ON THE HEELS OF ITS 30TH ANNIVERSARY, OPAC IS RIDING THE WAVE TO CALIFORNIA COOLNESS, WITH NEW LINES, ESTUTE MARKETING AND A SURF-SAVVY CEO.
Byline: Rose Apodaca Jones
When Richard A. Baker arrived at Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp.’s headquarters in 1997, the new chief executive officer was charged with the challenge of resuscitating a once-legendary surf brand whose bottom line — and image — had been floundering for much of the decade.
Granted, the entire surf industry had been struggling to regain its market share of the euphoric Eighties, when everyone and their cousin in Kansas wanted to look the part. OpAC, based in Irvine, Calif., reached a high of $400 million wholesale volume during that era. But by the early Nineties, it fell to $70 million and out of favor among a public who had moved on to the next trend. The brand, founded in 1972 by a pair of surfers, had also lost its cool factor among hard-core surf shops due to miscalculations in going mass.
As if that wasn’t daunting enough, Baker himself was an outsider in a community that puts a premium on being core. If you don’t surf, you can’t possibly know the industry, goes the myth. Forget that knowing how to surf doesn’t guarantee a successful business. Even Op was proof of that, having filed for bankruptcy in 1992 with a board rider at the helm.
The mild-mannered Baker was a relative unknown in this niche, but not in the apparel business. His three-decade career started at Bullock’s, then shifted into the wholesale arena, as he moved through a succession of top gigs in New York, including executive vice president of Eagle Shirtmakers’ Pierre Cardin sportswear and dress shirts division, president and chief operating officer of Winston Mills Inc.’s Marithe & Francois Girbaud division (when the company held the U.S. license to produce the line) and ceo and president of Izod Ltd.’s men’s wear.
Most in the surf industry only knew of him as a transplant of New York, where, as president of Tommy Hilfiger’s women’s division, he helmed the expansion of Tommy Hilfiger product through licensing agreements, which grossed $100 million in the junior line’s first year.
Baker is actually a California native. But growing up in the San Fernando Valley, an inland suburb north of Los Angeles and a world away from the coastline culture, didn’t help his cause. “I was seen by some as an outsider,” he readily admitted recently. “So when I came here, I got involved.”
Less than five years later, OpAC is expecting $240 million in wholesale volume this year — a sixfold increase since Baker arrived. As the company celebrates its 30th anniversary, it’s back in core surf shops, including Jack’s in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Channel Island Surfboards in Santa Barbara, Calif. Tellingly, the brand can also sell at doors as disparate as J.C. Penney, Nordstrom, Hot Topic and PacSun. Even arbiters of cool Fred Segal in Santa Monica, American Rag in Los Angeles and Urban Outfitters have picked up the Op Classic line.
What’s more, the 55-year-old is hanging with the surfer dudes. He’s president of the Orange County, Calif.-based Surf Industry Manufacturing Association, a role he assumed in 2000.
“I think he’s done an incredible job reinventing an original and authentic surf brand,” said Peter (PT) Townend, publisher of Primedia’s Surfing Group titles and a Hall of Famer surf champion. “Dick’s our token New York surf suit. He’s completely absorbed the culture. He even bought a beach house, and his kids surf. He’s succeeded me as SIMA president, and he’s done a great job of rallying the troops and ushering in a new era.”
The kudos extend beyond his peers.
Baker will receive the Creative Leadership Award from Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design at its annual gala on May 6 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. “I have a tremendous respect for him for reviving Ocean Pacific,” said Rosemary Brantley, founding chair of the Otis School of Fashion. “We like to use Op’s new tag line ‘Get It On’ here.”
Past recipients include Quiksilver ceo Robert McKnight, who Baker volunteers is his “role model.” Baker said McKnight has “done such a wonderful job with bringing credibility to surf as a lifestyle brand and linking it to the larger fashion design world.”
Baker, too, can accept credit for successfully expanding consumer perception of Op as a lifestyle brand. While he’s quick to note that he’s just begun to actualize the possibilities through the company’s 28 licensees and counting and distribution in 83 countries, he has managed to broaden the company’s product portfolio to home, accessories, fragrance and clothes for every member of the family. “We’re hitting all cylinders,” enthused Baker, who credits his tenure in the mid-Eighties as president of Esprit Sport, followed by Esprit Women’s Wear, for much of his “education of seeing the big picture of a global lifestyle brand.”
“It changed the way I looked at everything — business, aesthetics, style, taste,” he said. (It’s also where he met his wife, an Esprit designer, and he was with Esprit when they had the first of two children.)
While his predecessors spoke of focusing on the generation that grew up on the brand’s signature cord shorts and terry polo shirts, Baker’s instinct for the brand’s survival lead him to first gain ground with youth, who — whether they were from the beach or not — were more interested in fashion than ever.
A sleeker, modern logo was redesigned for the Wallpaper magazine generation, intended to join pop culture’s iconographic vernacular. And OpPro, an athletic-oriented line that is marketed heavily via surf events sponsorships, was heavily plugged. But the strategy was to broaden its identity beyond surfing.
For those who’ve been there, worn that, the company reintroduced the spelled-out Ocean Pacific label on a line of more sophisticated resort- and casualwear.
At press time, a women’s licensee for Ocean Pacific, which bowed in January exclusively in Penney’s and targets a 25- to 45-year-old customer, was close to being signed, and Baker expects deals in Ocean Pacific footwear and luggage to happen within the year. Baker said the company is on “the brand acquisition hunt” to continue strengthening OpAC as a youth lifestyle source. It’s made bids in the past to that end, before and since Baker arrived on the scene (among its best known is hot Eighties surf phenom Jimmy’Z, which it sold in 1992). And the search continues. “We’re looking for compatible brands that fit into this modern lifestyle for kids, Baker said. “Skate, snowboarding and surf are the baseball, basketball and football of the new millennium, obviously not just in the sports, but the fashion sector.”
On the horizon is the Seven2 line, which OpAC will launch this fall. The line’s moniker is based on the company’s founding year, 1972. Skateboarding, street style and music influence the denim-driven collection, targeting young men ages 16 to 21. The line’s first public unveiling is via its sponsorship of a pay-per-view program June 30 of a skateboard competition.
For Baker, a partner in the San Francisco-based investment group Doyle & Boissiere, which acquired OpAC from Berkeley International Capital Corp. in 1998, there’s inevitably more on the line than a job.
“When I look back at companies I’ve been involved in, a common theme emerges: They all required some form of reconstruction, repositioning — either as a brand or category. The opportunity to come to California took a lot of people by surprise. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a real labor of love. But it’s been about staying true to what I know and what Op is about.”