SUCCESS BY DESIGN
The subsidiary of publicly-owned State-O-Maine shot past the $100 million mark back in 1993 and hasn't looked back. Since then it has passed up a half dozen former industry leaders to enjoy a secure place among a handful of prestigige sportswear brands that enjoy truly global recognition. This steep growth curve merely continues the one established back in 1983 when Chu founded Nautica.
His partner in the startup was a restaurateur who supplied the bulk of the funding but little expertise in the fough-and-tumble apparel industry. Back then Chu was only 30. "I ran the business," he says. "I did the design, the sourcing, the selling, almost everything."
And he did them well. First year sales were a modest $700,000 but the company's offerings of brightly-colored outerwear caught the consumer's fancy. The second years sales more than trebeled to $2.5 million. The fast growht, with its attendant growth in risk capital, worried his partner. "He didn't understand the potential growth of the business," recalls Chu.
That same year the partner lost no time in selling his share to State-O-Maine, a small garment manufacturer looking for help in expanding its line which then was limited to bathrobes. Nautica was the ideal fit. "We struck a deal and developed a whole lifestyle collection," says Chu. "Business really zoomed."
When Nautica became a subsidiary of a public company, Chu's stake shrank to something like 13.5%. But because he's the creative and business force behind Nautica's spectacular growth and solid branding, there is little danger that some corporate overlord will impose irksome restraints. If anything, Chu has become the engine that pulls the entire State-O-Maine train up to the top of the global fashion heap, into the rarefied ranks of premium labels like Ralph Lauren and rival Tommy Hilfiger which, ironically, is majority-owned by a Hong Kong-based Chinese businessman.
These days Nautica employs over several dozen designers, giving Chu the freedom to devote more energies to growing the company. But he maintains aesthetic oversight of the booming empire. "Designing is a very emotional, very personal thing," he explains. "Running a business is a very rational thing. I wear two very different hats."
Consequently, Chu must shuttle back and forth every day between his corporate business office and his design studio, both in Manhattan. He also lives in a Manhattan apartment whose size and location is extremely modest considering his growing fortune.
One cornerstone of Nautica's successful strategy has been Chu's firm commitment to intensive advertising which has included expensive multi-page bind-in ads printed on thick card stock running in leading national monthly glossies like Vanity Fair and GQ.
Another part of Chu's strategy has been to move aggressively into licensing the brand in overseas markets like Japan, Corea, Thailand, Europe, South America and more recently, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. This international scope comes naturally to a man who was born in Taiwan. He stumbled into fashion on a fluke. One summer while in high school he took some courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology because he liked drawing and was considering a career in advertising or architecture. One of his classes happened to be in fashion design. The professor was impressed by the young man's natural ability and urged him to enroll in FIT's fashion design program.
"He said, 'You just might like it,'" recalls Chu, laughing at the memory. David Chu might as well laugh all the way to the bank. [End]