The ingredients for success in the clothing business are financial backing, hustle, and luck: you’ve got to get your idea to the department stores before the other guy gets there first.

At least that’s what Steve Rosenstein says, and he should know. In the last year he and his girlfriend Andy Levinson have created Fitigues, a clothing line of baggy, cool, contemporary-colored shirts, shorts, pants, and sweatshirts now sold in Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and other stores. They’ve opened an outlet in North Pier and they hope to open hundreds more across the country. At a relatively young age (he’s 29, she’s 28) they stand on the verge of millions.

And it all started back in 1986, says Rosenstein, sitting amid the clothes and clutter of his cramped Apparel Center office as he talks. In those days he was a sales rep for Trim Surfware, a company known for Jams, the long and loose floral shorts that were then the rage.

“Everyone on the street was wearing Jams, but I saw that the surfers weren’t,” Rosenstein explains. “That’s important. Surfers set the style. What they wear today everyone else wears tomorrow. At that time surfers were wearing this washed-out, beat-up-looking canvas short with just a little bit of color. All the surf stores were selling them. I knew it was just a matter of time before the department stores caught on, and I wanted to be the guy to get there first.”

He hooked up with a friend named Bob–a Trim sales rep from Atlanta. Bob knew a designer in Georgia who could make the canvas shorts for $10 less than the competition. Thus was born Off the Top Surfware; Bob was president, Rosenstein the national sales manager.

“The first place I showed them was at Lazarus in Cincinnati,” says Rosenstein. “I was still working for Trim, but the buyer wasn’t interested in Jams. Instead, he ordered 12,000 Off the Top shorts at ten bucks a pop. That’s 120 grand. I was so excited I was shaking.”

The phone in Rosenstein’s office rings. It rings again. “I assume someone’s gonna get this,” Rosenstein calls out.

“It’s Peter calling for you,” says Ranya Verson, the office administrative manager.

“Excuse me,” he says, and picks up the phone. Verson returns to another phone conversation; across the aisle Levinson and Tom Ernst, the company’s accountant, go over the books.

Rosenstein hangs up, and he’s delighted.

“That was the guy who’s building a new development in Highland Park,” he says. “He’d like us to open an outlet there. That would be perfect. If we had an ideal customer, it’s the kind of person who lives in Highland Park.”

He continues his story about Off the Top. “We were hot for a while. Andy was also a sales rep. She and I went all over the country getting stores to sell Off the Top. They were sold in Field’s, Carson’s, Dayton-Hudson. Our big year was ’86-’87; we sold about $2 million worth. That’s a couple of thousand shorts. That doesn’t mean we made $2 million–that’s only what we sold.

“Things ended up going bad, though. Bob was staying in Georgia, paying $800 a month for the warehouse. Meanwhile, Andy and I were running all around the country, running up $10,000 a month entertaining these buyers. No one eats like a buyer.

“One day we checked into a motel in California and the phone rings. It’s the motel clerk saying, ‘Your card’s been closed by American Express.’ That was ridiculous. We were racking up bills, and Bob was sitting at home in Georgia with his Mercedes. By then Andy had come up with the idea for Fitigues.”

“We started with the concept of a reversible sweatshirt with a loose bottom,” Levinson interjects. “The idea came to me after I saw so many kids wearing their sweatshirts inside out. People are tired of being billboards for labels. They’re tired of the skintight Lycra look. Our line is oversized. It’s got a sloppy look. You can work out in it, go shopping in it, or just hang out in it. I knew we had found our niche.”

The phone rings again. It’s a buyer, says Verson, with a question about a bill. Levinson takes it.

“Anyway, we had a factory production manager named Dan, and Dan says to us, ‘I’ll set it up so you can work without Bob,'” Rosenstein continues. “We thought about it, but I still felt a commitment to Bob. So Andy and I flew to Georgia and met with Bob and his wife to show them the Fitigues line.

“Well, Bob’s wife didn’t like it. She wanted to change it. We argued with her for two hours. Then we all decided to go with it. I set up a meeting in New York with the major buyers. We did it up real nice–with lunch and everything–and the buyers were assembled, and I opened up the samples, and they were the worst. She–Bob’s wife–had changed them! The buyers said, ‘What is this stuff?’ I went into this rap, trying to describe what the clothes should have been. They said, ‘Look, Steve, we like you. We’ll give you another chance. Come back when you’ve got it together.’ God, I had made a complete ass of myself.

“That was that. I flew back to Georgia and met with Dan.”

“Without Bob?”

“Yeah. Dan started making some Fitigues samples at the same factory where we were doing Off the Top, and one day Bob walked in unannounced. I remember I was on the phone with Dan, and he says: ‘Oh no, Bob just walked in! I have to hide this stuff.’ He must have been running all around the plant.

“Bob confronted me. He said, ‘You did this behind my back.’ I said, ‘You and your wife passed on it.’ After that, we parted. It was a shame. Bob and I had always been best buddies. He kind of took me under his wing; I kind of looked up to him. I asked him a lot of questions. It was sad. There are still tensions. His wife really hates me. What can you say?”

The phone rings. In a display room across the hall, a man who looks a little like Sonny Bono is talking with great animation. “You gonna get it, Ranya?” Rosenstein calls out. She nods, and puts her other party on hold. He turns back to me.

“I asked Dan to find us another factory. He hooked us up with Josh Varat, who operates Varat Enterprises in North Carolina. We thought Varat would be some bumpkin, but he turned out to be a very successful businessman who manufactures maternity clothes.

“Basically, we needed him for the factory and to get us access to capital. He needed us because we had the rights to the Fitigues line and the wherewithal to get it in stores all over the country. Our lawyer Spray–his real name is James Sprayregen–and Josh’s lawyer ironed out a deal. We ended up signing this big, thick agreement. And now we’re ready to roll.”

“And Dan? What happened to him?”

“We got rid of Dan. He wanted too much money. He got a thank-you note. I’m sure he’s doing OK.”

The phone rings again. It’s for Rosenstein. As he talks, I pick up a copy of Sportswear International, a glossy trade magazine, and start reading an article about a company called Body Glove.

“You need an article like this in this magazine to really get going,” I tell Rosenstein when he gets off the phone.

He nods. “We’re meeting with one of their reporters next week in New York.” He picks up the magazine and stares at a picture of Body Glove’s wealthy-looking honcho.

“Body Glove started as just a wet suit,” Rosenstein says. “Now they license shoes, hats, and underwear. They do a T-shirt that says ‘Body Glove’ and stores will retail it for 25 bucks. What can I tell you? It’s crazy.”

He drops the magazine.

“We’re not greedy; we’d like to be a vertical company. That means you do everything yourself. You spin your own yarn, knit your own piece, cut it and ship it to your outlets. That way you control things; you don’t have to jump through hoops.

“So many guys lose because they try to do too much, but I’m not worried. We’re young, but we’re not too young. We’ve come fast, but we’re not going too fast. We’ll probably get hot and some giant company–a Levis or something–will buy us out. They’ll give us a few million, and we’ll go sit on a boat for a while. Then we’ll go crazy doing nothing, and start another line.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.