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For Good, Clean Fun, Kids Get Their Modern Amusement From Old-Fashioned Family Lore

March 19, 1993|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Jeff and Colleen Yokoyama and Marc Belanger look to the future, they see children. Oh sure, there's the old song that today's youngsters will be tomorrow's authority. But the kids they see are forever young--or at least forever ages 7 and under--those who can fit into their clothing line, Modern Amusement.

The two-year-old company moved from Costa Mesa to Newport Beach three months ago and expanded its wholesale operations into retail, opening its doors to the public late last month.

The trio entered the Lido Isle location with the intention of using only a quarter of the space as a retail outlet. But once they began decorating, they realized the opportunity to turn it into a combined showroom and boutique. The space once planned for retail is now used to store stock.

"For years I intended to have a store," said Jeff Yokoyama, 37. "This is us. This is Modern Amusement. If we can get an account down here to look at this, we can convey what we're about."

What the young clothing line is about is a time in Americana lore--somewhere between "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Brady Bunch"--"The days when a family would have picnics at the beach, together," says Belanger, 22.

"When everyone would barbecue T-bone steaks every weekend and the family unit would do the dishes together," chimes in Jeff Yokoyama.

Colleen Yokoyama, 31, interrupts her husband's and her partner's trip down memory lane with a reality check: "Oh yeah, when did you guys ever help out with the dishes?"

Well, the point is made, nonetheless.

Belanger and the Yokoyamas don't care much for all the negativity they say is expressed in today's youth fashions: the gangsta look, the overt sexuality, the obsession with designer labels and owning the right sneakers.

"There's so much violence out there. So much concern with who's the baddest. The clothing companies comply with screening guns on shirts and making the largest pant crotch," Jeff Yokoyama says. Adds Colleen: "We don't see the need to glorify that whole scene. What we're doing is an alternative."

The alternative is a retro-inspired collection made modern by its mix of new and vintage fabrics. Modern Amusement applies actual floral, Western and Hawaiian printed fabrics from the '40s and '50s as panels, pockets or ruffles. Denim, gingham, plaids and stripes are among the new cloths used, all cut in silhouettes reminiscent of the clothes kids wore back when TV shows only aired in black and white.

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"Originally, I wanted play clothes for my kids, something that wasn't dorky," says Colleen Yokoyama. She and Jeff have a daughter, Coco, 4, a son Woody, 3, and another son, Buzzy, on the way.

The resulting collection features Western and Hawaiian shirts, sarong skirts, gingham smocks, striped jersey Tees and elastic shorts, priced from $18 to $46.

Great attention goes to details, such as the use of coconut and wood buttons and pearl snaps. The labels look intentionally vintage.

In addition to the 30-piece collection, Modern Amusement also sells hats ($30), purses ($10) and book bags ($30) made of antique fabric remnants. They have also ventured into kid's furniture with miniature reproductions of chairs from the '50s, upholstered in vintage fabrics. The chairs sell exclusively at the Modern Amusement store and at Fred Segal in Los Angeles.

Modern Amusement clothes sells at Holly Sharp, Laguna Beach; Balboa Island Kids Clothing Co., Balboa Island; American Rag, Hollywood; Nordstrom stores throughout the Southland, and in Japan.

Modern Amusement also markets a retro men's line shipped only to Japan; it accounts for 5% of the business.

Because of the price of vintage fabrics (rare ones can run up to $100 per yard), some are reproductions, such as the brown and mustard Hawaiian print: It's a knock-off a shirt worn by legendary Duke Kahanamoku in a 1910 photograph.

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Colleen Yokoyama advises on the toddler wear, while Belanger and Jeff Yokoyama handle the design work.

Jeff Yokoyama started designing as a founder of Maui & Sons in 1980. Belanger met his future partner when he joined the company's surf team at age 14.

In 1989, two years after leaving Maui & Sons, Belanger joined Yokoyama in a garage operation that became Pirate Surf. Their distressed flannel shirt became an instant hit and continues to be a staple for many surf companies that borrowed the idea.

Six months after shipping their first collection, Quiksilver approached them with a partnership deal. In 1991, Yokoyama and Belanger left when they heard the surfwear giant was going to close the popular division--a move that surprised industry insiders and surfers who had enthusiastically embraced the line. Soon after, Quiksilver jump-started Pirate Surf without its founders and adopted a different vision.

But the two were not left jobless. At his wife's nudging, Yokoyama had begun developing a children's collection several months earlier--again in the garage.

With persistence, they figured out such basics as kid's sizing and how to appeal to a younger market.

And they took something from their previous garment experience. Knowing how well their distressed flannel shirt and other pieces did, they are now sanding some fabrics for a softer feel.

Yokoyama also remembers the hard lessons learned about explosive growth from his previous ventures, so Modern Amusement will grow slowly.

In the meantime, there's the new retail end to concentrate on and a 1,200-square-foot store to keep stocked.

What's not for sale inside the store is wonderful to look at, including the shelf displays and racks Jeff Yokoyama built from old furniture and discarded wood. He decorated chairs with bottle caps and commissioned an artist to make a five-foot-long T-bone steak that hangs on the wall. From the ceiling beams and against the wall he displays half of the 20 longboards he has collected.

The place looks more like a living room than a store, and that suits Ma and Pa Yokoyama and Uncle Marc just fine.

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