Chicks Rule

Or at least hold their own in Vegas

Photo by Mike McGill"You just missed all the excitement," says Margaret Mackey, beaming in her unremarkable booth at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas. An overstuffed chair (the booth is too wee for a couch), a shelf of cosmetics and a rolling rack hung with Mackey's Chicks Rule clothing line constitute the booth's modest decoration.

But Mackey has reason to beam. Chicks Rule has just made a sale-one of three sales the company was intent on making when they came to the Edge at Magic, part of the most prestigious apparel-trade show in the West. Patricia Fields, a trendy New York boutique, bought bikinis, T-shirts and glittery makeup. The sale means more than dollars: by selling to Patricia Fields, Mackey is likelier to see a Chicks Rule logo spread across the chest of, say, Patricia Arquette or Drew Barrymore. That's the kind of exposure that alchemizes modest companies into majors.

Earlier, the company had come to an agreement with Ron Jon Surf Shops, a megachain of surf shops throughout Florida and California. There's still no commitment from the third target, Pacific Sunwear, the ubiquitous mall surfwear shop that offers mainstream exposure to the company along with high-volume sales.

Not that Chicks Rule is hurting for business. Business is good. Very good. Almost too good.

"Our biggest problem is being able to keep up," says Joe "Bra" Ivins, who owns Chicks Rule with partners Mackey and Jim Zant. "I don't think we've ever shipped an order early. Ever. But our problems are good problems."

Chicks Rule began pushing its line of fun, trendy clothes and cosmetics-including furry, leopard-print board shorts; mesh drawstring warm-ups; and baby-blue nail polish-in 1997. In just two years, the company has grown from a T-shirt-and-sticker operation to one quietly projecting sales of more than $1 million this year.

Recently, King World Productions, which is preparing a Little Rascals sequel, approached Chicks Rule about outfitting cute, strong-willed Darla. In her latest incarnation, Darla is a skater chick. The movie would offer great exposure for the company-and vice versa: King World is reportedly considering a deal that would allow Chicks Rule to create and market an entire line of clothes and cosmetics based on Darla.

While the Chicks Rule triumvirate-Mackey, Ivins and Zant-are well-known for hard work and a no-nonsense approach to business (Mackey once used her living-room furniture in a trade-show booth to keep costs down), they acknowledge that much of their success has to do with fortunate timing. Chicks Rule is one of a burgeoning number of Orange County companies designing surf apparel for active girls who surf, skate, snowboard . . . who do things, or at least identify with those who do.

It's a trend that started in the early '90s, when Costa Mesa-based Quiksilver, the nation's largest manufacturer of surfwear, launched its Roxy line of girls' board shorts. Roxy not only launched an entirely new wing of the surf industry, but it also generated sales in the $100 million range last year. In Roxy's wake have come the likes of such startups as Chicks Rule, Sexsea and Sister, all of which design exclusively for girls. Companies that traditionally designed activewear only for guys-including Billabong, Gotcha and Split-have launched active girls' lines of their own.

It's a trend so powerful that Chicks Rule can sell on its name alone. Consider Paris Blues, a large clothing manufacturer and distributor that wants to manufacture the Chicks Rule line. Why does gigantic Paris Blues want a piece of the action? They know what's in a name.

"Girls identify with the name. It's catchy," says Ivins. "We lucked out."

Mackey and Ivins had no idea they were heading for full-time gigs when they emblazoned T-shirts with "Chicks Rule" in a design that's a loose hybrid of the Hot Wheels logo and Superman's "S." Their ad campaign bragged that the Chicks Rule line-then nothing more than the shirt-was manufactured "For girls in high gear."

They had expected to market to women in their 20s. What they got instead was a wave of self-addressed stamped envelopes from high school girls asking for Chicks Rule stickers. Their target market had found them. Mackey and Ivins had tapped into something big: young girls who took a backseat to no one. They want to surf, so they surf. They want to skate, so they skate.

"I wouldn't have been allowed to wear high-heel tennis shoes," Mackey says of her youth. "I didn't get my ears pierced until I was 12."

"Now girls get tattoos at 12," says Ivins, laughing-and then adds, "God bless the Spice Girls."

The logo was supposed to be a one-shot deal: a cute little baby-T with brave, boyish type. End of story. But the response created a demand they would have been foolish to ignore. They started designing clothes with even more sass, but because of the overwhelming response from high school girls, they let out their hem lines a little. They found their niche, designing clothes that have a sense of humor, are fun to wear, and attract attention without baring so much ass that the girl wearing them gets grounded.

Things are getting stranger still. Skater girls have reacted enthusiastically to Mackey's Beastie Boys-inspired jump suit. "Everything is going to get spacy, monochromatic," Mackey predicts.

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