NAPLES — Spencer Antle set out to design the perfect bikini for the woman who was his girlfriend at the time.
That creative impulse eight years ago also led to the founding of his own apparel company that now has a store on Third Street South in Naples.
Antle has turned that initial bikini idea into Island Company, a multi-tiered company that designs and manufactures a full line of men’s and women’s travel apparel. He markets it via some of the world’s most exclusive island resorts, and more recently, through a chain of stores on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, the Grand Caymans, Palm Beach and now Naples.
“When you’re hit by a really tough wave, the only way to keep from crashing is to keep your nose down and hit the throttle hard,” Antle said, talking about driving his Super Drifter sea plane but also his philosophy in running Island Company.
Business is booming, despite an economic climate that has caused even well-established fashion companies and retailers to close their doors. The difference may be that Island Company isn’t really a fashion company – just the opposite in fact.
The romantic line of casually elegant linen and cotton tropical essentials are made up of classics and basics that ignore all of the latest fashion colors and trends. The vast majority of the styles don’t even have a visible logo.
“The people who wear our brand don’t necessarily want to be defined by a clothing logo or to borrow an image from a brand,” Antle said. “They’re individuals who are very comfortable in their own skin.”
For a brand that still isn’t broadly known, Island Company has attracted a loyal and independent-minded group of fans that includes Jonny Depp, Richard Branson, Molly Sims, Keith Richards and Brad Pitt — to name a few.
The company’s motto “Escape. Travel. Live.” is, in many ways, a mantra that fuels all aspects of the apparel line’s creative process, from the design of the clothes, to the decoration of stores, to powerfully tantalizing merchandising.
In some ways reminiscent of Banana Republic’s initial days as an independent adventure travel outfitter/lifestyle company, Island Company markets fantasies and then offers a line of clothes to make those dreams feel more tangible.
“Their clothes are just very easy to wear,” said frequent Island Company customer Jacalyn Soura of Royal Harbor in Naples. “The store is also just a fun place to shop. I always feel like I’ve been on vacation after I’ve been in there.”
In fact, most of the real reasons for Island Company’s success have as much to do with Antle’s own eclectic background, quirky vision and total disregard (if not outright distain) for conventional wisdom, as they do with his business plan.
At some point during his fateful bikini quest, Antle was struck with the idea of simply creating the suit that he was looking for himself and making a few extra to try to sell. At the time he had no fashion experience, but several phone calls led him to a family-owned apparel factory in Brazil, where he ultimately had samples made for 13 different styles.
“I handed the guys at the factory some drawings that I had hand-made, practically in crayon, and two weeks later I was holding the pieces that I had envisioned in my hands. I loved having that kind of creative control. That was when it hit me that I could really do this. I haven’t looked back since,” owner Spencer Antle said.
“The whole process amazed me,” Antle said. “I handed the guys at the factory some drawings that I had hand-made, practically in crayon, and two weeks later I was holding the pieces that I had envisioned in my hands. I loved having that kind of creative control. That was when it hit me that I could really do this. I haven’t looked back since.”
From there, Antle added 10 more bikinis to his fledgling line, as well as men’s swimming trunks and board shorts. He sank $50,000 — essentially his entire life’s savings — into production and drove around with his samples in the trunk of his car, selling swimwear store to store.
According to Antle, the line did well right from the start, and grew about 100 percent a year, every year, until 2008, when the U.S. economy fell apart.
“Customers suddenly stopped shopping, retail buyers suddenly stopped buying. Literally everything ground to a halt,” Antle said.
“All of my advisers basically told me to move into my warehouse and just ride out the storm, but that sounded awful. I thought back to my seaplane instructor’s advice about hitting the throttle hard when things got tough and decided to take all the money that I had earned and open my own stores. Everyone, including my father, told me that I was nuts, but I decided to do it anyway.”
It’s a move that paid off for Antle because it gave him complete merchandising control of his line — definitely one of his strong suits.
Antle studied business at the University of Miami, but took off for Los Angeles halfway through to pursue a career in acting. After a few years of auditioning and working scores of odd jobs, he returned to the University of Miami to study creative writing, with the goal of returning to Hollywood as a film writer/director.
“I had always been very creative when I was a kid. I loved writing stories about travel — especially to the islands of the Caribbean and I thought that making films would allow me to produce that feeling that I loved so much and to share it with others,” he said.
Although he came close to selling one of his Caribbean-centered scripts, none ultimately got made, and Antle began filming and directing television commercials – skills that he uses today to create all of Island Company’s marketing and promotional materials. He also uses the director’s eye for detail that he cultivated during those years to create the design of each of his stores, which are actually more art directed than they are decorated, with props, authentic island furniture, reggae music and tall bottles of Rum and Coke, which the store’s employees offer freely to customers in Island Company tumblers.
Antle’s firm supplies clothing to the world’s highest-end island resorts, with plans to launch a new line of sunglasses as well as bath and body care. With $3 million in annual sales, the company is listed among Inc. Magazine’s top 500 fastest-growing private companies for 2010.
“It’s great that we’re doing so well, but for me, this was never really about the money,” said the 40-year-old Antle, who adds that he frequently works 12-hour days doing everything from creating clothing styles and selecting fabrics, to choosing props, music and furniture, to hanging pictures and light fixtures in each of his stores.
“I’m at a point in my life when fun no longer comes after work. I’d rather quit and be a dive instructor, than do something that I hate every day. I’m lucky that I have a job that I can be really passionate about.”
Nearly eight years ago, Antle penned the phrase: “Quit your job Buy a ticket Get a tan Fall in Love Never return” on the back of a cocktail napkin. At that time, he was close to broke and that was essentially a list of his career goals.
Today, the saying is printed in bold letters on the back of his best-selling T-shirt.
“It still works for me,” Antle said. “Aside from the ‘quit your job’ part, those are still my goals,” he said, grinning. “I’ve just added a couple of others to go with them.”
- The National Retail Federation is the world's largest retail trade association. It represents an industry with more than 1.6 million U.S. retail establishments, more than 24 million employees - about one in five American workers - and 2008 sales of $4.6 trillion.
- Website for Island Company, a multi-tiered company that designs and manufactures a full line of men’s and women’s travel apparel