When Andrew Leigh graduated from UCLA and joined his father's clothing company 27 years ago, he envisioned taking the company far beyond its trademark polyester suits.
The Encino native, steeped in L.A.'s freewheeling culture, wanted to enliven the company his father, Jerry, founded in 1962 by incorporating cartoons and pop art into its then-staid apparel.
Leigh has been successful beyond even his fertile imagination.
Today, Jerry Leigh Inc. is among the most successful manufacturers of entertainment industry-related apparel, having struck longtime licensing deals with such heavyweights as Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros.
And the Van Nuys company which weathered a storm of criticism in 2002 over alleged sweatshop conditions at a Bangladesh factory producing Winnie the Pooh apparel hasn't let up.
Recently, Jerry Leigh scored a licensing deal with hot rocker Avril Lavigne, a coup that follows a deal with pop artist Gwen Stefani, whose Harajuku Lovers brand is a hit with hipsters.
"The company needed a niche and to build a brand. I wanted to merge great products with great art. I also wanted to take the company into a field I am passionate about," said Leigh, whose office walls are adorned with framed sketches of Mickey Mouse, Scooby Doo, Goofy, and Tigger.
The company's long ties with Disney have led it to secure licensing and distribution rights to "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical" two of the hottest TV shows for pre-teens and young teens, a key demographic for the retailer.
It doesn't stop there. The company recently secured the apparel license for Walt Disney's upcoming musical "Camp Rock," which features the Jonas Brothers, an up-and-coming teen rock band.
"(Jerry Leigh) is definitely one of the leaders in the licensing and screen business," said retail consultant Sandy Richman, president of Directives West. "They are pros at it."
Indeed, the company built up such a reputation that it didn't even have to seek out the deal with Lavigne, who scored her first No. 1 U.S. hit last year with the song "Girlfriend."
Lavigne's manager, Terry McBride, said the rocker had turned down several offers from other companies to produce a clothing line, but then decided to pursue one with Leigh, given the company's success and reputation for quality.
For example, though much of the company's clothing is sold in department stores and mid-market retailers, Stefani's Harajuku Lover's line is sold in top-line boutiques such as L.A.'s Kitson.
"Lavigne really wanted to do this right and produce well-designed clothes, similar to what she wears. It was very crucial for us to get a partner and we really keyed on Andrew Leigh's company," said McBride.
The company's success in licensing got its start when Andrew convinced his father, Jerry, to loan him $1 million in 1981 when he joined the company.
At the time, Andrew simply wanted to start a clothing line that celebrated the L.A. lifestyle. The result was the Beverly Hills Blues clothing line. The brand featured palm-tree clad denim, shirts and jackets and was a success at Kmart in the 1980s.
After that, Leigh thought the company was ready for bigger things and in 1989 approached Disney about launching a line of clothing based on classic cartoon characters.
Earlier in the decade, the boom in entertainment licensing had gotten started when the studios realized that popular characters could sell more than just simple crew-neck tees and sweatshirts. So by the late 1980s Disney was heavily merchandising new movies such as "The Little Mermaid" on dresses, jackets, shorts and woven shirts.
Andrew thought the approach also could work for timeless characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Pluto. In 1991, Walt Disney decided to give Leigh a short-term license for its classic characters.
"I saw what bringing on licenses could do to grow and evolve the company," said Andrew, whose management of the company was growing steadily.
Disney's decision was partly based on the fact that Leigh, a fan of the series "Beverly Hills 90210," had nailed a licensing agreement with Spelling Entertainment to produce, again, palm-tree themed apparel, but this time featuring the show's cast. It was the company's first Hollywood licensing deal.
Jerry Leigh is now a primary apparel supplier to Disney, though it does not have an exclusive arrangement with the company.
"Jerry Leigh is a critical part of our character-inspired fashion business," said Arnd Mueller, vice president of Disney Consumer Products in North America. "From Mickey to Hannah Montana, they've been able to seamlessly translate the universal appeal of our characters and brand into apparel collections."
Other studio licensing agreements include one with Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks.
The company's growth, though, has not been without its trials.
Perhaps the company's greatest challenge came in 2002 when it became embroiled with Disney in a controversy over alleged sweatshop conditions at a factory in Bangladesh.
The company endured withering public criticism from a coalition of religious groups, labor unions and lawmakers that alleged the female workers were paid the equivalent of 5 cents for making Pooh shirts that retailed at $17.99. Even worse, there were allegations the women worked 14-hour days, seven days a week and were beaten if they did not meet quotas.
The company, to activists' chagrin, pulled out of the factory and took its business elsewhere rather than ameliorating the working conditions at the factory, where it had contracted for apparel for several years.
Now, the company said it only outsources work to factories after an investigation of the factory's working conditions and labor standards.
"We have had no issues with factory compliance," said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Silver, in a statement. "We use certified third party auditors in conjunction with our own staff. We continue to monitor factories to assure that our factories adhere to higher standards than their own country standards."
Intellectual property attorney Jorge Arciniega pointed out that the company must be doing something right given it has managed to maintain ties with Fortune 500 companies following the Bangladesh controversy.
"Any licensor has to be careful that the contracting factories are not violating labor laws. A brand owner of a high reputation does not want to be viewed as condoning sweat shop conditions," Arciniega said.
Andrew Leigh has gradually taken over running the company his father founded before the social revolution of the 1960s revolutionized fashions for women and men alike.
Today he is firmly in charge, though his father whom Andrew calls "85-years-old going on 25" still visits the company twice a week. (The father was traveling last week and not available for comment.)
But the company no longer resembles the small outfit that started producing women's and men's polyester suits. In 1995 the company relocated from downtown Los Angeles to its current 250,000-square-foot facility in Van Nuys, where it designs apparel and produces sample wares.
The company also owns offices and distribution centers in Orlando, Fla.; Bentonville, Ark.; New York; Guatemala and Shanghai, China. Garments also are sewn at contract factories worldwide, with sales topping $4 billion last year.
During a tour of the sprawling Van Nuys plant, a tanned Leigh bustles about and animatedly points out company projects: an array of Mickey and Minnie Mouse shirts, samples of its Disney Princess couture, mock-ups of its Avril Lavigne line and ultra-hip Harajuku Lovers T-shirts and loungewear.
But amid all the colorful, casual apparel, one type of clothing is notably missing: polyester suits. Leigh laments the loss for a second. "I wish we were still making suits," he said.
But it's something else that he harps on longer. In an industry where success comes by hooking with up with the hottest stars, to this day Leigh is still regretting one of his biggest misses.
The company never picked up on the Olsen twins, whose popularity spanned a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales of apparel and other branded merchandise.
"Mary Kate and Ashley are always the ones that got away the one property I did not do," he said.
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