Southern Tide's Jacksonville, Fla., store.

Allen Stephenson was a senior in college in 2006 when he came up with the idea of creating a colorful polo shirt with a skipjack fish as its logo.

The Greenville, S.C., native started to make inroads in the South before hitting the trade show circuit in New York — with his mother by his side — to offer a Southern-skewed sportswear alternative to the ubiquitous closet staple.

The brand’s business continued to grow and eventually caught the attention of Oxford Industries, which purchased the label for $85 million in 2016. Southern Tide had used Oxford for sourcing and production when it was independent so it was already familiar with the brand and believed it had potential.

Since then, Southern Tide has expanded into a full collection of men’s, women’s and children’s sportswear and accessories, soft blazers and home products. It also has a large collegiate program, and its annual sales increased to $45.2 million in fiscal 2018 with operating income of $5.7 million.

Today, Southern Tide will open its first company-owned store in Jacksonville, Fla. The 2,000-square-foot boutique is located at the St. Johns Town Center.

The brand actually has more than a dozen “signature stores,” which started opening two-and-a-half years ago. Those are operated by local retail partners and span the country with locations that include Kiawah Island and Greenville, S.C.; Raleigh and Asheville, N.C.; Vero Beach, Naples and Amelia Island, Fla., and Chatham, Nantucket, Mashpee and Lynnfield, Mass. This marks the first store owned and operated by Southern Tide.

Christopher Heyn, an apparel industry veteran who has served as Southern Tide’s chief executive officer since 2014, said the signature stores were the brand’s way of “getting closer to having our own branded stores.”

He said the plan going forward is to add more retail units — both company-owned and signature — in locations conducive to attracting a premium customer who can relate to Southern Tide’s coastal lifestyle aesthetic.

The brand uses the skipjack as its logo.

The brand uses the skipjack as its logo. 

“We plan to open more stores, but in a pragmatic way,” Heyn said. “Retail is the best way to tell our narrative to the customer.” He said the plan next year is to open four more signature stores as well as company-owned stores in the “the midsingle digits.”

Heyn, who spent a decade with Nautica and served as ceo of Summit Golf Brands before joining Southern Tide, said by operating its own stores, Southern Tide can become “a better brand to other retailers.” In fiscal 2018, 16 percent of the brand’s overall sales were to department stores and there are more than 1,000 specialty store customers.

Although it continues to grow — in the second quarter, net sales were up 5.9 percent to $12.5 million on operating income of $1.8 million, a jump of 29.2 percent over the same quarter of 2018 — Southern Tide still represented just 4 percent of Oxford’s overall revenue last year. Oxford’s biggest brands are Tommy Bahama and Lilly Pulitzer. So there’s lots of room to grow.

Using retail stores as a vehicle to that growth makes sense now that the brand has expanded its reach beyond its signature stretch polo shirt with the chubby fish logo. It has not only expanded its presence at golf shops and resorts, but has also partnered with brands including the Hawaiian heritage label Reyn Spooner on a sportswear collection, as well as sneaker brand SeaVees and skin-care brand Fulton & Roark for footwear and fragrance respectively — both new categories for the brand.

Looking ahead to next year, Heyn said the plan is to continue expanding Southern Tide’s collegiate program — it has a licensed apparel program with more than 90 universities around the U.S. and has hosted a popular Tailgate Tour to sell its wares to students and alumni at big college football games. Additional collaborations are also in the cards with like-minded brands that will allow Southern Tide to dabble in new classifications such as scarves, Heyn said.

Although the core customer continues to be 22 to 42, the brand now appeals to a wider range of people, he said. And while coastal communities continue to be a mainstay, Southern Tide has also seen significant growth in markets such as Texas, Oklahoma and Chicago, he said.

“We started with sportswear and updated casual men’s wear. Now we have 12 classifications and women’s is over 20 percent of the business,” Heyn said. “We think there’s a lot of business still to be done.”

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