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Seeking career heat at tropical Tommy Bahama

January 31, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The last place you'd expect to find the corporate headquarters for Tommy Bahama, the beachy lifestyle brand, is here in the polar fleece capital of the world.

And yet, in a nondescript glass building just blocks from the Space Needle, 625 people are hard at work, designing the artifacts of an imagined tropical life that has entranced American consumers and made the company a $300-million-a-year business.

And it is here that Christian Francis Roth, once a rising Seventh Avenue star, is sifting through swatches of hibiscus print fabric in his quest to put some zing in Tommy Bahama's women's wear line, which now runs the bland gamut from unflattering, boxy camp shirts to balloonish drawstring pants.

"We're trying to be more fashion aware and to create an identity for the women's line that's as clear as the men's," said Lucio Dalla Gasperina, executive vice president of design and one of three partners who own the privately held company. "We didn't want a high-profile designer who would just go off and make it his own. We wanted someone who understands what we are about."

But Roth, 33, once had a very high profile. And in some ways, his uneven trajectory during the last dozen or so years has mirrored the evolution of American fashion.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Roth dazzled the fashion world with such fantastical runway fare as trapeze dresses with trompe l'oeil crayons for sleeves, full skirts fashioned after Amish quilts, and blazers in newsprint and "scribble" patterns.

A protege of Dutch-born New York designer Koos van den Akker, Roth launched his own collection before he was out of his teens. In 1988, Lynn Manulis, an owner of the exclusive Martha boutiques, took a chance on the young designer, buying several of his pieces and putting them in the store's Park Avenue windows in New York. The clothes sold immediately, and it wasn't long before Roth's line was carried at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and I. Magnin, and his runway shows were hot tickets.

In 1990, at 20, Roth won the Perry Ellis Award for new talent from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Women's Wear Daily dubbed him the "Doogie Howser of fashion." And he was hailed as the next Franco Moschino for the childlike whimsy of his designs, which included wine corks and bottle caps for buttons and M&M packages for appliques.

Although he was a hit with critics, Roth was never able to sell enough clothes to secure the kind of financial backing that would ensure the survival and growth of his business. He'd come of professional age at a time when Seventh Avenue "name" designers were being one-upped by cheap and chic offerings from chain stores headquartered in L.A., San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. Although the stock market was booming, women seemed to be rebelling against seasonal hemlines and $2,500 suits. Consumers were interested in lower-priced "bridge" lines, and factory outlets were all the rage. The groundwork was being laid for a thousand casual Fridays outfitted by the Gap, Banana Republic and, indeed, Tommy Bahama.

Roth closed his designer business in 1995.

After that he was something of a nomad: He designed for Nordstrom's private label, for Esprit, for Zoran. He even had his own bridge line, CFR, which was sold in department stores. But he never quite found his niche, not the way his friends Marc Jacobs and Todd Oldham have.

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Showing his team spirit

So now Roth has crossed the continent to design for the mass market, which he once described to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter as "a sea of mediocrity." If he's disappointed at all, he doesn't show it.

"My interest now lies in the business aspect. I know I can be creative, but can I manage a team? With the foundation and financing in place, can I make a success of this women's brand? That's more than enough stimulus for me right now," said Roth, who has the same boyish charm as Jacobs and Oldham.

Van den Akker, reached in his studio in New York, is proud of his protege's latest move. "I'm sure that in his heart of hearts he'd rather be on his own. But he's a man for group work. He's good for the corporate setup," said the designer who now sells mass-market sportswear on a QVC show titled "Koos of Course."

So far, Roth's bosses are giving him a qualified sort of freedom. "We're going to drive and steer, but Christian's the one who will finesse the product," Dalla Gasperina said.

Founded in 1992 by Bob Emfield and Tony Margolis, Tommy Bahama was originally a menswear label aimed at the 35- to 55-year-old walking-shorts set. The two garment business veterans met in Seattle in the 1970s, when they were sales reps for Brittania Sportswear Ltd. The company is named after a character Emfield and Margolis invented after buying houses on Florida's Gulf coast, where they dreamed of spending time, living life as one long weekend.

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