ALTERNATIVE LINES ON A ROLL
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — “Hi, this is Weezi. I can’t take your call right now. I’m a little busy. I’m out looking for $1 million. So leave a message and when I get back I’ll call you. See ya.”
That’s the message callers hear on the answering machine of Lisa Gaverluck, owner and designer of Weezi, a Montreal activewear label, who is looking for an investor to help her break into the U.S. market.
As an entrepreneur catering to young adults interested in alternative sports, Gaverluck is not alone in the quest to build volume. Serving up new labels, offering more styles and playing up grass-roots marketing are among the strategies.
For such labels as Birth, Conspiracy and The Good Line, developing functional, stylish looks for aggressive in-line skaters is key. (See related story, page 12.) Their executives practice an innovative approach to business where jargon is rampant, sales pitches are slow and trade show booths often look more like clubhouses than work spaces. Clearly, maintaining a certain comfort level is important. But they’re also serious about business.
Birth, a Minneapolis firm, plans to introduce its first line of apparel for female aggressive in-line skaters before the end of the year. The 12-piece collection, which will wholesale from $9 for a halter to $27.50 for pants, is expected to generate $250,000 in sales in its first 12 months, said 23-year-old Chris Edwards, president.
Edwards, a professional aggressive in-line skater, founded Birth five years ago in his parents’ garage.
“We gave more away than we sold back then. The sport wasn’t super big,” he said.
“No one was doing clothing dedicated to aggressive in-line skating. Now is the time for aggressive in-line skating. We’re seeing more women at competitions really pushing it.”
Fueled by grass-roots marketing and some mainstream advertising, this year’s sales of Birth men’s line should exceed $1 million — compared with $300,000 in 1996, Edwards said.
Beginning in January, Edwards and his wife, Lisa, plan to spend at least a year traveling cross-country to distribute stickers and catalogs at skate parks, competitions and skate shops. Last year 60,000 stickers were distributed — compared with 20,000 in 1994.
“We do a lot of promoting, but we prefer the grass-roots approach,” Edwards said. “It’s real, pure and true. We’re not just floating a banner saying, ‘Hey, hey we’re the best.”‘
The strategy should help the company increase its account base from 100 to 500 by the end of June, he added.
In February, Rocwear, a Naples, Fla., firm that produces men’s activewear for aggressive in-line skaters under the Depart label, is branching out with another men’s line called The Good Line.
With wholesale prices ranging from $8.50 for a T-shirt to $36 for cargo pants, the 12-style collection is expected to be popular with women, who already account for 10 percent of Depart’s customer base, said Linda Rice, president.
“More women are interested in fashion that is coming out of the skate industry. That’s the look of Tommy Hilfiger, Lucky Brand and other jeans lines,” she said. “It’s happening here and in Europe.”
Aimed at mainstream retailers like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, The Good Line is being introduced in part to protect the cool image of Depart.
“We didn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Rice said. “Once a line goes mainstream, it’s no longer cool for skaters to wear.”
Both lines are designed by Eli LeGate, a 14-year-old aggressive in-line skater who started selling jeans door-to-door two years ago in Henderson, Ky., to raise money to build a skate park. The park isn’t built yet, but LeGate is now a partner at Rocwear.
Pockets for personal pagers and hammer loops are special design features used by LeGate. After other aggressive in-line skaters test the apparel, their feedback is incorporated into his designs.
Chris Garrett, another aggressive in-line skater who is president of Fiction, a Huntington Beach, Calif., activewear maker, plans to introduce a women’s collection before the end of the year. T-shirts, shorts and sweaters will be featured. The line should generate $75,000 in sales in the first 12 months, Garrett said.
Meanwhile, this year’s sales of the men’s line should exceed $750,000, compared with $125,000 in 1996. Advertising in aggressive in-line skating magazines has helped business, Garrett said.
“The business is so young it’s hard to tell how much it will grow,” said Garrett, who is 21. “We want to build the industry by creating a foundation with small specialty stores. We’re not interested in going mainstream or getting overpublicized.”
To maintain her skateboard line’s hip image, Gaverluck of Weezi said she has been “slow and cautious about growth.”
Having fine-tuned her 12-piece line with more fashion-forward looks such as cargo pants with contrast stitching and long A-line skirts, Weezi is now looking for an investor. One American specialty store chain could double her business beyond its current rate of $200,000, she said.
For spring, Tribe of Huntington Beach, Calif., plans to introduce a 15-piece women’s line under its 976 label. It will wholesale from $8.50 for a T-shirt to $27 for a polyester stretch satin jumpsuit. A dozen people are being hired to sell the line to surf shops, department stores and independent skate shops. First-year projected wholesale volume for the women’s line is $3 million, said Marien Hansen, sample product manager.
This spring, Senate, another one of the company’s labels, attracted a lot of attention for its T-shirts featuring a care label imprinted with “Destroy All Girls.” Once spotted by a buyer at Galyan’s Trading Co., the T-shirts, as well as all other Senate merchandise, were sent back. But publicity generated by the controversy caused sales “to go off the Richter scale,” and annual volume is expected to double to $10 million, Hansen said.
Offering more women’s activewear is part of the company’s plan to “polish up” its image with women, she said.
Next month, Tasha Hodgson, a BMX rider who endorses 976, will appear in ads. In the next 12 months, 976 will invest $180,000 in advertising for the line, Hansen said.
Having introduced its first T-shirts and sweatshirts line in July, Conspiracy, a Norfolk, Conn., distributor, is currently looking for a contractor to develop cut-and-sewn activewear for aggressive in-line skaters, said Bruce Lyon, president.
The line is aimed at men between the ages of 14 and 25, but there are cropped tops for women in that age range as well.
Conspiracy sponsors three male and two female professional aggressive in-line skaters.
“In the aggressive skate market, image is everything. It comes down to where and how your riders represent you,” Lyon said.
“Nothing represents you more than the clothing they wear,” he said.
The company’s name, which was suggested by one of Lyon’s friends who works for Senate, sends out another message, Lyons said.
“My parents’ generation bought everything that was fed to them. My generation is considerably less trusting, and the generation below me is even more so that way,” said the 33-year-old Lyons. “All we’re trying to say is, ‘Think for yourself.”‘