LOS ANGELES — It’s not easy being a one-hit wonder. Just ask BC Ethic.
To be sure, the Vernon, Calif.–based apparel company’s poly/rayon lounge shirts made an indelible mark on the ’90s. Matthew Perry donned them on Friends, as did the underemployed actors in Swingers, who cruised around L.A. and Las Vegas with empty wallets and unbridled charm. By 1999, BC Ethic had seduced enough men with its vintage vibe to ring up $24.5 million in net sales.
But a fad is a fad, of course. “When you’ve got a big light shining on only a certain part of your line, everyone forgets the rest of it,” says Mark Zacher, who came on board at BC Ethic in 1995 as a sales manager and now co-owns the brand with partner James Huber.
In a rebranding push that hits retailers this month, the company that began as a tribute to calloused and sunburned blue-collar workers of the ’50s is now singing a different tune. “The brand is still rich in Americana,” says Ivan Alvarez, BC Ethic’s 36-year-old head designer. “But we’re doing away with the whole gas station-y feel. And no more lounge. It’s harder edge, without a lot of rattiness.”
The mantra for BC Ethic’s latest iteration, “Loud, Fast & Outta’ Control,” is evident in the brand’s rock-inspired, tailored fit and new partnerships with envelope-pushing merchandising partners. Lounge shirts, rugged bomber jackets and retro bowling shirts have been cast aside, replaced by $89 slim-fit, pinstripe wool pants with cargo pockets and $45 long-sleeved raglan shirts made of Peruvian cotton slub and adorned with tattoo flash art. “If we had our druthers, we’d be the type of brand that makes you want to lock up your daughters,” Alvarez jokes. “But we want to make it dangerous without being too alienating.”
For good reason. BC Ethic is caught in a typical fashion dilemma: How does the brand stoke interest with a younger crop of guys while maintaining interest among core customers, most of whom have long since graduated from the “swingers” lifestyle? Pare down disparate lines and multiple logo styles, for starters. The collection’s two branding tiers, premium and standard, have been funneled into a more cohesive look. And the line’s “V-Star” shield logo—a staple since BC Ethic was founded in 1992 by Agave creator Jeff Shafer and Trunk co-founder Ty Bowers—has been scrapped for a black-and-red American flag design with a hand-sanded, worn-in feel (the star component of the shield logo remains, however). “We’ve always been looking for that shiny new thing, and that’s led us into a million directions,” says Jim Baltutis, BC Ethic’s vice-president of marketing and a former publicist for Warner Music who has played a key role in re-orienting the brand. “We’re trying to make things more focused.”
Bottoms, hoodies, sweaters and other higher-ticket items in the updated line will be sold at Nordstrom, Fred Segal, Metropark and other boutiques, Baltutis says, while T-shirts and denim will be sold at youth-oriented chain retailers like Zumiez and The Buckle.
Though the line has slipped into relative retail obscurity in recent years, Huber says BC Ethic has rebounded from its darkest days in 2001, when sales plummeted to $7 million, debt escalated to almost $3 million and layoffs winnowed the company’s staff from 90 employees down to a paltry 15. In a contentious departure, Shafer was bought out of the company and resigned as CEO that same year. Bowers later decamped in 2003, and is now the president of Vessel, a new men’s knitwear line.
Despite the company’s executive upheaval, Huber asserts overall sales increased to $20 million by 2005 and topped out at $28 million last year, due in part to greater penetration and shelf position in U.S. and Japanese retail stores. Huber and Zacher have invested “into the seven figures range” of their own capital to buoy the brand.
“One of the things I’ve learned in the garment industry is that you have to be willing to go through highs and lows to keep a steady hand,” Huber says. “[Zacher] and I are also big proponents of a non-hierarchal system when we manage people. It’s more of a player-coach situation, and we’re very nimble now because of that.”
BC Ethic’s licensed brand portfolio also remains extensive. Managed by BC Ethic’s parent company, BrandLab, the portfolio includes legendary autos like Shelby, nightclubs like The Viper Room and rock bands like AC/DC.
But Baltutis says he hopes BC Ethic’s rock update will invigorate its branded product: “[Licensing] isn’t a bad business, but in order to build a brand, we’re going to need something more than a Rolling Stones T-shirt,” he says.
What the company needs, he adds, is something a little more risqué. BC Ethic tells DNR that the company plans to manufacture a men’s apparel line for SuicideGirls, the nonconformist pinup girl Web site based in Los Angeles.
SuicideGirls cofounder Missy Suicide says the partnership with BC Ethic was a no-brainer: “Our line is for the guy who’s a tastemaker in their area and appreciates details. We were looking for someone to take over much of our retail line, and chose [BC Ethic] because they handle a lot of customization—weighted zipper pulls, soft printing—not just basic stuff,” she says.
SuicideGirls Collection, or SGC, will feature T-shirts, hoodies and lounge pants, all subtly imprinted with the alt porn purveyor’s logo. A sampling of SGC product will debut at the LENY Londonedge show in New York later this month, with a complete line expected for fall 2008.
The collaboration with SuicideGirls caused a few furrowed brows at BC Ethic, particularly when Suicide recently showed up at BC’s 60,000-square-foot headquarters for a photo shoot with SG model StellaBlue and one of the company’s vintage Shelby Mustang GT500 muscle cars. But Baltutis says any dissent is inevitable as the brand evolves. “If people weren’t questioning it, then I wouldn’t be taking enough risk,” he says. “But is SG going to carry BC Ethic? No. We’re adventurous, but we’re not looking to go off the Richter Scale. We’re blue collar.”