BRINGING LIFE TO BELLA DAHL

Byline: Katherine Bowers

LOS ANGELES — Tanned and fit from the tennis courts, Jolna Design Group chief executive officer Kerry Jolna shows no sign of the state’s energy crisis and the national retail slump that has many of his peers stressed out.
Jolna has reasons to be sunny. Revenues of his contemporary label Bella Dahl are on pace to reach $10 million in 2002, a stellar performance considering when Jolna retrieved the label from bankruptcy in November 2000, revenues were at $1.3 million.
At the same time, sales from Jolna Apparel Group, the Mexico-based denim operation run by his brother, Steven, grew tenfold in 2001 and is on track to do more than $25 million in 2002. Jolna Apparel Group recently switched from moderate denim to producing branded goods for several junior and contemporary labels.
Jolna attributed the growth to the company’s repositioning in categories where margins are healthier.
“We were selling jeans for the price of a sandwich,” said Jolna, describing how he knew it was time to get out of the moderate game after 13 years.
Bella Dahl’s success lies particularly in its positioning in apparel’s hot categories: denim and stylish activewear knits.
The brand’s low-rise drawstring pants with “butt stars” have sold well in trendy boutiques such as Lisa Kline and Theodore’s on Rodeo Drive. Several department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, are testing the label for January deliveries.
The denim also has a following. Celebrity stylist Jessica Paster called the jeans’ fit “absolutely beautiful” and has converted clients Heather Graham and Jewel into fans. Among the label’s top styles are jeans with side zippers from ankle to knee, and a button-fly number with a yoke back. Jeans wholesale from $52 to $56, with specialty pieces as high as $62.
The washes are clean, with light whiskering and a slub finish. Jolna made note of the engineered waist, which prevents unseemly gapping at the back, demonstrating it on a model going through contortions.
Bella Dahl’s denim is 4 percent stretch, as opposed to the standard 2 percent, which also cuts down on gapping. Sportswear pieces such as zip hoodies and candy-striped fitted jackets mix back to the denim.
Even Sept. 11 didn’t derail the brand. According to Jolna, the Sun Valley, Calif.-based label had its highest shipping months in October and November. The company will donate the proceeds from sales of a red hoodie with a star and the words New York — a style on the line before the World Trade Center tragedy — to benefit 9/11 charities.
The style was “too close to home and we felt uncomfortable benefiting from it,” said Jolna, pegging the donation at $25,000.
The Bella Dahl story is one of an arranged marriage proving more fruitful than anyone anticipated. According to Jolna, CIT Commercial Services paired Bella Dahl and its founders with Jolna Design Group in an attempt to resuscitate the bankrupt label’s fortunes. Executives with CIT, which has since been purchased by Tyco Capital, declined comment.
The transition hasn’t been without its bumps along the way. After an acrimonious parting with Bella Dahl founders Jeffrey and Kymberly Lubell, Jolna filed a lawsuit charging misappropriation of trade secrets when the Lubells launched a competing line. The Lubells countered with a lawsuit alleging breach of fiduciary duty, among other charges. The cases are pending.
Despite the legal wrangling, the brand has emerged with a strong market reputation. The only quibble retailers offered was that they couldn’t get shipped fast enough.
“There were periods we didn’t have enough stuff where we could have still been rocking goods out,” said boutique owner Lisa Kline.
To remedy this, Jolna has boosted capacity 40 percent among the network of domestic sewing shops that the brand uses. He said he will not shift production to the company’s Mexico facilities because of the handwork required on the line.
“Because of the fabrics and stylings, we need to do all the work here,” said Jolna, pulling a mint-green corduroy jacket off a rack to show hand sandblasting.
He plans to capitalize on the label’s momentum, breaking a T-shirt line in January and a woven tops division shortly thereafter.
The T-shirt line will use novelty washes and fabrics that Jolna said are unusual for the category. Among those is Touch, a new cotton and Lycra spandex blend from a European mill. Instead of being garment dyed, the fabric will be pigment printed, a process that uses half the amount of dye. Wholesale prices will range from $17 to $22.
“With this process, when you print and wash it down, you get white in between the color,” he said, with the end result being a “vintagey kind of feel, as if it had been in your closet for seven years.”
Jolna is hoping that Bella Dahl is just act one.
“A lot of these little companies that are very design driven don’t know how to turn product and get the margin they need,” he said.
Although he declined to specify which designers are on his radar, Jolna said he expects to ink such a deal in the next six to 12 months.

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