Tommy Bahama menswear brand had its roots in Minnesota 20 years ago

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2013 - 9:42 PM
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Bob Emfield of Orono, one of the founders of the Tommy Bahama menswear line, relaxed on his 31-foot Skiff Craft boat on Lake Minnetonka.

Photo: Bruce Bisping • bbisping@startribune.com,

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One of the iconoclastic boys of the beach has his roots in the land of polar fleece and mukluks.

Tommy Bahama, the menswear mainstay known for loosefitting silks and palm-tree graphics, grew out of an idea that Minnesota clothing executive Bob Emfield roughed out on a yellow legal pad with a colleague.

Starting with a character description of an island guy who never had to go back to work, they built the brand into a $500 million business that gave aspiring, paunchy, middle-aged American dudes the thumbs-up to wear a casual shirt untucked.

Emfield came up with the name, and Tommy Bahama appeared 20 years ago this month.

“It just came to me,” he said. “I wanted it to have an island feel, and ‘Tommy Bahama’ had a nice tintinnabulation.”

Emfield, a man whose tanned skin and casual attire seem at odds with his immaculately trimmed silver hair and mustache, has retired from the day-to-day details of the company. But he still sometimes attends sales meetings and remains the walking, talking, relaxing embodiment of his co-creation.

In the late ’80s, Emfield and his Generra clothing associate Tony Margolis crafted their character as if they were amateur novelists — a leisurely man of casual tastes whose deceased parents left him a coconut planation, who smoked Rocky Patel cigars, drank Red Stripe, and drove a vintage Volkswagen bug convertible with water skis and casting rods in the back.

Everything from what he ate to whom he dated was written down and filed away. Just one important facet of his character was forgotten: what he wore.

After an especially trying week at Generra, Margolis asked Emfield, “Do you still have the stuff on the island guy?”

Emfield, the visionary, and Margolis, the orchestra leader/marketer, added another founder, Lucio Dalla Gasperina, as the tastemaker and designer. Dalla Gasperina took the island guy and imagined what the man with the “life is one long weekend” motto would wear.

What makes the brand work, said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, is that you can wear a Tommy shirt in Minnesota that can transport you to the Florida Keys. “Everything from the fit to the fashion makes people feel happy wearing it,” she said.

Tommy was one of the first menswear brands to adopt vanity sizing, where a guy who usually wore an extra large could fit into a large. “It’s what the brand is all about,” said Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at Kantar Retail. “Making customers relax and feel good about themselves.”

Despite Emfield’s love of Minnesota, he and his cohorts never had Tommy wearing skiwear or fleece, although the brand has since expanded to four-season clothing. In fact, the Midwest continues to be one of the company’s most consistent markets.

It started when Midwesterners would see the clothes in specialty, surf and pro shops when they were on vacation, Emfield said. “Then they’d go back home and ask their local men’s store why they didn’t carry Tommy Bahama.”

The original store and adjoining restaurant were in Naples, Fla., and the first shops to carry the line in the Twin Cities were the Foursome in Wayzata (now in Plymouth) and Hubert White in downtown Minneapolis.

The Foursome still carries the full line of Tommy Bahama. It’s the store’s biggest seller in sportswear, according to Scott Winterbottom, general merchandising manager at the Foursome. “We’re probably their largest single store account in the Midwest.”

Winterbottom likes the way the brand has stayed true to its roots, but manages to attract a somewhat wider demographic.

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  • “Relax” is the message on Bob Emfield’s boat, an idea embodied in the fictional character Tommy Bahama, with his loosefitting silks and palm-tree emblems. The brand that evokes a tropical feel actually had its start in Minnesota.

  • Bob Emfield, Orono resident, one of the founders of the Tommy Baham line was interviewed on 7/12/13 at his home. His no shoe strings reflects the Tommy Bahama style. Tommy Bahama turned 20 this year. The iconic menswear brand, with its loose-fitting silks and palm tree emblems, started in Florida, but it's a Minnesotan who's responsible for creating the fictional icon to middle-aged American men, and giving him his name. Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune bbisping@startribune.com Bob Emfield/source.

  • Orono retiree Bob Emfield, one of the founders of the Tommy Bahama line, continues to live the Tommy life 20 years after he helped invent it.BRUCE BISPING bbisping@star tribune.com

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