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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE

Onward, Christian Sellers: Mixing Faith, Fashion

Retail: Makers of inspirational apparel use secular marketing techniques and styles.

July 30, 1996|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A crowd of onlookers gathered recently outside Fullerton Presbyterian Church, where Gregg Manufacturing was hosting a photo shoot for its new clothing catalog.

The focus of their attention wasn't the latest garb from a New York fashion house but, rather, a new line of "inspirational" apparel designed with Christian women in mind.

The models wore vests with bright sketches of Noah's Ark, dress shirts decorated with stylishly rendered angels, and sponge-painted T-shirts with messages that are worlds away from the hellfire and brimstone of old.

"A lot of Christian apparel, especially the 'repent or die' stuff, can really turn some people off," said Gregg Gray, chief executive and co-founder of Fullerton-based Gregg Manufacturing. "We're offering a subtle way for Christian women who don't want to get in someone's face."

Inspirational apparel accounts for just 1.1%, or $30 million, of the $3-billion-and-growing Christian-oriented retail industry. But the clothing sector, along with computer software and jewelry, is catching the eye of Christian retailers because it enjoys one of retailing's hottest growth rates.

Apparel industry observers are especially intrigued by new lines from companies such as Gregg Manufacturing that are aimed at Christians who want a fashionable way of making a statement of their faith.

Although the messages are decidedly religious, clothing companies are using secular marketing techniques that have been honed by many of Orange County's cutting-edge surf wear companies.

The inspirational apparel business has been dominated by what industry insiders "affectionately call 'turn or burn' messages," said Bill Conine, president of Diamante Music Group, a Newport Beach-based company that distributes merchandise to Christian retailers.

T-shirts and ball caps with in-your-face slogans and overtly religious artwork remain popular with some younger Christian consumers who are comfortable with using their clothing as a billboard. But manufacturers say many such consumers want hipper fashions that can hold their own with the best of the secular market.

Companies such as Gregg also envision a potentially lucrative market among older, more affluent Christians who are looking for a fashion-forward way to spread their own personal gospel.

Carnegie, Pa.-based Exodus Productions added more upscale items to its T-shirt line in the early 1990s as its customer base began to age.

"At that point, we knew inspirational apparel was no longer just for kids," said Exodus spokesman Richard Heaton.

As competition heats up for space on Christian store shelves, Joseph's coat of many colors is giving way to stylish sports and leisure wear, from baseball warmup jackets to tennis togs.

The fashion revolution is also creating higher prices as manufacturers move beyond simple T-shirts.

Ransom Soulwear in La Mesa, Calif., for example, features a $39 polo shirt, and Irvine-based Truth Clothing offers $36 flannel shirts. Gregg Manufacturing sells a $36.95 tapestry vest, and Exodus Productions reports strong interest in $59 hockey jerseys bearing a Messiah logo.

Christian apparel might be defined by its message, but it's increasingly being marketed on the strength of its designs.

Eric Hannah, co-founder of Truth Clothing, a small, privately held concern, argues that Christian apparel companies can no longer afford to ignore fashion realities.

" 'Hip' is a word I hate to use, but what we need to do is deliver a message in a hip way that will appeal to image- and fashion-oriented people who like good clothing," Hannah said.

For example, the Truth Clothing line shares many of the colors and styles found in the secular surf-and-skate market. And its new line of junior women's shirts mirrors the "retro" look that's popular on many high school campuses.

"The kids are telling us by what they buy that our competition is out there in the real world," Hannah said.

The same rule applies to older consumers, particularly upscale Christians who associate well-known brand names such as Levi and the Gap with quality and value.

"We're the yuppie generation, and we know that so many people our age are logo-oriented when it comes to clothing," said 37-year-old Jaime Cuadra, president and co-founder of Ransom Soulwear. "We're definitely patterning ourselves after the Quiksilvers, the Billabongs, the companies that have strong logos."

As Christian apparel industry executives rush to build market share, they're using tried-and-true marketing and advertising techniques that secular clothing companies use.

Gregg used a fashion show--albeit a decidedly low-key affair compared with what Big Apple apparel houses offer--when it introduced its new women's apparel line during this month's Christian Booksellers Assn. weeklong trade show, which drew 12,000 attendees to the Anaheim Convention Center.

But the eventual fate of Christian apparel, industry observers say, will be determined by whether manufacturers can overcome retail barriers that stalled many of Southern California's promising surf wear companies in recent decades.

The new Christian lines are pushing for space on store shelves at a crucial point in the industry's development. Most stores--as the Christian Booksellers Assn. trade group's name suggests--began life as Bible and book retailers.

But books now account for only about 40% of the industry's sales, and stores have evolved into mini-department stores that offer everything from compact discs and videos to religious art, gifts and apparel.

Most stores lack changing rooms, and many owners lack the capital to add splashy display areas.

"We've got to teach Christian bookstores how to sell clothing," Exodus' Heaton said. "We've been trying, and I'll tell you, it ain't been easy."

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