He's One Determined Sew And Sew

Anthony Hankins just might turn his $40 million fashion house into the next Claiborne

His Dallas studio may look like an overstocked toy store, but fashion isn't child's play for designer Anthony Mark Hankins. Despite such juvenile props as a bathroom with a Mickey Mouse theme and a collection of 3,000 dolls, and despite his often-manic manner, the 28-year-old entrepreneur is dead serious about his bustling clothing business. "There's no reason," he declares without a hint of modesty, "why Anthony Mark Hankins cannot be as big as Liz Claiborne or Tommy Hilfiger."

He has a way to go. Anthony Mark Hankins Inc. did $40 million in sales last year, compared to $2.2 billion for Claiborne, the career-clothing giant, and $661 million for sportswear star Hilfiger. Still, that's not too shabby for a company that was started just three years ago.

More than 1,000 stores carry Hankins' moderately priced designs, from classy retailers such as Nordstrom and Marshall Field to Sears Roebuck and Target Stores, which aim at the mass market. He has his own show on the Home Shopping Network. And he has even gone global. A deal with the U.S. Army & Air Force Exchange Service put his label into PXs around the world. "I'm not big-big yet," he says with a laugh, "but give me two years."

Hankins' boasts are underpinned by a product that's almost as striking as his ambitions: stylish, affordable separates that women can wear nearly anywhere. In vivid reds, yellows, and fuschias, his designs come in sizes 4 through 26W (depending on style), and $125 will buy a complete ensemble of jacket, blouse, and pants. At these prices, customers get rayon instead of silk, and elastic, not fitted, waistlines (but not, he insists, clothing made in sweatshops--though 65% of it is made abroad.) "Many designers are ashamed to put their names on anything less than $200," he says. "Not me."

"KING OF HEARTS." Hankins puts not only his name but his smiling face on every clothing tag. And that's the second secret of his success: marketing a personality as exuberant as his designs. A tireless--some say shameless--self-promoter, he once appeared in a Valentine's Day promotional kit as "The King of Hearts," complete with crown and long red robe. "He's willing to knock on all doors to get an audience," says Lisle Budden, senior vice-president of Dallas-based Focus Apparel Group Inc., which manufactures most of his designs. Adds Michael C. Crowley, a Home Shopping Network executive: "He's just a terrific talent, with this unbelievable personality that makes everybody just love him."

Hankins learned early on how to compete for attention as the youngest of seven children in working-class Elizabeth, N.J. He began sewing at seven, he says, stitching up his first creation for his mother, Mary, who proudly wore it to a wedding--crooked seams and all. At 13, he bought a sewing machine with $100 saved from a summer job, and by high school, Hankins was designing band uniforms and prom dresses.

After studying design at New York's Pratt Institute, he realized a lifelong dream by enrolling in France's most prestigious fashion school, the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Typically, the financially strapped Hankins managed to achieve his goal by enlisting the support of others. Before going, he pestered a local television reporter into doing a story on his quest, hoping that the publicity would spur someone to invest in his sojourn. Someone did, sending him an airline ticket the day after the story was picked up by the Today Show. To this day, Hankins says, he doesn't know who the donor was.

Once abroad, Hankins snagged a living stipend and an internship at Yves Saint Laurent, his boyhood idol. Christophe Girard, director of the couture house of Societe Yves Saint Laurent, says the Algerian-born couturier regularly helps out foreign students from modest backgrounds. Girard recalls Hankins, who still sends him show catalogs, as "a bulldozer...a volcano. Very ambitious, very sophisticated...mad about fashion."

As other Americans have done before him, Hankins concluded there were limits to the market potential of garments costing as much as $20,000 apiece. In 1990, he returned to New York, went to work for knitwear designer Adrienne Vittadini, and began spinning entrepreneurial plans. Having watched other fashion rockets sputter because they lacked basic business savvy, Hankins made an unusual move. He signed on with J.C. Penney Inc. as a quality control inspector in Los Angeles. When calling on vendors, he would seek their advice on how to start and run a business. On factory floors, he talked with workers about how to boost productivity and hold down costs. "The whole time I was in L.A., I was taking notes," Hankins says.

PENNEY ANTE. Eventually, he pitched Penney executives on making him their first in-house designer. Although they first turned down the 21-year-old upstart, he didn't go away. Instead, after seeking the advice of managers who had helped him, he refined his customer profile and juiced up his presentation for a second try, casting himself as someone who could develop Penney's plans for a line of African-American fashions. He also added puppets and Barbie dolls wearing his designs. This time, he made a sale. "That was pure Anthony," says Bruce Ackerman, a former Penney executive who serves as CEO of Hankins' firm. "He never takes no for an answer when he knows the right answer is yes."

By 1994, Hankins says, he had decided he was ready to move on. He wanted to expand beyond the designs he had been doing, which were targeted primarily at African-American customers. "Why should we pigeonhole ourselves?" he asks. But when he left the company, in May 1994, he didn't leave empty-handed. With him went Ackerman, a 37-year Penney veteran, and an exclusive one-year licensing contract with his former employer. That Penney ante helped Hankins capitalize his own fledgling company a month later. (Hankins owns 60% of the firm, Ackerman, 30%, and a silent partner, 10%.)

Last February, Hankins landed a deal with another merchandising mammoth, Penney's archrival Sears. His signature line of career sportswear is currently sold in 100 stores, and Sears plans to double that number by the end of next year. "He's a very good business partner," says Lana Cain, vice-president of Sears' ready-to-wear and intimate apparel division, who praises him for displaying "so much energy and so much passion for the business." At Penney, however, the passion is no longer mutual. A spokesman says the retailer dropped Hankins' line not long ago because "There's a lack of demand for it."

Maybe so, at Penney--but that has hardly been the case at the Home Shopping Network, where Hankins started his monthly TV appearances last year. "Our customers really respond to him," says Crowley, the network's vice-president of merchandising. "Every time he's on, he doubles the [estimated sales] numbers."

Soon, Hankins hopes to charm an even wider audience. This fall, he'll launch his own line of dolls on Home Shopping Network, and introduce his home furnishings and jacket lines in retail stores starting with Sears. Next year, look for men's clothing and fragrances, a possible expansion into South Africa, and maybe even a syndicated TV-talk show. His autobiography, tentatively titled "Fabric of Dreams," is due out in March from E.P. Dutton.

Hankins, of course, is already gazing beyond those mercantile horizons. "I won't be satisfied until I'm as well known as Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren," he asserts. Considering what Anthony Mark Hankins has achieved before reaching 30, such dreams are by no means spun from whole cloth.

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