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Bright Ideas Inspire Colorful, Custom Wetsuits

February 01, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chad Jones and Rob Fleece seem to always be side by side.

They scuba dive and they surf together. They work together. They design and make wetsuits for Coral Reef, a surf and scuba shop in Westminster that the pair own and manage--together.

"We're as close as brothers," Jones says.

Jones and Fleece met when they were about 10 years old. Their friendship formed out of a mutual love of motorbikes. They grew up just two blocks from each other in Garden Grove, and at several times in their lives have lived under the same roof. Like brothers, they've stood by each other in good times and bad.

"We trust each other," Fleece says. "One time in junior high I was having problems at home so I lived at his house for six months."

The 21-year-olds are now collaborating on Coral Reef's line of custom wetsuits that are tailor-made for surfers and scuba divers.

Jones' father, Tony, founded Coral Reef 17 years ago. Jones began working for his dad at age 5, doing odd jobs like sweeping floors, and later graduated to repairing surfboards when he was in high school. Fleece came on board when he was 15.

Five years ago, Jones and Fleece began producing wetsuits for Coral Reef.

"We started with alterations, because suits rarely fit perfect," Jones says. "That's how we learned how they were made."

The first wetsuits they made were less than spectacular.

"They were god-awful," Jones admits. "The patterns didn't fit right."

They kept refining and adjusting the fit until they got it right.

Although Coral Reef makes wetsuits that customers can buy off the rack, the shop specializes in custom wetsuits molded to the body. Many people don't conform to standard sizes, and when a wetsuit doesn't fit well they can feel like they're wearing a clumsy Gumby costume.

Coral Reef takes 50 measurements to make a custom suit.

"Everybody's body is different," Jones says. "Especially women."

Women used to be at a disadvantage when it came to scuba diving and surfing, he says, because the shapeless wetsuits on the market were uncomfortable. Coral Reef makes wetsuits for women that conform to a feminine form.

Even if they are spending most of their time in the water, divers and surfers want to wear a wetsuit that's flattering as well as functional, not something that makes them look like the Michelin tire man. For women, French-cut stitching or colored panels give the illusion of longer legs and narrower hips.

"You definitely want to go for fit, then you go into fashion," Jones says.

Coral Reef has made wetsuits in red, white and blue for the U.S. surfing tandem team, and a wetsuit done entirely in the red, yellow and green Rasta colors for a rider representing a Jamaican company.

"With custom suits, we can do whatever they want," Fleece says. "One guy was a scuba instructor, and he wanted each panel of the wetsuit to be a different color so his students could identify him underwater. He looked like a court jester."

Coral Reef makes two-toned suits that are black with colored panels in bright hues like royal blue, teal and purple. There are even wetsuits done in army camouflage.

"Some spearfishermen wanted them so they could hang out in the kelp," Jones says.

Fleece and Jones add small, colorful details so their wetsuits stand out--without scaring the fish.

"Most suits have black stitching. Ours have contrasting stitching" in bright colors, Fleece says. Many of the suits have colored binding in hues like magenta and purple.

Coral Reef makes 300 to 500 wetsuits a month, with most of the manufacturing done by 15 workers at a factory in Garden Grove. The suits range from about $30 for a child's spring suit (a lighter-weight model with short arms and legs for warmer waters) to $400 for an adult's heavy-duty, two-piece "titanium" suit for surfing in cold water or diving in the deep. The name refers to a metal powder added to the nylon to help it retain heat.

Although Fleece now lives in Garden Grove and Jones in Costa Mesa, the two still scuba and surf together, often in waters off of Catalina Island and Laguna. As their friendship has grown, so has Coral Reef.

Six months ago, a second Coral Reef store opened in Leucadia, and Fleece and Jones hope to start selling their wetsuits to other stores. They already distribute wetsuits to Japan.

They also want to add shorts and sandals to their clothing line of T-shirts and caps.

Theirs is a business partnership, or rather brotherhood, that they say will last.

"We've learned we need each other as friends," Jones says.

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