Known primarily for its drawstring sweatpants and T-shirts, Hard Tail can no longer be called just an activewear knits company. Owners Dick and Patty Cantrell are taking their 11-year-old business into new territory.

Don’t let the stylish ease or signature comfort of Hard Tail’s garments fool you. Behind the relaxed facade of the casualwear is an enterprising husband-and-wife duo of owners — Dick and Patty Cantrell — who can’t stop working. They haven’t vacationed in 11 years, since the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company launched.

Now, the fruits of their labor are yielding new ventures. At WWDMAGIC, Hard Tail will unveil corduroy in two bottoms styles and in a jeans-style jacket with buckles and asymmetric pocket treatments. Prints, a departure for the line, appear in a faded camouflage design on zip-up hoodies, one-shoulder tops and micro-miniskirts.

In the pipeline is a test phase for a new intimates category and an in-house denim line. Even retail stores are a possibility, said Dick Cantrell.

“So many apparel companies don’t make it after a year or two, and we think it’s because they slow down,” he said. “We’ve slowed down to 100- to 120-hour workweeks, but it’s still a killer, killer business. We think we can keep growing by expanding wisely.”

It’s this unflinching commitment to the business that has propelled the company — worn by hard tails such as Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Cher and Heather Locklear — to more than $30 million in sales this year, with a 20 percent increase expected in 2004.

You could say Hard Tail was prescient. The line’s breadth and depth in activewear knits, which spans more than 1,000 bodies, 100 colors and 60 fabrics, predates the Juicy Couture mania that followed the launch of its track suit in spring 2001 and helped lead to Liz Claiborne Inc.’s purchase of Juicy in March.

Fittingly, the Dallas Market Center has nominated Hard Tail, along with Juicy Couture and Bella Dahl, in the young contemporary category for the 2003 Dallas Fashion Awards.

Even with more than 1,000 retail accounts, including Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Planet Blue in Malibu, Calif., and Gold’s Gym, Cantrell doesn’t envision a buyout in step with Juicy, yet.“Obviously, that’s the ring everyone goes for,” he said. “People call all the time, but very few are serious. There are only a few Liz Claibornes, but it would be nice if Liz would have interest in a few years.”

The Cantrells decided to return to the apparel business after a six-year hiatus following the sale of their six retail stores in Hawaii. Dick Cantrell, a former Air Force fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, wanted to incorporate the tattoos of his military days into an edgy line of T-shirts and tank tops for women. That’s why he chose the name Hard Tail, seizing on its reference to the military and posteriors of comely women.

“We were seeking physically fit women, those who felt comfortable showing a shoulder here, an abdomen there,” he said. “We’re never nasty, but always sexy.”

Drawstring pull-on bottoms evolved with Patty Cantrell’s frustration with bulky sweatpants. That helped lead to the use of myriad fabrics, including fleece, ribbed, mesh and rayon, in the line. Texture is important, Cantrell said, allowing the customer to mix and match looks rather than dress in a uniform way.

A customer may wear a velour cargo-style bottom, a cotton tank and a quilted, diamond-designed zip-up hoodie, as seen in the company’s new ad campaign hitting September issues of Glamour, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and eight other women’s and teen magazines.

Unique to the firm is its garment-dyed product. White cotton items are shipped straight to dye houses for a bath in colors and blends borrowed from sherbets, rainbows, M&M’s and Starbursts — shades that change every quarter and give retailers a chance to differentiate their stores.

“The line caters to customers of all ages,” said Valerie Revere, owner of the Twist boutique in Southampton, N.Y. “If I’m ordering a pant, I may order it in darker shades such as black, navy and olive for the older customer and light blue and pink for the younger customer.”

A flattering fit that conforms to the body makes the product appealing to exercise buffs as well. The decision to sell to gyms and yoga studios — which account for 20 percent of revenues — early on has only helped lend authenticity to the brand.Popular with buyers for fall is the two-year-old roll-over waist treatment that continues to sell out in shorts, pants and skirts, especially in the yoga circuit. Velour jeans-style jackets and long quilted jackets with stand-up collars and double zippers are a few of the dressier looks of the collection also selling well, as are snowboard-inspired styles with tapered knees and angled back pockets. Prices typically wholesale from $10 to $25 for tops and $20 to $40 for bottoms.

Retailers report that customers routinely pick up a handful of styles, which helps explain the slavish devotion many exhibit toward Hard Tail.

“We have a mailing list of Hard Tail customers in the thousands, and we mail them to announce a new shipment and they just line up at the door,” said Fred Levine, co-owner of M. Frederic, a Los Angeles-area 19-store contemporary chain with seven activewear units carrying Hard Tail.

A 17-year background on the retail side of the business has served the Cantrells well, but they don’t profess to know it all. At one point, they sold the Hard Tail line to 34 countries, but they pulled out of a number of European shows when the dollar’s value soared. A sales rep stationed in Amsterdam now manages the foreign market. And their denim licensing arrangement with Blue Tattoo Jeans Inc. ended about a year ago.

Now that they plan on doing denim in-house, plus with intimates up next, the pace of business is ever quickening. Even so, the Cantrells make time for their date night on Saturdays, when they head to the Westwood area of Los Angeles for a movie. Customer research is a benefit from the outing, when they usually see young bodies sporting their clothes, though Patty Cantrell keeps a check on the extent of the reconnaissance. “You can’t be an old guy checking out 14-year-old butts — it’s lecherous,” she declared.

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