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Holey Sweat Shirt Gave Brothers Great Idea

Entrepreneurs: Design with cuff covering the hands, with thumb opening, has product flying off store shelves.

November 08, 1998|CHRISTINE HANLEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRESNO — Chuck Mellon remembers being tossed to the ground and tearing his sweat shirt one day four years ago as he tried to turn his motorbike on an icy mountain trail.

Later, as he put the shirt back on, his thumb poked through a hole in the sleeve, accidentally pulling the cuff down over his hand.

That's when the idea struck for a new type of sweatshirt: one with sleeves that extend over most of the hand and have thumbholes but are fingerless, so they can be rolled back into a normal cuff.

It's an idea that has been catching on ever since Mellon and his younger brother Bob started Handcuffs Sweatshirts.

The Mellons report that sales for the new-style sweat shirt have quadrupled in each of the company's first four years, and gross earnings have climbed from about $100,000 three years ago to around $10 million today. They recently landed their biggest client yet: J.C. Penney Co. which placed an $8.5-million order.

"We were just clowning around about it at first," said Chuck, recalling that fateful day in 1994. "Who would have ever thought that it would turn into this?"

Even Marshall Gobuty, the owner of the clothing company now cranking out the orders, admitted he thought the flip-up, flip-down shirts were the craziest thing he had ever seen.

"Then you try one on and you think, 'Why didn't I think of this?' " he said from his office at MGI Ltd. in Los Angeles.

The specially designed shirts have been catching on with hunters, fishermen and Harley-Davidson riders, who like the shirts because they don't take away their sense of touch. Parents like them for their kids because they keep their hands warm but can't be lost like gloves. Other customers include Stone Cold Steve Austin of World Wrestling Federation fame and Garth Brooks' mom.

"I'm getting requests from soccer teams now, and other coaches," Gobuty added.

Finding success in the garment industry has certainly been a journey of trial and error for the Mellons, both of whom had spent most of their lives in blue-collar fields and had little if any experience in retail trade.

Chuck, 40, is a former electrician. Bob, 38, installed pool tiles. In fact, they were still relying on those incomes before Penney became their main customer.

"The learning curve has been straight up since we got into this," Bob said.

Chuck says his first mistake was trying to sew together the prototype himself. He later paid a local designer to make 1,200 shirts. They sold about 1,000 of the batch from a kiosk at a Fresno mall during the 1995 Christmas season, charging about $30 apiece. Today the shirts go for between $34 and $46 for adults and $22 and $32 for children.

"The first year showed us it would work. That was an exciting time for us," Chuck said.

But they got a bit too ambitious, trying to launch a line of hats and T-shirts that failed, forcing them out of business within two months.

"So we put our tool belts back on and went back to work," Bob said.

Still, they didn't give up on the idea. They opened a small store in a strip mall in 1996 and spent $10,000 for a local TV ad that showed how their product worked.

After the commercial ran, they sold 4,000 shirts.

"We'd bring in shirts and fill the racks and they'd be gone at the end of the day," Chuck said.

Business still wasn't good enough to support two families. Chuck and his wife Janet have two sons; Bob and wife Joan have two girls and a boy. So Bob stayed in the tile business while Chuck ran the store full-time.

In the spring of 1997 they got their biggest break, when a business contact put them in touch with a buyer at Penney, and they were invited to the company's headquarters outside Dallas.

George Bernardich, a buyer for the company's catalog at the time, had enough faith in the idea to place an order for 20,000 shirts and put a two-page spread in the 1997 winter catalog.

"It was just one of those things that I thought would work," said Bernardich, who now oversees Penney's drugstore chain. "I'm sure you can remember the cold days when you sometimes pulled your sleeves down to keep your hands warm. So it was just a natural."

It also was a bestseller. The order was filled three days after the catalog was mailed, and the company needed 15,000 more.

That's when Penney put the Mellons in touch with Gobuty at MGI, to help them keep up with volume and meet higher quality standards. Handcuffs are now licensed and distributed by MGI, which handles labels such as Arizona Jeans Co. and No Fear.

Penney has been promoting the shirts in its current Christmas catalog.

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