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Bahama Papas

Three guys in search of a low-key lifestyle invent a fantasy island hero--and create a fashion empire in his image.


If life is a beach, you can bet that Tommy Bahama is there. Toes in the sand. Swaying palm tree-printed shirt blowing in the breeze, undressing his sunbaked torso, revealing roller coaster biceps.

That's our hunky Bahama man, our Kahuna of khaki, our isle style swami in silk.

Maybe you've seen his comfy clothes: deck shorts, double-pleated plantation pants, polo and camp shirts in subdued solids, others with tropical flower power starbursts and vintage-inspired island prints--all in muted motifs, all in soft, draping, relaxed fabrics that feel like favorite clothes worn over and over.

For sure, the chic paradise sportswear is as fashionable as anything by Giorgio Armani.

But unlike Armani, Tommy Bahama--the man--is a fictional fantasy island beach boy. He doesn't exist--except in your head, which is fine by his creators. But his duds are very real--classy clothes that are bringing sophistication to traditional in-your-face Hawaiian shirts.

The guava guy is the mythical creation of Tony Margolis, Lucio Dalla Gasperina and Bob Emfield, friends who, like Bahama, always dreamed of getting away from the high stress, fast-paced business world, if just for an afternoon to stylishly lounge under a coconut tree sipping mango martinis.

Aloha, Mr. B.

The three--all with previous fashion industry experience--came up with the hugely successful Bahama concept not on some island paradise but in the Midwest--Minneapolis to be exact, home to Emfield, who whipped up the Tommy Bahama name.

In Everyman, there is a bit of Bahama, say his creators, friends who founded the private company in 1992. The menswear line, designed by a team in Seattle and manufactured in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, is sold at Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and in resort, hotel and pro shops.

"It's all about the Tommy Bahama lifestyle," says Margolis, 56, the company's president and spokesman. Gasperina, 42, is design director, and Emfield, 57, handles marketing. The three can relate to the casual Bahama way of dressing, which is why they started the company in the first place.

An Idea Born on a Florida Beach

The whole Tommy Bahama thing started with Margolis and Emfield vacationing with their families on the beach in Florida in the late 1970s when they both worked for Britannia as sales reps.

"We'd be looking at each other during the last couple of days before going back to work and say, 'Wouldn't it be nice to take some of this back with us to the job?' "

With Gasperina, formerly of the apparel company Union Bay, they did, and created a company with annual sales of about $100 million, according to Margolis.

"When we started the company, obviously we began as a men's apparel firm because that was our background," says Margolis, a principal in Generra, another menswear line, before he and his partners escaped into Bahamaland seven years ago.

Since then the company has branched out. Recently, it introduced a women's sportswear line taking its cues from the oversized, draping elements found in the men's line. This spring and summer, an array of accessories from ties to belts to footwear are being offered as well as a variety of home furnishings such as hula girl lamps, coconut-scented candles and bamboo picture frames.

A new retail-only shop opened this spring in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Add to that four Tommy Bahama "compounds" or full-scale shops equipped with full-scale Tropical Cafe restaurants that reflect the company's casual island lifestyle. (They serve two Tommy Bahama beers and island dishes.)

The first one opened in Naples, Fla., in 1996 and proved to be the company's biggest breakthrough. More than 250,000 diners visited the compound--and also shopped. That same year, Kevin Costner golfed on the silver screen in "Tin Cup" swinging clubs in Tommy Bahama silk ensembles.

"We got a lot of press with that," Margolis says, adding that since then many other celebs--and customers--have caught the Bahama fever, especially with the line of washable silk pants that only get better with each washing.

The two newest compounds were opened late last year in California--Palm Desert and Newport Beach. More are being planned for Florida, Arizona and-- natch--Hawaii.

"But the idea really was to just invent this Tommy Bahama character and flesh out his lifestyle," Margolis says. "What does he eat? Who does he date? What kind of a car does he drive?"

And, of course, what does he wear?

To get that answer, Margolis and his pals shared their Tommy Bahama idea and philosophy with friends and co-workers and came up with a marketing version of His Bahama-ness in model Andy Lucchesi--"not too young, not too old, virile, adventurous, sexy," Margolis says.

"In our minds, Tommy made these trips to all these wonderful islands and would return home with great stuff made by island women," says Margolis, who wears Bahama shirts, pants, shoes--the works--every day. "And all of Tommy's friends wanted to wear the clothes too."

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