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FASHION : In the Mood : Colorful shirts that change hues in response to body heat are a hot item.

April 25, 1991|AURORA MACKEY ARMSTRONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's nothing unusual about fashion designers squabbling over who was first with an idea. And it's certainly a common occurrence that manufacturers come out with the same trendy item at the same time. But when the fashion item in question is introduced by a Barbie doll--and is being touted as "the ultimate breakthrough in fashion technology"--now that's a different matter.

The breakthrough, in this case, doesn't have anything to do with style. It seems that a Japanese company recently came up with a fabric dye that changes color in response to body heat. A shirt dipped in the solution can go from light to bright pink, from green to white, from blue to purple, from brown to yellow and a rainbow of other combinations.

I first heard about it from Thomas Tobin, a Port Hueneme businessman who dropped by my office to tell me about a new line of "thermo-chromatic" T-shirts he was producing. One had a rainbow on the front with a slogan promoting world peace; another had a Desert Storm soldier, whose uniform would turn from boot-bottom brown to orange, and the slogan "Support American Military Efforts." I suppose it is good for a start-up business to cover all of its bases.

Although Tobin said he was one of only a handful of people who got his hands on the ink, it turns out that Ventura County is already being flooded with T-shirts that change colors. The only thing is, you may find them under different names.

"They're mood shirts. They change with your mood, just like the mood rings did," said Kari Hale, a sales associate at Sassy in Ventura. "Sure we've got them. They're all over now."

At the Broadway, where a sales associate said the shirts arrived last week, a sign announces them as a "metamorphic color system."

So just how newis this idea? Not very. Over the last few years, a slew of color-changing products have been introduced, from coffee mugs that go from a desert to an ocean to a toy car that changes colors when it is placed in water.

"But Barbie was the first one to have clothing that changed color," said Steve Robinette, vice president of sales for Timberline Design, a Utah-based company that claims to have exclusive rights to a color-changing paint for clothing designs. "She had a 'wet n' wild' bathing suit."'

Robinette said his company produces custom-ordered shirts for distributors, several of whom are now selling to smaller stores and boutiques throughout Ventura County. The only other company that has the rights to a color-changing dye, he said, is Generra. That company's single-color shirts are now displayed at the Broadway and other department stores.

Not so, says Tobin, who claims to have sold the family car to be able to produce shirts at his recently acquired silk-screen company in Simi Valley. He buys his ink from a Japanese company at wholesale, and applies it to his shirts in a concentrated solution. Therefore his shirts, he said, are even more vibrant than others on the market.

Out of curiosity, I shopped around to compare. At stores like Sassy, which has a few tie-dye-looking versions from a Timberline distributor, the colors change subtly, in this case from light pink to bright pink. The Generra shirts at the Broadway are more sensitive, changing from green to white or orange to yellow. But the colors in Tobin's shirts, which are white with painted designs, appear to pop out the most dramatically. In his most recent design, a Fourth of July scene has fireworks that change into three different hues.

And what about the shirts' popularity? At this point, reviews from merchants are mixed. A sales associate at the Broadway said last week's stock is already nearly sold out and the shirts are selling "like crazy." But several other stores, including Loco Shirts in Oxnard, reported slow sales.

"It's very new and trendy, but I still don't know if it will fly or not," said Randy Specht, Loco Shirts' owner. "Mainly I think it's the cost. Most shirts here cost about $10, but these are almost twice as much."

Shelia Jackson, a Timberline distributor who works out of her Port Heuneme home, sees another possible reason. "People are skeptical," she said. Despite assurances from the company that the dye won't wash out and is nontoxic, "people may not be sure about it."

I'd like to suggest another possibility: None of the stores I contacted had children's sizes, an oversight of major proportions. I wore one of these shirts the other day, and my 6-year-old went crazy for it. When he pressed his palm against it and saw the outline of his hand in another color, his eyes lit up.

"It's magic," he gasped.

I hope all you clothing companies reading this take note. And don't all run for the door at the same time.

* THE PREMISE

Ventura County is home to both the fashionable and not-so-fashionable. There are trend-makers and trend-breakers. There are those with style--personal and off the rack--and those making fashion statements better left unsaid. Twice a month, we'll be taking a look at fashion trends, styles and ideas in Ventura County and asking what you think. If you have a fashion problem, sighting or suggestion; if you know a fashion success or a fashion victim, let us know. We want to hear from you.

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