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.
The company also has clothes for girls who prefer something a little more clingy. There's the rubber stuff. And the Marilyn Monroe-esque white halter suit. Plus, wardrobe staples like cargo pants and shorts. And, of course, the T-shirts that launched it all with clever Chicks Rule logos.
"People look at it and are like, 'Why didn't someone think of that sooner?'" Mackey surmises. "People say to themselves: 'Chicks rule. Yeah, they do.'"
Chicks certainly hold their own in Vegas. The Chicks Rule booth is a hub of activity. Two girls adorned in sequined cowboy hats and black-leather hot pants stop by to get glittered from Chicks Rule's non-clogging glitter spray-the most popular item in the company's cosmetics line.
"We were known as 'the glitter stop' at [the Action Sports Retailer show (ASR)]," Ivins explains.
A few owners of head shops stop by to see about carrying Chicks Rule merchandise. But Ivins and his partners like seeing their merchandise hanging in Nordstrom, and Nordstrom presumably wouldn't like seeing the same Chicks Rule hot-pink fur or red-hot-flame bikini at a local stripper shop. The company politely declines overtures from the head-shop boys. The company also steers clear of lower-price chain stores such as Clothestime, Styles for Less and Claire's since the higher-end junior stores they see as their bread and butter don't want to appear comparable to a discount store.
So, let's review. Chicks Rule, a 2-year-old clothing line, is turning away accounts, being pursued by manufacturers, and negotiating with Hollywood.
This from a T-shirt.
Business is good.
Joe Ivins has a dream.
"I'm excited for the day when we can come here by plane, walk in and the booth is all set up for us. And we just get to do our deal, and then, when it's over, say, 'See ya, guys!' And we're back on the plane."
That's the dream. Here's the reality.
"Coming here in a U-Haul truck, setting it all up, taking it all down, driving with something sticking up the seat board with my tailbone killing me. That's just not fun," Ivins says. "But that's what you've got to do."
Ivins worked for surfwear god Shawn Stussy and eventually manufactured his own startup line, Imperial. That's when he met Mackey, who had attended LA's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. They initially started dating and would go to LA's Melrose district to indulge in their favorite pastime: shopping. And Ivins was doing just that when the light bulb that started it all lit up.
Ivins and a friend were walking through a mall when he saw a shirt proclaiming something or other ruled. He turned to his female friend and asked, "Wouldn't it be cool to make a T-shirt that says, 'Chicks Rule'?"
So Ivins designed a logo and had the T-shirts made, figuring it to be a one-shot thing-something he would hand out free to friends. But the shirt became so popular that it soon became clear that he was in for more than he had hoped for, something he'd be crazy to walk away from.
Enlisting Mackey, the pair set about designing a women's clothing line as part of Imperial. But the response was so big, so immediate, that Imperial was soon set aside, and the pair looked to broaden Chicks Rule. When the romantic part of their relationship eventually fizzled, they still shared an interest for business and fashion.
In 1997, Mackey and Ivins met Zant, the owner of a San Luis Obispo accessories company who brought to the company a knowledge of manufacturing and the cosmetics industry. Mackey and Ivins had a booth at the 1998 Vans Warped tour and the U.S. Open/OP Pro. Festival-frenzied buyers went crazy for the stickers, though many of the men's lines they ran into on the tour ridiculed their name. Nonetheless, the public response convinced them they were on to something, and in the fall, they launched their joint clothing-and-cosmetics line at the ASR show in San Diego. Despite being relegated with the rest of the smaller firms well away from the main floor, Chicks Rule left with scores of orders from such big names as Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic, Wet Seal and Charlotte Russe.
"It's hard work," explains Mackey as buyers walk by, eyeing the line through the chaos of the Magic trade show. "It's like being on a roller coaster: everything is great. Then the next day, all the manufacturing seems to be going wrong, the colors of the makeup aren't what you wanted, buyers are calling you saying this and that, and we have deadlines to meet. So it's just up and down.
"I'll love it when we get to a point where I can go out and make a line when I've got all the fabrics I want. When you're a new company, you have to do everything economically. I'll use a fabric-but I'm going to do it three ways so that I'm utilizing everything I have. And I've made huge mistakes with different things, like making things that didn't stretch the right way." Or the time they made a whole batch of pants that came out too short.
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But all that is in the past-they happened, what, a couple of months ago? As the Magic show winds down, Chicks Rule has nailed two of the three accounts it wanted. Pacific Sunwear still needs some convincing, but that'll have to wait. First, there's the booth to break down.
"I'm exhausted," says Ivins, seemingly stuck to a chair. "I'm not one of those people who likes to go party after these shows. I just want to go to sleep. It's really hard. I can't wait to get out of here and go home."
When they get there, they'll find out that Pacific Sunwear wants to talk more.
"I keep thinking: 'Are we doing something wrong? How come all the other companies come here to party?'" Ivins wonders, preparing for the five-hour drive in a U-Haul. "You know what, though? That's why the other companies come and go. This is work."