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Michelle Donati Infiltrates Club for Men : Fashion: The designer is trying to take the Irvine-based sportswear label from the beach to the streets.

November 30, 1995|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — A few years ago, fashion designer Michelle Donati was making cow outfits and other Halloween get-ups for a costume company.

Talk about a career change.

Today the 28-year-old designer is creating yarn-dyed knit shirts, walking shorts, retro Hawaiian shirts and other young men's clothing for Club Sportswear.

Irvine-based Club Sportswear has hired Donati to help take the clothing company from the beach to the streets.

Club's active wear features retro board shorts, including solids with ribbon stripes or floral taping down the sides a la the '60s, that aren't necessarily for riding the waves.

"Billy Bob in the Midwest isn't going to wear them surfing," says company president Tom Knapp, 31.

The Club line is aimed at men ages 18 to 24. To gain a better understanding of Club's core customer, Donati constantly visits clothing stores and talks to salespeople on the floor about what guys are buying.

"She's a woman designing in a man's world, but she's able to get under their skin, to talk to them and find out what they want," Knapp says.

Anything she reads or watches--MTV, movies, magazines--can inspire her designs, she says. She often runs her ideas past young male staffers at Club, soliciting their input.

"I try to digest information from everybody, then put my influence on it," she says. "I just ask them, 'Do you like it or not?' I don't take it personally."

Knapp appreciates her fashion savvy.

"You can't be naive. If someone mentions Green Day, you can't go, 'What?' " he says. "We have to get energy from a lot of different sources."

Club began as an active-wear company specializing in volleyball attire. In 1984, Knapp, then a student at USC, started selling T-shirts and elastic-waist volley shorts out of his apartment. The shorts were great not only for playing volleyball but for lounging around a dorm room, he says.

"Until that time, shorts were really tight-fitting. But when you're in college, you need a looser-fitting short because you're getting bigger. Maybe it's due to all of those beers," Knapp says.

After graduating in 1986 at the top of the USC entrepreneurial program, Knapp turned his energies to expanding Club's active-wear line. While his volley shorts and related sportswear did well, a couple of years ago he realized there was life beyond the beach. Club needed to grow, and volley looks were getting stale.

"We needed new fashion input," Knapp says. "We didn't have people who were really out there. We weren't as in touch with the market."

Enter Donati, who after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Santa Ana in 1987, began her design career creating men's active wear for Quiksilver before her brief stint as a Halloween costume designer.

"One day you'd be making a cow costume and the next a Cootie bug," Donati says.

After designing men's sleep and lounge wear for B.U.M. Equipment, she joined Club Sportswear a year and a half ago as leader of the company's design team.

Donati began redirecting Club to have a new emphasis on sportswear.

In the sand-colored offices where Knapp and Donati like to show retailers their latest collections, she sifts through a rack of Club's latest designs.

There are the Club basics, such as corduroy walking shorts, T-shirts and other staples that are invariably the best-sellers of the line. To have the kind of coveted name guys want, and to prove you're a fashion force to be reckoned with, a collection also has to have those standout, directional pieces that show off the company's fashion philosophy and attitude.

"We try to do classic looks that will be around two or three years from now," Knapp says. "Everyone wants some spice. If all you have is navy and black, even though [those colors] are your No. 1 colors, you're dead."

So Donati has created fashion pieces such as textured yarn-dyed knit shirts, including a heather-colored henley, and button-down Hawaiian shirts with funky retro prints. One Hawaiian shirt has a '50s-inspired geometric print called Twister; another has a whimsical headhunter print on lava cloth, a loose-weave cotton popular in the '40s.

"We've tried to keep things very simple, very clean," says Donati, showing off pigment-dyed cotton polos in slightly faded neutral hues.

Her upcoming spring collection favors "earth-tone pales" such as celery and sage; select brights such as mango and lemon will pop up in a few pieces for summer.

Since Donati's arrival, Club has seen its sportswear line grow from about 15% of sales to an expected 50%-50% split with active wear by 1996. The new emphasis on sportswear is helping to open doors for the company beyond surf shops and sports-oriented retailers. Club is sold internationally at 2,000 stores, including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.

While its sportswear continues to expand, Club hasn't forgotten its roots in active wear.

"We still sell more solid-colored nylon shorts than anything," Knapp says.

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