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Day in the Sun

Gigi Feline in Costa Mesa entered a male-dominated business and made it in shades. Now other women are opening eyes in the sportswear field.

August 27, 1997|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people who have witnessed the goings-on at Gigi Feline Eyewear in Costa Mesa have grown accustomed to seeing women do it all, from shipping crates of merchandise to operating sophisticated machinery.

Still, when Gigi receptionist Shauna Walker recently hopped aboard a forklift and began motoring around the warehouse grounds, some workers at nearby factories stopped to stare.

"The guys saw her riding the forklift and they were, like, 'Whoa, go, girl, go!' " says Kathleen Gillespie, owner of Gigi. "But we tend to forget we're different."

Gigi eyewear is different because it's made by and for women, while most sunglass companies such as Oakley and Arnet are largely run by men. The line's official motto is "For Sistas by Sistas." Gigi employs only one "token guy."

"The optical industry is really dominated by males," Gillespie says. "We're an all-girls company, where other lines [for women] are an offshoot of a male company and it's usually a male designing them. It ends up being a guy thing rather than a women's thing."

Gigi is just one example of young women flexing their muscles in the marketplace. As women become more active on the sports scene, retailers and manufacturers have come to recognize their power.

New specialty shops such as On Edge, a women's surf-skate-snowboard shop in Costa Mesa, and active sportswear lines such as Roxy and Girl Star, cater to young women who like to go where the boys are and do what the boys do, yet who still want to look like women.

Gwen Stefani of No Doubt epitomizes the trend: She's athletic, glamorous and doing what she loves with no apologies.

"Women are coming together and saying, 'I'm a girl, I can do this.' But it's not militant or anti-men," Gillespie says. "It's just celebrating the fact that you're a woman and you have a bond with other women."

To support and attract the "hip girl who's into alternative sports," Gigi has started sponsoring women at surf contests and other sports events.

Women like the idea that the line is just for them.

"I've been sponsored by a couple of different sunglass companies, but they've always been geared to men," says Anna Shisler, a San Clemente resident who competes in tandem surf contests, riding double with her boyfriend on a board.

"I was excited when I saw Gigi sunglasses because they're geared to women. I put them on, and they actually fit my head. They were stylish," Shisler says.

Gigi's designs range from the sleek, wrap-like "Minxa" to the '50s-inspired "Sweet & Sour" with its pearl-studded cat-eye frame.

The shades come in pouches made of faux fur, velvet, silver metallic vinyl and other soft materials instead of the usual hard cases. They retail for $35 to $55 at surf and specialty clothing boutiques, including South Swell in Balboa, Shoe Zoo and the Closet in Costa Mesa and Kanini in Dana Point.

To promote the eyewear, Gigi has created ads that satirize traditional female roles, such as a photo of a woman in curlers and sunglasses pulling a tray of Gigi sunglasses from an oven.

"It's not about girls looking cutesy or looking sexy for a guy. It's about girls having fun," Gillespie says.

Gillespie is having fun creating the eyewear.

The Costa Mesa resident worked for Gigi's parent company, a plastics finishing company called Logotec, before launching Gigi six months ago. At Logotec she developed promotional sunglasses, choosing which styles to customize with a client's name or logo. But she wanted to design sunglasses herself.

"I love fashion, and I have a good eye," she says. "This is my dream because they're my own designs. If I did sunglasses all day long I'd be the happiest girl in the world."

She looks everywhere for design ideas, shopping at vintage clothing stores, reading fashion magazines and occasionally heading to the library to look at old photographs.

About 15 employees work at the factory. The sunglass parts are manufactured overseas, but all of the finishing, such as stamping the shades with the oval-shaped Gigi logo, is done by the women.

"I didn't intend to hire only women, but it just evolved," Gillespie says. "Their hands are smaller, so they can do the detail work better."

Inside the plant, production manager Alicia Perez operates a complicated pad printing machine that allows her to stamp a tiny tagline "Feline Crafted USA" on a narrow sunglass template.

"Something like this is almost always done by a male," Gillespie says.

Andeaux Borunda, Gigi's sole male employee, serves as marketing director and advisor on the technical design. Still, when he volunteers a design idea, the women are quick to tell him if they think other women won't like it.

"He listens to us," Gillespie says.

For his part, Borunda doesn't seem to mind being outnumbered.

"My friends say I have the best job in the world," he says.

Gillespie remains intent on letting women have the last word on Gigi sunglasses:

"There are certain things that only girls have an eye for as far as glasses go," she says, "and I'm selling to girls."

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