NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The Tommy Bahama tropical-themed restaurant and retail compound is buzzing. Lunching women nostalgically toast a birthday. Nearby, a couple of men chomp St. Barts shrimp BLTs and swill house brew foaming from taps shaped like hula girls.

Across a sun-flecked lounge, two groups of women browse the adjoining Tommy Bahama store. One group, a quartet of sixty-something ladies, admire the seams of heavy silk pants, zip on $150 chenille sweaters and murmur approvingly about the quality. The others, in their late 30s, inspect the shoes, buy several-hundred dollars worth of picture frames, then exit, with barely a glance at the apparel.

Asked why they hadn’t looked at the clothes, local Patti O’Dorisio shrugs and wrinkles her nose. "Too many sleeveless, tanky tops," she said, gesturing with her hands to indicate a boxy garment.

The scene illustrates what’s right and wrong with the $300 million-plus Tommy Bahama beach lifestyle brand, which has been successful in nearly everything it’s undertaken — except in creating a compelling, youthful identity for its women’s sportswear.

Yet.

Cofounding partners Tony Margolis, Lucio Dalla Gasperina and Bob Emfield are addressing the issue with new talent to redesign the line and to oversee an expansion of company stores, which have generally been more successful at selling their women’s sportswear than their wholesale accounts.

They hired George Santacroce, formerly president of Tommy Hilfiger’s retail, in August to oversee a retail expansion calling for 10 new doors annually for the next five years. The goal is to build a chain of 80 to 100 stores and to triple retail revenues in the next five years, according to Santacroce. Company stores, accounting for 30 percent of total volume, have shown comp increases every year.

To make over the women’s line, Christian Frances Roth — a New York designer and former CFDA Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent winner — has come to outdoorsy Seattle, where Viewpoint International, the brand’s parent company, is based. Roth made his name with bright, A-line "Crayola" dresses in the early Nineties. Now, he’s in charge of creating "Mrs. Bahama" out of whole cloth.In fact, chief executive Margolis admits that as intimately as the nine-year-old company knows "Tommy" — the silver-haired, island-roaming, perpetually stubbled chap who is the embodiment of the successful men’s wear brand — it has struggled to know "the Mrs."

"A year ago, we recognized that no one at the company fully understood what a sophisticated, aware woman would want," Margolis said. "We knew Tommy down to the kind of car he drives. But on the other side, we had this woman in mind who would be equally hip, but the product wasn’t talking to her."

Boxy camp shirts, mannish khakis and ankle-length sarong skirts epitomized the four-year-old women’s line, which Margolis conceded was "frumpy."

And yet the company’s 26 stores draw women like bees to honey, even if what they’re mostly buying is home accessories and gifts for others. The stores, done in Colonial island plantation decor, stock everything from huaraches to $3,500 bar cabinets shaped like steamer trunks. They average $1,000 in sales per square foot, according to Margolis. But the six restaurant and retail compounds, like the one here in Newport Beach’s swank Fashion Island shopping center, rake in a hefty $2,200 per square foot. Overall, the company is expected to post double-digit growth this year, Margolis said.

Asked if he would ever consider taking the company public, he responded: "Never say never."

But before he can pick a ticker symbol (a good one might be RLX, for the company’s motto, "relax"), the company has to get momentum back on the women’s line. The category accounts for 30 percent of revenues, or roughly $90 million, but has recently failed to "go forward according to our expectations," Margolis said.

Roth’s mission: Create something younger in fit and attitude that will appeal to a customer who is — or aspires to be — thirty-something.

"We’ve been asking: ‘How is she coming into his life, and what do they want from each other? How are they going to seduce each other?’" Roth said, sounding as much sociologist as fashion designer. "We have these funny storyboards up around the office."Starting with the spring ad campaign, there’s a new face for "Mrs. Bahama," a brunette with an appeal Margolis pegs as "young Ali MacGraw."

