LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter
PACOIMA Anyone who thinks fashion is a glamorous business hasn't visited the headquarters of the women's clothing company, Juicy.
Tucked inside a nondescript business park in the largely industrial Northeast San Fernando Valley, the firm's cluttered offices offer none of the high-gloss ambiance associated with the fashion industry.
Large bolts of fabric are stacked haphazardly in the corners. Boxes of t-shirts awaiting shipment line the hallways. Office walls are decorated with collages of photographs ripped from the pages of fashion magazines.
"We put our money where it needs to go into fabric, into production, into keeping our business afloat," explains Skaist.
Besides, she adds, "the only people who come here are our bankers and they like to see that we keep our overhead low."
Juicy's digs may be on the Spartan side, but the company's balance sheet tells another story.
Founded just two years ago by Skaist, a 33-year-old former film stylist, and her partner, 38-year-old former actress Gela Nash, Juicy posted sales of $5 million in 1996, selling in department stores and boutiques across the country, including Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom.
And they did it by concentrating on an item most in the apparel industry relegate to the lowest rungs of the fashion food chain the t-shirt.
"The Hanes t-shirt really is an amazing product," says Skaist, "but it wasn't quite sexy enough. We made it sexy."
Specifically, Skaist and Nash refashioned the design of the classic, V-neck t-shirt, creating a line that conformed better to women's bodies, giving it a more shapely silhouette. They also produced the garments from the highest quality cottons, knits, ribs and lycra available fabrics not usually associated with the lowly t-shirt.
Of course, the garments also carried a price tag not normally associated with t-shirts between $21 and about $30 each.
Nonetheless, retailers as well as shoppers apparently agreed that the women's t-shirt was in need of an overhaul. At the end of its first year doing business, Juicy boasted sales of almost $1 million.
The shirts also have proven popular with Hollywood actresses. Turn on an episode of the hit sitcom "Friends," for instance, and chances are you'll see a Juicy t-shirt, the pair boasts.
"It's a good product and it's really well-priced," says John Eshaya, women's apparel buyer for Ron Herman/Fred Segal. "You put it on the shelf and it sells."
The search for the perfect fit was what drew Nash and Skaist together in the first place.
The two met in 1988, just as Skaist was beginning to make a name for herself as a designer of hats. Nash a television actress who had appeared on such shows as "Hill Street Blues" and "Taxi" was pregnant with her first child, and discovering with dismay that her fashion choices were diminishing at roughly the same rate that her belly was expanding.
Sensing an opportunity, the pair, with just $200 each, began Travis Jeans Inc., a maternity-wear clothing company.
"Being pregnant is kind of a tenuous time for a woman. You feel really... uncomfortable about how you look," says Nash. "We went into business to try and change the whole maternity-wear scene. And we did."
They did it by designing the first pair of blue jeans specifically designed for pregnant women basically an oversized pair of denims, only with the waist cut out and replaced with a soft, expandable cotton panel.
The jeans set a new standard for comfortable, fashionable maternity-wear. Nash and Skaist pushed the envelope even further, with a line of lace bras designed for nursing mothers, which also became something of a sensation.
After about six years in the maternity-wear business and yearly sales of more than $1 million, the pair began looking for new challenges. It occurred to them that it had been years since anyone had given serious consideration to the women's t-shirt. They licensed Travis to another manufacturer and Juicy was born.
Juicy's t-shirts have now grown into a full collection of women's wear, including dresses, pants, jeans, skirts and shorts. Hoping to capitalize on the growing strength of the Juicy brand name, Nash and Skaist are preparing to launch two new collections this fall Juicy Jeans, a line of denims, and Juicy Couture, a less-revealing line of clothing geared towards older customers.
All of Juicy's clothes are made, as their label says, "in the glamorous USA."
"We try to keep things as local as we can," says Nash. "We want to keep manufacturing in this country. Everybody complains about unemployment and crime, but everybody doesn't do their bit to keep business here."
Even though they're playing on a much larger playing field now, Nash and Skaist insist that the operating principle behind their work remains the same. Where other manufacturers employ teams of market researchers before making decisions, the two women operate on instinct, creating comfortable clothes they themselves would wear.
"It's all about fit," says Nash, "and it's always been about fit. That's what fashion is. You put it on, and it fits right and you feel great about yourself so you buy it."
Year Founded: 1994
Core Business: Women's casual apparel
Employees in 1994: 2
Employees in 1997: 8
Sales in 1994: $1 million
Sales in 1996: $5 million
Top Executives: Gela Nash and Pamela Skaist
Goal: To successfully launch two new lines of clothing, Juicy Jeans and Juicy Couture.
Driving Force: To create the best-fitting clothes possible.
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