What would Tommy do?
This story first appeared in the July 18, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That was the question that Tommy Bahama founders asked themselves over and over again as their vision of the beachcombing globe-trotter started to take shape more than two decades ago.
“The inspiration for this started on Hickory Island near Naples, Fla., where I bought a beachfront condo in the Seventies,” recalled Bob Emfield, one of the three founders, along with Tony Margolis and Lucio Dalla Gasperina. His “lifelong friend” Margolis asked if there was another unit in the area and ended up purchasing the condo on the floor above.
The peaceful and restful life they found on Hickory Island was intoxicating and a far cry from their lives working for Britannia and Generra Sportswear. They dreamed of what it would be like to stay there full-time, and the seed of an idea started to germinate.
“My wife and I got to talking about this guy who was dragging a lawn chair and a margarita to the beach with a cigar in his pocket while we were dragging our suitcases to the car to go back to the airport,” Emfield said. They came up with the name Tommy Bahama and a vivid description of a fictitious character who lived the good life they aspired to lead.
“Tony and I were involved with Generra, and we knew after seven or eight years that the handwriting was on the wall,” Emfield said. “The brand was getting old and tired, and we didn’t have the answer for what would prolong its life.”
They exited the company, with Margolis expecting to go into the real estate business in Connecticut and Emfield hoping to start a bone-fishing camp in the Florida Keys.
“But Tony never went to real estate class, and I never went to the Keys,” he said. “Then Tony called one day and asked: ‘Do you still have the file on that island guy? It’s time we get serious about this.’ ”
Emfield said that while they had a thick file on what Tommy ate, drank, smoked and did for fun and relaxation. But ironically for these apparel executives, they hadn’t thought about what he would wear.
So they contacted Gasperina, whom Margolis had met at a cocktail party, arranged to sit down at a hotel in New York and agreed to partner up and launch the brand.
“Through the design process, Lucio added depth and presence,” he said. “Although we used the Caribbean as our influence, we didn’t want to be confused as just another printed, woven Hawaiian shirtmaker.”
In actuality, Emfield said, the brand saw itself more as a pants resource than a tops vendor. “Everybody thinks of it as printed camp shirts, but we knew that most companies that last are bottoms companies,” he said.
So Tommy Bahama opted to offer silk bottoms when everyone else was doing cotton and set the brand apart by bringing the Tommy Bahama vision to life for retailers. Their booths at the MAGIC trade shows replicated an island shack, complete with palm trees and straw roofs. They agonized over names for their products, including the Casino deck short, the Key Largo cargo and the Fish Bone pant. “That’s what took us from 10 to 50 to 110 stores, including Nordstrom and Von Maur,” he said. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand.
When the brand was finally sold to Oxford Industries, the founders stayed on for five years to help with the transition. “Your concern when it’s your baby is someone else is going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but Oxford has done a great job,” Emfield said. “They let us run the company and pass the baton, and the process has worked out well. The Peter Principle finally kicked in for us. We were tapped to the max and it was time to go.”
Emfield, 71, and Margolis, 70, are now retired, and the 55-year-old Gasperina owns a vineyard in Napa. “He calls himself a farmer, because he grows grapes,” he chuckled.
The three still keep in touch, go on trips together and try to meet up in Vegas twice a year, where they always visit with the current Tommy Bahama management.
Doug Wood, the current president and chief operating officer of Tommy Bahama, who has been with the brand since 2001, said: “They gave us a great foundation and a great brand. They’re all successful and competent guys, but they didn’t hang around at all. Lucio just told me, ‘Dougie, keep it going’ and walked out the door.”