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The Tommy Bahama Boys

Tommy Bahama's three creators rhapsodize about making their fantasy a successful reality
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 1)

Dalla Gasperina oversees production and design from the 79,000-square-foot office space in Seattle that houses 250 of the company's employees. Emfield handles the company's sales and marketing from Minnesota, and Margolis, the company president and CEO, manages the company's finances, partnerships and licensing from New York.

Having the three principals of a major company spread across six different locales, not to mention being acquired by a company based in Atlanta, has to cause confusion and chaos, right? "No, not at all," says Margolis. "When we need to be together for meetings or planning sessions, we're there. We're probably all together in one room or on one trip together a dozen or more times of the year. The rest of the time we're in constant contact."

They also, occasionally, finish each other's sentences. When asked if, with business partners, absence makes the heart grow fonder, the men laugh. "Well, I wouldn't exactly go that far," says Margolis, "but we're friends. We've been friends, great friends, for the duration of our company. Longer than that. I think there's something to be said about trust, and when you're not all in the same building together, day in and day out, you'd better trust each other. You'd better like each other. And, when we do spend time together, it's great fun."

That the three men have maintained not only a cohesive working relationship but a strong friendship in the course of building a company is a testament to their business savvy and work ethic. But, Emfield admits, it's also due to a stubborn insistence on doing things their way—Tommy's way—even when, during those first few crucial years, department store buyers told them that, not unlike Jimmy Stewart's 6-foot rabbit in Harvey, they just couldn't see Tommy.

"We don't put a pony or an alligator or any other embroidered symbol on our clothing," explains Emfield, referring to the logos used by Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and others for easy recognition and status appeal. "At that time, anything without a brand name or designer's logo in a prominent position on a piece of apparel was suspect."

"We spent our first two years in business going out of business," Dalla Gasperina admits with a smile. Tommy's creators were, perhaps, a few years ahead of their time. The concept of "casual Fridays" hadn't caught on yet with corporate America, and the dot-com crowd at the time was interested in nothing more stylish than T-shirts featuring the name of a grunge rock band or the logo of the local ISP.

After a couple of bleak years, some corporate restructuring and the infusion of additional capital, the three founders found their niche: what wasn't cookie-cutter enough for the major department stores was perfect for upscale men's boutiques, especially those in tropical climates.

The clothing line—featuring loose, flowing lines, natural fabrics like cotton, silk and linen, and a color scheme straight out of Margaritaville—was a hit with consumers looking for attire that said "casual chic" and hinted at tan lines acquired on Caribbean shores.

By the mid-'90s, Tommy had clout.

From Camp Shirts to Crab Cakes

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