With his Southern Tide label, upstart clothing designer wants to take on the big boys

Robin Cowie NalepaNovember 8, 2007 

Allen Stephenson, 24, started his own clothing line, Southern Tide, out of his bedroom in Greenville. He started by making designs for a line of neckties on his computer, and went on to make a line of polo shirts that are now sold in finer mens shops.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN • THE STATE

GREENVILLE -- Standing on a downtown street corner, Allen Stephenson looks like an out-of-place college student.

He sports flip-flops, khaki shorts and a light-blue polo-style shirt of his own design.

Stephenson, hands tucked casually in his pockets, waits for a visitor in front of the nondescript building where he spends most of his time. His head swivels as he looks up and down the street.

But make no mistake -- this 24-year-old knows exactly which direction he's headed, even if he arrived at this spot through impetus and detours. His unassuming manner conceals a driving ambition and entrepreneurial spirit.

Stephenson, the creative force building Southern Tide clothing company as an aspiring rival to Polo and Lacoste, grounds himself in tradition, keeps a close eye on the details and has his sights set on success.

In Stephenson's office, framed prints of puppies, ducks and Confederate generals sit on the floor, tops leaning against a wall. A long windowsill holds an Italian dictionary, sales books and a Pantone color fan. A makeshift desk holds an Apple desktop computer and charging BlackBerry but little else.

On a recent fall afternoon, Stephenson alternately stood and sat behind the desk as he talked about how he'd come to be there -- like the scissors incident.

It's a little fuzzy in his memory, but ridding his father's jeans pocket of a stitched-on tag was the objective. He isn't sure how old he was at the time, but he remembers looking up at the pocket.

The unsuccessful cut and run asserted Stephenson's own aesthetics. The Greenville native, son of a lawyer and a nurse, developed a taste for the finer things early.

At 6 years old, he wore his first tuxedo to an uncle's wedding. When it came time to return the rental suit, little Allen asked his mother if he could keep it.

"I thought that it was so funny that a kid would want a tuxedo," said his mother, Dianne Stephenson. "He just loved it."

Allen remembers looking in the mirror while wearing the tux and feeling important.

"I've always known dressing is everything," he said. "I mean, if you're wearing a suit versus a sweat suit, the man with the suit is going to get a lot more respect, regardless of his attitude or what his intentions really are."

While in high school, he sharpened his business skills and earned money by cutting lawns. With the help of friends hired for $10 to $12 an hour, Stephenson grew his venture to dozens of lawns per week. At $40 a yard, he made a lot of pocket change.

As a biology major at the University of South Carolina, he planned on following the lead of his grandfather and the four generations before him and becoming a doctor.

He'd build a career around plastic surgery. Life was proceeding as planned.

Stephenson is a self-admitted girl-chaser.

One girl. One chase.

But that chase landed him in Florence, Italy, for five months in a study-abroad program.

He hadn't planned on the trip. Hadn't planned on dating a determined young woman set on studying in Rome. But with a little trickery, he found himself in Europe, only an hour train ride from the object of his affection, Rebecca Burbank.

"He played it off very well, implying he would go to Germany or another country," Burbank said, laughing.

While in Italy, Burbank watched as Stephenson soaked up the experience. He learned to speak a little of the language. The country's culture and design enthralled him.

The Italians translated their world into their designs, from clothes to cars, Stephenson said.

"I think life in Europe gave me perspective," Stephenson said in an e-mail. "It gave me a different place to view my homeland from."

By the time Stephenson returned to USC from Italy, he'd begun thinking of ways to reconcile his passion for design with his life path.

Creating and building came more easily to him than molecular biology and the answers to his medical school prep books. It always had. It also made him happier.

In the fall of his senior year, a class project for a speech class had Stephenson speaking about an imaginary chocolate factory. Instead, he winged it.

He presented an idea that grew from his European adventure: a clothing design company called Southern Tide. He showed sketches, talked of his concept for working with stores and producing high-quality classic clothing.

Stephenson remembers the instructor asking, "What are you doing sitting in my business introductory speech class?"

"That was the end of college," Stephenson said.

He packed up his dorm room and headed home to Greenville that night.

For months, Stephenson holed up in his boyhood bedroom, working feverishly. He deconstructed polo shirts, studying every aspect from the material to stitching. He taught himself a computer graphics program to design emblems and logos inspired by icons of his Southern heritage, like fishing-lure hang tags (he calls them hang toys).

He then designed everything about the Southern Tide shirt -- from the blue skipjack emblem to the brushed-cotton interior and the amount of thread used on the button. He researched factories and manufacturers. He paid for prototypes, rejected some, modified others and tweaked his design constantly.

In March, Southern Tide launched its first shirt to compete with other high-end brands in upscale men's retail stores.

"I've had a lot of people, especially before I actually had shirts in stores, think that I was just playing business," Stephenson said.

Stephenson's mother, Dianne, who is a partner in Southern Tide and one of her son's biggest fans, said she always believed he would succeed, even when others weren't so sure. She's adamant about her son's dedication to his vision.

"Every possible square inch of that shirt is what Allen designed," she said. "He's a perfectionist, and his work represents him. It's a personal thing."

In the eight months since the launch, the company has changed significantly. The less-than-homey digs of a run-down building house operations. Shirts now sell in as many as 65 stores across the country. And several new employees share the workload.

James Comfort ("as in Southern") contacted Stephenson about a job after the 22-year-old bought a Southern Tide shirt from the M. H. Frank store in Clemson. Comfort loved the shirt so much, he went back to the retailer to learn more about the company. Now, the Spanish and international trade major is part of the team in both name and look.

"Everyone gets it," Comfort said. "We want (success) to happen just as much as Allen and Dianne do."

The company is launching new clothing pieces, including women's shirts and pants.

"The shirt is just my start," Stephenson said. "I'm just going to make more complicated things that blow people's minds more."

PEEK INSIDE A CLOTHIER'S CLOSET

So what's in a clothing designer's own closet?

Allen Stephenson owns four suits, 15 polo shirts, five pairs of shorts and five pairs of pants.

The owner of Southern Tide clothing company said he edits his closet whenever he buys a new item. "I only keep what I need."

The key is quality over quantity.

"I recommend that for anyone," he said.

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