Office walls are pinned with fabric swatches, a tidy patchwork to map a fashion line’s next collection: tiki patterns and palm fronds, cerulean blue and coral pink. It’s the beachiest clothing in America—and it originates in South Lake Union.
Tommy Bahama just celebrated a quarter century of pineapple-printed linen shirts and billowing caftans, now in 160-plus retail locations (18 with adjacent eateries). But it started, fittingly, with vacation in mind.
“It was going to be a men’s resort brand, so founders would only work six months a year,” says CEO Doug Wood. Executive vice president of design Lucio Dalla Gasperina lived in Seattle, a town then rich with apparelmaking talent as Unionbay, Generra, and Eddie Bauer boomed. The trio of Tony Margolis, Bob Emfield, and Gasperina set up shop on Olive Way in 1992.
“They’d make just enough money to be happy,” says Wood of the plan. “But it exploded on them.” Turned out there was a year-round market for dressing like an extra from the “Kokomo” music video. Womenswear followed, boat-neck sweaters and embroidered tunics that evoked a pan-island vibe: Key West meets Bali by way of Mykonos. The store in Naples, Florida, opened with an attached restaurant that served macadamia-nut-crusted snapper and ahi tuna tacos.
A lot has changed in 25 years; Tommy Bahama attire was 100 percent silk when Wood joined in 2001. But with the rise of “athleisure,” the signature Boca-ready button-ups were reimagined with stretch, wicking, some SPF.
The company holds four floors of a building on Fairview; its backlit sign radiates through Seattle downpours while designers dream of Fiji inside. With a Puget Sound force of more than 500 people, says Wood, “we’re the biggest small company that nobody knows is here.”
Correction 1/31/18: Fixed the spelling of Lucio Dalla Gasperina's name and his title.