Five years ago, D'Lynda Fischer was a full-time urban planner, more likely to be found with a cigarette than a bicycle.

When kicking the smoking habit, she picked up a bike, pedaled off 30 pounds and completed two century rides (that's 200 miles total.) Along the way, she discovered that finding decent-looking clothes to suit her new active lifestyle wasn't easy.

"In my experience as a cycler and as a bad jogger, I felt treated as a second-class citizen in stores," she said. "I wanted to have a store where women felt comfortable."
This month, Fischer opened her own store, Sporteve in Culver City, to cater to women, although she's not giving up her day job. An office for her planning consultancy, Fischer Associates, is tucked in the back.

Fischer is part of a growing contingent of women selling and making active wear exclusively for women, who are increasingly hitting the gym, the bike paths and even the world's tallest mountains. Sporteve recently outfitted a woman set to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Demand for women's sports apparel products have spurred new brands and retailers to get into the sector. Nationally, women's athletic apparel sales increased nearly 9 percent to $4.9 billion from 2002 to 2004, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Josey Iannotti, president of El Monte-based women's sports apparel company Ion Actif Inc., saw her revenues more than double last year. "There is definitely a consumer who wants to work out in their old sweats and t-shirts," Iannotti said. "But there are other people who will spend the money to be comfortable and look good."

Ion Actif's clothes run from nearly $40 to a bit more than $70 in retail stores. At Sporteve, some apparel items cost a lot more. A light Gor-Tex jacket by the brand Arc'teryx runs up to nearly $250, but Fischer said a customer pays for the durability and versatility.

And it's not just about the price tags for women's-oriented sports apparel businesses. It's also about putting women customers at ease. At Fischer's store, she made sure the dressing rooms were spacious so women could move around but still have complete privacy.

If all goes well, Fischer hopes to reach $1 million in sales in her first year, although the breakeven figure is $1.2 million. She's had some help from her planning pals; Pedro Birba, head of the L.A. design company Birba Group, who Fischer worked with as a planner on various projects, threw in his company's design services for free.

Grocery Goods
Sweet Lady Jane is sweetening up the grocery aisles.

Known for doling out sugary cakes at its Melrose Avenue shop, the bakery is making a big push into other retail outlets, as well as restaurants. Eventually, Lance Paine, vice president of business development at SLJ Desserts LLC, Sweet Lady Jane's wholesale operations, believes the grocery and restaurant business can outpace the tiny shop's sales.

"If you are going to have 1,000 calories for dessert, you want to know it is the best tasting dessert you can get your hands on," he said. "We have a product that resonates with people in Southern California."

Paine estimates that wholesale product sales will resonate to the tune of about $2 million this year and at least $15 million in the company's fifth year. Last year, the Melrose shop alone racked up $2 million in sales.

SLJ Desserts has been furiously ramping up its wholesale capabilities and has plowed more than $1 million into growing its business. Earlier this year, cake production was moved from the 1,300-square-foot shop to a 7,000-square-foot facility to make it more efficient. The number of employees grew to 45 from 15 to handle the increased volume.

Already, Sweet Lady Jane branded cakes are selling at Pacific Coast Greens in Malibu, and SLJ is providing merchandise under other company's names to more grocers. Branded Sweet Lady Jane cakes will also soon be sold at Vicente Foods and Gelson's. A nine-inch cake costs about $55. The next step for SLJ: jumping into frozen foods, which it plans to do later this year.

Paine is extremely familiar with developing a bakery business. His first professional encounter with Jane and Don Lockhart, the husband-and-wife team that started Sweet Lady Jane, was when he worked for La Brea Bakery, owned by IAWS Group plc. About two years ago, La Brea Bakery was considering Sweet Lady Jane as an acquisition target to beef up its dessert prowess. In the end, La Brea opted not to take over Sweet Lady Jane, a company that was too small for its liking. But Paine detected that Sweet Lady Jane had enormous upside and decided to go in-house to ride the growth wave.

"I knew that Jane and Don had the footprint to do similar to what we did at La Brea," he said.

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