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The Start of Something Big

The Next Cool Label Just May Be Behind a Garage Door


The landlord wasn't too pleased, but what could Jack Denny do?

He had to do his tie-dyeing somewhere. And the communal washing machine in the garage of his Laguna Beach apartment complex was convenient.

"The landlord hated me," says Denny, founder of World Jungle Clothing Co. in Costa Mesa. "He liked what we were doing, but he wasn't happy that the washer was ruined."

Garage beginnings. In Southern California they're almost a rite of passage--and, for a growing number of apparel makers, the humble first step on the way to riches.

Before Mossimo Giannulli became Mossimo, he was just a beach-loving dude with an idea for better volleyball shorts. Looser cut in the leg, with more room in the seat, his trunks--fashioned with his signature M on the rear--made it easier to dive for digs and shake out the sand.

Giannulli set up shop in 1987 in the garage of his Balboa Island apartment. He sold $1 million worth of product the first year. Today, Mossimo Inc. operates out of a massive building in Irvine. It had sales of $24.4 million in the first quarter of '96.

Joel Fitzpatrick and John Chase started Pleasure Swell in 1992 out of a one-car garage in Hollywood, selling anti-George Bush T-shirts. "We were just making a political statement," Fitzpatrick says. "The next thing you know, we'd sold 10,000 T-shirts and 20,000 bumper stickers."

Today, Pleasure Swell sells men's and women's club wear out of its 4,000-square-foot store, Swell, on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles and is scheduled to open a bigger store and showroom in New York's SoHo district this fall. Sales last year were "easily over seven figures," says Fitzpatrick.

But making it big in the garment business isn't the dream of every T-shirt entrepreneur. Mark Price, founder of Tavarua Island Surf Co., which recently moved from a converted garage to a warehouse, is determined not to let the San Clemente company outgrow its "pure surf" identity.

So he limits distribution to specialty shops and donates 1% of sales--Tavarua did $1 million wholesale last year--to the villages surrounding the tiny Fijian island that is the company's namesake.

"This island, Tavarua, actually exists," Price says. "It gives us a degree of authenticity, which is a key in our market."

He says surfwear powerhouses like Quiksilver have nothing to fear from tiny Tavarua Island Surf Co.: "We have much more humble aspirations."

But, like the five apparel makers profiled here, he knows that every company's next big competitor is out there somewhere, probably behind a garage door.

REDSAND / 'It's Been a Pretty Amazing Ride'

Volleyball player Steve Timmons could have sat around and moped. After all, he was an Olympic gold medalist sidelined with a serious knee injury.

Instead, Timmons started brainstorming, thinking of ways to support himself. His answer--an optic-yellow ball--would quickly change his life.

Volleyball's version of the fluorescent tennis ball ultimately led to Redsand, the apparel company Timmons founded in 1985 with partners Jim Austin and Robert Lusitana in Austin's Spring Valley garage.

The sporting goods manufacturer Timmons had hooked up with in South Korea needed a logo for the ball, so he connected with Austin, a graphic designer. They met at a San Diego burger joint, where Austin scratched out a cartoon profile of Timmons with his then-distinctive flattop.

Once the volleyballs were selling well, Austin suggested T-shirts. Redsand sold nearly 20,000 of them in the first year.

"Jim was printing all day long in the garage," Timmons says. "His arms were huge that year from pulling the squeegee across the screen."

The Encinitas-based company now offers a wide array of casual apparel, from knit shirts to jackets to jeans. Last year, it posted domestic sales of $20 million.

"You have to have something to fall back on when your athletic career is over," says Timmons, 37, a three-time Olympian. "The injury forced me to look at myself. It opened my eyes to the real world.

"Our dream in the beginning was competing against the bigger companies, like Quiksilver and Stussy. Now we're battling for store position with these guys. It's been a pretty amazing ride."

ROBIN PICCONE / 'All Our Equipment Was Whatever Other People Could Spare'

Some writers work in their pajamas. Some artists paint in the nude. Early in her career, swimwear designer Robin Piccone spent many creative moments in heavy rubber rain boots.

She wasn't peculiar--just practical. With the slightest drizzle, her garage / design studio in Venice Beach would fill with water.

"Venice is built very low," Piccone says. "Whenever it rained, it would flood. We'd put the sewing machines on cinder-blocks. There'd be 6 inches of water on the floor and we'd be standing there in rain boots."

That was 10 years ago. Today, Piccone, president of L.A.-based Piccone Apparel Corp., works in much more comfortable environs: an 8,000-square-foot factory in Culver City and showrooms in New York and Los Angeles. The swimwear line did $18 million in domestic sales last year.

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