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String Fling: Ujena's Low Rider bikini ($59, specially made for photo shoot in metallic silver, at www.ujena.com or call 800.448.5362).

Wade in the USA

Small local companies like Ujena Swimwear and X-Treme Wear Company tread the choppy waters of indie sportswear and defy globalization by manufacturing locally

By Traci Vogel

NORMALLY, one doesn't associate Brazilian-style bikinis with family values. But the first thing that happens when I walk through the front door of Ujena Swimwear in Mountain View, purveyor of sexy string thongs and barely there bikini tops, is that I almost stumble over a ribbon-bedecked tricycle.

"Oh, watch out for that," warns Lisa Anderson-Wall, Ujena's president. "Sometimes my son hangs out here, and he likes to ride around the warehouse."

Anderson-Wall, petite and brown-haired and brown-eyed in a jacket as pink as spring candy, is the daughter of Bob Anderson, Ujena's founder. Twenty years ago, when Bob was disengaging himself from his prior project, Runner's World magazine (conflict-of-interest disclaimer: Bob Anderson is a member of Metro's board of directors), he cast his eye toward bikinis. Runner's World had offered--and still does--a line of running clothes that had proved popular, and Anderson thought a swimwear catalog might do even better. At the time, his daughter says, such catalogs were still relatively rare. The Internet was but a glimmer in Al Gore's eye, and mail order was an old-fashioned business.

Twenty years later, Ujena (www.ujena.com--the name is an homage to Eugene's, a defunct restaurant in Palo Alto that Bob loved) pumps out more than 200 bikinis a day, all under the watchful eyes of Lisa and her husband, Justin Wall, who is the director of sales. The company employs about 50 year-round employees, most of whom work at the dozen or so sewing machines sitting at the back of the warehouse in Mountain View.

The warehouse is nothing like a sweatshop; it's brightly lit with natural light, and rolls of fabric add dashes of cheerful color. Rows of shelves lined with boxes of ready-to-be-shipped suits give the place the feel of a library. Employees, mostly Latino, sew away at different work stations. One man cuts fabric at a long table; in a glass-walled room nearby, a woman sews the bias, the strip of fabric that trims the bikini top. The majority of the sewers multitask, Lisa says, to stave off the inevitable boredom.

Pretty much everything that happens at Ujena--aside from the photo shoots--takes place right here at the warehouse, and everyone knows one another and one another's children. Lisa designs the suits, getting input from those on the production line as to what works and what doesn't, and from staffers like Trisha Tompkins, Ujena's marketing manager who also models suits for the catalog. It's this family atmosphere, Lisa says, that makes the company fun.

So why not expand the fun? Why not outsource manufacturing to China or Mexico or even Brazil, where swimsuit making is a lucrative art?

"We have purchased a few suits manufactured in Brazil," Lisa admits. "They're great, but ... the style, the sewing, they just aren't Ujena."

In fact, Ujena used to be a bigger company--not long after it started, it employed more than 300 people. "But what happens at that size," Lisa says, "is that as a seasonal business you end up having a ton of employees for six months out of the year. Then you have to lay those employees off and find new ones a year later."

Plus, Lisa says, "None of us wants to be working 80 hours a week, stressed out all the time. I don't think [the company's size] limits us in a bad way."

So smaller, as suits a bikini company, turns out to be better for Ujena.

In-Sourcing

There's no dirtier word in Silicon Valley these days than "outsourcing," and when people mouth this dirty word they're usually referring to tech companies and call centers. But computers aren't the only goods people want to buy on the cheap--in the past few years, since the passage of NAFTA, more and more of California's apparel manufacturing has gone over the border to Mexico. The trend has especially hit Southern California's design districts hard.

Prior to World War I, the Bay Area reigned as the center of California's clothing production, but Los Angeles has since emerged as the state's design and production capital. Today, 80 percent of California's clothing manufacturing takes place in the Los Angeles area. In fact, L.A. employs more people involved in the apparel industry than anywhere else in the United States--although an exact number is hard to reach, given the number of undocumented workers and unregistered shops.

Currently, Ujena says it's the only company registered as a clothing manufacturer in Santa Clara County, but there are plenty of small designers and businesses struggling to make a living in the ready-to-wear trade.

X-Treme Wear Company, based in San Jose, is one of those companies. Launched in 2002 by founder Armando Lopez and two partners, X-Treme Wear is truly tiny--it has six employees--and is completely web-based. As its name implies, the company sells clothes geared toward the extreme-sports fanatic.

"We wanted to do something completely different from Fox and No Fear, which are pretty played-out brands," says Armando, "so we thought, let's start a clothing line that you can only get online. ... You can't just go to any store and get it."

The playing-hard-to-get approach has had its ups and downs, especially since X-Treme Wear lacks that sportswear magnet, a celebrity spokesperson.

"In the past year, every actor and his brother has started a clothing line, which makes it tough for us, because we're a privately held clothing line with no big name behind us," Armando admits. Instead, the company has focused on developing an underground buzz through word of mouth in the extreme sports community. Eventually, Armando hopes to reach a level at which the company could afford a spokesperson, and in the next two years he plans on opening an X-Treme Wear retail store in the Bay Area.

In the meantime, X-Treme's low profile works as an advantage to its customers and its employees in one way: the design process, like Ujena's, is open to a lot of back and forth with customers. X-Treme Wear's website (www.x-tremewearco.com) features a preview section where people can try out and rate clothing designs before they're put into regular production. Armando and his staff come up with the designs, have some test models made and put them out to the public.

"The way we figure is, if we have a good quality product, we'll have return business," Armando maintains. "We did a promotion where we gave away a lot of inventory when we first started, and people liked it so much that they came back."

Women especially seem to appreciate the company's sweat outfits, which are among their bestselling items. Made of a heavy-duty fleece, the sweatpants are cut lower in the waistline than regular sweatpants, making for a sleeker, more up-to-date look.

Furthermore, Armando claims, "Our sweatshirts are the best out there ... women just keep coming back and buying again and again."

This is the most valuable asset for a company like Ujena or X-Treme Wear--customer loyalty. Where a larger business might have to work for the personal edge, the small business already has it.


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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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