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Fashion : Skateboard Is Ticket From Sporty Rags to Corporate Riches

October 04, 1989|NEIL FEINEMAN

Thirteen years ago, Brad Dorfman sold skateboards out of his car. Today he owns Vision, a skateboard and fashion company with more than 700 employees and an annual gross of more than $60 million.

While he has competitors--Powell Corp. in Santa Barbara and Alva Products in San Juan Capistrano are perhaps the toughest--Dorfman is widely considered to be the man who took skate fashion beyond T-shirts, shorts and sweats. Of course, he designs his share of such items--"skate rags" as they're called by the amateurs and pros who wear them. But he also makes a separate collection of clothes for dressier occasions.

"Skate rags are fine most of the time," says Bryan Jordan, who, as a skateboarder in his early 20s, may be a typical Vision customer. "But sometimes you want to take a girl to dinner or go to a club. You can do that with Vision clothes, but still feel like a skater."

Making dressier clothes to satisfy the casual fashion tastes of people like Jordan is an unusual mission. As might be expected, Dorfman is an unusual corporate executive.

At 39, he wears his graying brown hair well past his shoulders, and goes to board meetings in high-top sneakers. His idea of formal wear is a dark jacket and a white shirt with safety pins stuck through the collar as decorative trim--no necktie. It's the sort of outfit you'd expect to see on his best customers, who are considerably younger. The age range of a typical skater is somewhere between 10 and 25.

He says the youthful nature of his business is part of its appeal. "I've always loved skateboarding and wanted to stay involved in it," he says. He regularly takes a spin on his board, through the vast Vision warehouse in Santa Ana where he spends most days. "It allows me to stay in touch with kids. Besides, it's nice to come to work wearing shorts and a T-shirt."

Of all the street-worthy interpretations of skateboard garb in Dorfman's latest collection, his "mean jeans" with their frayed edges and padded knees are the most popular.

Other favorites in his current line are the wildly colored high-top sneakers, T-shirts, sweats and shorts which, organized in different combinations, make it possible to style any outfit way up or way down.

"Vision is a leader in skate wear because they placed their research and money in the market earlier than anyone else, and they stay close to their roots," says Brad Bonhall, senior editor of Action Sports Retail, the leading trade magazine of the action sports industry.

Clothes, however, are less than half the total picture of Dorfman's empire. Vision also manufacturers skateboards, snow boards and optional hardwear to style up a skater's performance. There is also an entertainment division which markets video cassettes and syndicated television programs on high-risk sports.

"It is not as if I started out with some master plan," Dorfman says, in vast understatement. He got into the business in the mid '70s while shopping for a new skateboard. After a conversation with the owner of a sporting-goods store, the man offered him a job. Dorfman accepted, but left the job several months later to peddle his own line of skateboard hardware.

"I went to the trade shows alone, schlepping the boxes on planes and buses," he says. "I couldn't afford a display, and hung the merchandise from curtains and tables."

Gradually, he added products and employees. He started the fashion line in 1986.

Now he sees movie actors wearing his Vision label. His designs were worn in several recent films, including "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Earth Girls Are Easy."

Rock groups have taken to the clothes as well. Members of The Cult, The Cure, INXS and Aerosmith have worn dark-colored versions of the dressier Vision line in their videos and on album covers.

Eccentric Antiques

To the victor comes the spoils. In Dorfman's case, they include two houses in Newport; a dozen antique vehicles, including several Harley-Davidsons; collections of Andy Warhol lithographs, and eccentric antiques--from mannequins to bowling pins.

But Dorfman says possessions are no substitute for real fun. And his sprawling business keeps him from enjoying his expensive toys. Oddly, he wasn't expecting that.

"Even though I am best at marketing and promotion, I am spending most of my time on administrative problems," he says. "Unless I make some changes I will distance myself even more from the creative end of the business."

"More than anything else," he says, "I need to have fun again."

On the face of it, that doesn't seem so difficult. But with a business the size of his hanging in the balance, recapturing that sense of fun may be the true test of Dorfman's vision.

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