Tuesday, February 22, 2005 | Part of an ongoing series on young entrepreneurs in San Diego

San Diego’s young designers have their eyes on the beach – and it’s not because they’re anxious for the weekend. The city’s active, outdoor culture is fueling a small-but-growing fashion industry that’s taking the population’s penchant for all things casual and running with it.

“A lot of surf and sport-oriented brands originated here, like Gordon and Smith, and Red Sand,” said Debbie Chialtas, product development manger for Marika, a women’s active wear company based in San Diego. “Some companies are moving here to be close to the athletes and the culture that drives those designers.”

One of San Diego’s early “fashion” leaders was Isaac Ratner, who came here from New York in 1921 and set up a small cap factory called United Cap Works. The company switched to making Navy uniforms and after World War II, turned to civilians’ menswear, turning out slacks and suit coats in what was described as “a broad-shouldered California casual style.” In 1971, it purchased an obscure brand name called “Hang Ten” for $3 million and built it into one of the most lucrative casual-clothing franchises in history. At its peak in the mid-1970s, Ratner Manufacturing, as the company came to be known, was said by San Diego Magazine to be the fifth-largest menswear maker in the country, employing 2,500 people, with sales of $57 million.

Today, the industry in question is small-fashion retailers account for less than 3 percent of San Diego businesses-but those that exist are have discovered the marketability of active wear and strong graphics. Combined, the two are creating a niche that’s giving San Diego’s fashion industry its own thumbprint.

Designers throw a lot of terms into the active wear genre: surf, sport, skate, street scene. When it comes to aesthetics, strong, unique graphics are a solid commodity. San Diego-based companies like Jedediah and Dopamine deal largely in men’s graphic tees, but a t-shirt line alone doesn’t usually fly in the small market, say those who have tried.

“Everyone had t-shirts, we had to do something else,” said Zach Crawford, who created MindTrix, a streetwear line that takes its inspiration from eastern religions. “We came out with button-up shirts, yoga pants and hats to differentiate ourselves from the different t-shirt companies hopping up everywhere.”

In the first year since making those changes, Crawford said annual sales went from about $300 to $4,000. Though it’s still not his primary source of income-he does temp work to survive-he’s hoping to get the line into local stores like Battle Monkey and the Blue Room.

Gary Benzel, owner of the Igloo store in Little Italy, sells local designers as well as his own work.

“We look for something we think is clever, that will sort of match the idea behind the store,” said Benzel, who runs his own Hunter-Gatherer and Green Lady lines. “The focus of the store is to feature artists and designers who produce their own independent series of prints, clothing line or products. We try to deal with people a little off the beaten path, but who are well-respected within the sort of street wear/art community.”

The proximity to L.A. has a lot of designers struggling to resource themselves as they create their lines. Most area boutiques purchase their stock in L.A., and many designers see the two-hour commute for fabrics and trim as one of their biggest obstacles.

“Everything is so far away that you need to get for the line, so traveling to L.A. and not having enough resources here is kind of a challenge,” said Julie Wilkinson, a fashion student and assistant manager of L.A. Rack in Pacific Beach. Wilkinson hopes to start her own swimwear line after graduating from the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising in May, but even though it might be easier to make it in L.A., she, like other designers, has no desire to go north.

“I just love San Diego,” said Wilkinson, “It’s so much cleaner, and I love the beach. It just feels like home to me.”

Simone Finney is a senior at Point Loma University where she is editor-in-chief of the school newspaper.

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