blazers and pants printed in the banana-leaf print and blazers crafted from thick terry toweling in cool colors, such as cadet blue and graphite. Wholesale prices range from $37 for T-shirts to $142 for a sundress.

First-year sales expectations are $1.5 million. So far, 15 stores picked up the line, which broke quietly at the January market in Los Angeles, including Flip Flop in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Kate Daniels in Seal Beach, Calif., and Toby Black in San Diego. Retailers said the line fills a gap in an underserved category.

“The timing is perfect. We need resort-y clothes that are also very stylish,” said Stephanie Purdue, a buyer for Kate Daniels.

Roberts’ stores also will carry the line, but the retailer promises not to merchandise her own line at the expense of her stores’ vendors.

“We never merchandise by brand here but by color story,” she said, gesturing in her Beverly Hills store, which had pockets of vibrant color in hues of sunny orange and fuchsia balanced with muted blues and greens.

Eventually, Seaton could evolve into a brand with the addition of men’s and kids’ clothing along with handbags and hats, items that could also round out a Seaton store. The brick-and-mortar vision, expected to open by the end of the year somewhere on the West Side of L.A., would include other brands and homey features such as a candy shop.

“We think there’s a huge appetite for this concept,” Freeman said.

Roberts and Freeman said they bring crossover experience to their new venture. As a retailer, Roberts has an eye for what’s saleable and figure-flattering, and Freeman lends his business expertise to the line as operations director.

Dial Corp. bought his family’s business, Freeman Cosmetics Corp., in 1998 for more than $80 million. The brand languished under the soap giant who sold it as part of its personal care division three years later for reportedly less than $12 million to Hathi Group, an investment firm. Two years ago, Freeman bought back the business from a bankrupt Hathi, reportedly for less than $10 million.

In spite of his bottom-line mentality, Freeman said Seaton represents a leap of faith.

“We didn’t have a business plan on this, we just had a gut feeling,” he said.

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