The brand has an exclusive deal with model Andy Lucchesi, who has played "Tommy" in ad campaigns since 1999. Margolis declined to reveal the name of his female counterpart but clearly hopes her face will resonate with consumers as much as Lucchesi’s has. The company upped its ad budget 50 percent this year to relaunch women’s apparel.

More tangibly, Roth diversified silhouettes with empire-waist, wrap and halter styles complementing the sheath dresses the company has offered for years. He designed shorter skirts and blouses with feminine tailoring — pintucks, ruffles and sash ties.

Instead of having all its goods made in its men’s wear factories, the firm has started to source from Asian suppliers specializing in women’s clothing. The fit, according to Roth, will become gradually curvier and more body-conscious. Pantrises and sleeve lengths will follow trends, albeit at a level conscious of its customer.

But he didn’t toss aside a company signature: tropical prints on silk. "They’re one of the brand centerpieces," he said. For spring, Roth recolored them in a nude palette of blushes, fawn and straw. Wholesale prices will remain essentially the same, but Roth said he’ll "pepper in pieces that hit at the top end of the price point, or perhaps go a little over. That’s part of the newness."

And newness is an important part of staying ahead, since the company has a flock of tropical imitators parroting its moves.

"They used the mentality of ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’" said Tom Markle, owner of Mimi’s in Stone Harbor, N.J. "But I believe the camp-shirt look was starting to reach saturation."

A department store buyer, who asked for anonymity, said sales staff was "tired of camp shirts in six colors and the Aruba-zip sweatshirt."

Now, under Roth, there is "definitely more of an opinion to the line," the buyer added. "Prints were sharper and they’re trying some new things. Not everything has worked. But some trial-and-error is what the women’s apparel business is about."Printed knits have worked well, for example, while the brand has struggled with some cold-weather categories like outerwear.

Betsy Hancock, buyer for 11-store chain Irresistables in New England, said sales have picked up since Roth began tweaking the line. His first complete collection will hit stores for spring 2003. "The colors and the prints are better," she said. "And they’re working on addressing the fit."

In many ways, the 10 licensees — ranging from Lexington Home Brands for furniture to Paradise Bags Co. for handbags — have lately led the brand charge, introducing products many consider hipper than the sportswear. The company plans to ink a few more licenses. Fragrance, spa products and sun-care are under consideration.

A women’s line that’s as hip and tasteful as the rest of the Tommy Bahama catalog is integral to the success of the company’s ambitious retail expansion plans.

According to retail president Santacroce, the company plans to devote 40 percent of the selling floor to women’s apparel and accessories, 75 percent of which will be hung on racks rather than folded. Currently, the display ratio is roughly the reverse, but their research suggests women prefer to buy "vertically, rather than horizontally," Santacroce said. "They’re looking for outfits."

Perhaps most radically, nothing goes on sale in the Tommy Bahama stores. Ever.

Reasons for the "no sale" policy range from protecting brand identity to avoiding competition with the 2,000 specialty stores that carry Tommy Bahama. The strategy seems to be working: the company enjoys 80 to 90 percent sell-through at full price, according to Santacroce.

"We dispose of excess inventory only through our outlet stores and we do it very quietly," he said. "We are going to keep the number of outlet stores to a minimum. All they do is dilute the brand long term."

The company is choosing more mall locations — but premium centers, such as the new Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., and The Grove in Los Angeles. "We do not want to be just another mall resource," Margolis insisted. The next retail stores and compounds are slated for Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Mauna Lani, Hawaii, respectively. No two stores are exactly alike, but they range from 2,500 to 5,500 square feet and are decorated in tropical plantation mode, with dark wood, gold-toned floral wallpaper and props like rattan-and-leather suitcases and old-fashioned bicycles.According to Margolis, the company’s most important accomplishment is having identified a lifestyle — which it reinforces in everything from the telephone "on-hold" calypso music to the mammoth two-story plantation booth the company builds at the MAGIC International trade show in Las Vegas twice a year.

"When you think of Ralph, you think mahogany paneled dens and leather furniture. With Calvin, it’s granite, glass and chrome," Margolis said. "Tommy Bahama is rattan, sisal — and sand between your toes."

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