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FEATURE
  • Catwalk’s traditionally black and white line has blossomed with splashes of co lour for 2011.
  • Catwalk’s traditionally black and white line has blossomed with splashes of co lour for 2011.
  • Catwalk’s traditionally black and white line has blossomed with splashes of co lour for 2011.
  • Catwalk’s traditionally black and white line has blossomed with splashes of co lour for 2011.
  • Catwalk’s traditionally black and white line has blossomed with splashes of co lour for 2011.

Living Nine Lives

Hamilton’s Catwalk Artwear has had to be more agile than most
By Jonathan oke

These are trying times. The price of success—even mere existence—in the business world has gone up in terms of hours on the job and sleepless nights. The cost is higher still for start-up companies, particularly those brave and brazen enough to take on the flooded fashion industry.

Sima Anvari’s grandmother, who had a fashion house and worked in the world of haute couture in World War II England, had cautioned her about the perilous and unpredictable nature of that line of work. As had her mother, who produced a line of predominantly casual wear.

It didn’t seem like a good fit for Cleveland native Lauren Demerling either—a woman who’d always considered a needle and thread to be weapons of mass destruction. Finding work hard to come by as an architectural designer, however, Demerling left Cleveland in 1990 to begin her own Hamilton business, painting trompe l’oeil murals, which she maintained for 16 years. Her work in a furniture store on Locke Street attracted the attention of a young couple in 1995—Mehran Anvari (now a gastrointestinal surgeon at St. Joseph’s) and his Aussie bride, Sima. They hired Demerling to paint a Tuscan landscape in their basement and a lifesize carousel in their newborn daughter’s bedroom. When the Anvaris moved in 1998, they sought out Demerling to work through the entire home. Then they didn’t see each other again for another seven years, when a leak in the roof required repairs to a mural.

By that time Demerling, a competitive amateur golfer, had a new hobby. “I really hated golf clothing,” she recalls. She began designing her own golf tops—freehand sketches— and handing them off to a seamstress to do the hard labour. In another happenstance, her mother bought her—of all things—a sewing machine for her birthday. While Demerling had no knowledge or aptitude for the apparatus, she did possess a serious stubborn streak. “My mom was 80 years old at the time. I figured I had to put the machine to use, so I thought I would make her something as a gift. I was sure it would be an absolute disaster. It was a long-zip fleece. I kept calling my sister in Cleveland for help. But I was really, really stubborn about completing it. I finished it in four days—zipper, long sleeves, collar and even sewed a label in the back. My mom didn’t believe I made it. I had to get my sister to attest to it.”

If she could handle her mother’s fleece, she could do something about her golf apparel, figured Demerling, who began sewing her own designs. Players on Hamilton-area driving ranges and elsewhere soon approached to inquire about her fashionable tops.

Peppered with offers to turn her sideline into a career, Demerling took a leap of faith and prepared to debut her new line at the 2005 Ontario PGA Merchandise Show. That’s when Sima and her husband came calling to repair the damaged mural. They struck up a conversation, and Lauren and Sima, the latter of whom had been putting her McMaster University degree in child psychology to use, decided to join forces.

Demerling had already registered the Catwalk Performance Artwear name and logo earlier that year. “I love cats; they’re agile creatures. And models walk on a catwalk, so it was a fusion of style and agility,” she explains. “The clothing had to perform on the golf course, and the ‘Artwear’ was added, since this is art for the body.

“I wanted to create something that women would wear someplace other than the golf course as well—although the name is a bit of a mouthful,” she smiles. “If I had to do it again, I’d probably create a logo that only had three letters.” Demerling’s Catwalk designs draw inspiration from her architecture and mural-painting days. “You can trick the eye into seeing what you want it to see,” she says. “By using colour and panels, one can emphasize certain areas of the body, while distracting from others, creating a silhouette that flatters the female figure.”

This spring’s new lines reflect that philosophy, incorporating a blend of prints and patterns in their Black White Grey line, eye-catching colours in the Blue Lime series and a punchy mix of styles in Catwalk’s Pink collection.

While the customer has been an easy sell since day one, being a new kid on the block, particularly as the golf market was beginning to follow the world economy into a recession, has proved daunting on occasion.

“Since our designs are not traditional, it’s not always easy convincing buyers who see it for the first time that these unusual, edgy styles will sell,” says Anvari. “But we’ve always thought, ‘What can we do to make it easier for women to buy our clothes?’ So we have clothing that’s convertible, that’s easy to care for, that is flexible in its styling. The average woman golfer does not play every day. So if they buy a $100 top, they’re going to want to wear it elsewhere.”

Maintaining that unique look can be challenging. “There is a lot of pressure to conform,” Anvari admits. “People in this industry often start out with fantastic ideas. But by their second season, they’re pressured to conform. But Lauren and I agree that we’re not going to put in this kind of time and effort just to do what everyone else is doing.

“We don’t budge in our vision,” Demerling adds. “When the manufacturer says, ‘You realize there are 36 pieces in this shirt?’ we say, ‘Yes—the same 36 pieces that were there when you agreed to make it!’”

Walking the walk
Anvari and Demerling live the Catwalk credo, sporting their wares in all walks of life, while testing new designs on the golf course—“Making sure the scorecard fits in your pocket and that there are places to put tees—things like that.”

As in all partnerships, chemistry is key. Demerling handles the design while Anvari, who left Australia midway through a business degree in 1992 to follow her fiancé to Hamilton, “handles everything else,” Lauren says. “How Sima does what she does—as one person—I really have no idea.

“We’re a great team,” Demerling continues. “We laugh, even when we’re crying. It’s been a great experience. We’ve unexpected,” says Anvari. “We know after six years that stuff happens. A lot of what we’ve learned has been through mistakes. The key is to handle what comes our way with honesty and integrity.”

The Canadian golf community has, consequently, supported the twosome. “Golf in Canada is a small family; it’s all about relationships,” says Anvari. “A lot of people in the industry will take you by the hand and help you, especially the Ontario companies. Many of us started around the same time and we look after each other, even when they’re a competitor. They’ll tell us, ‘We just met this guy— he would be a great fit for you.’ It’s a tribute to the culture of this industry. And, of course, we do the same for them.” Sometimes the help you need is closer at hand. When learned a lot about ourselves.”

Such as resilience. “My mother warned me to accept the unexpected,” says Anvari. “We know after six years that stuff happens. A lot of what we’ve learned has been through mistakes. The key is to handle what comes our way with honesty and integrity.”

The Canadian golf community has, consequently, supported the twosome. “Golf in Canada is a small family; it’s all about relationships,” says Anvari. “A lot of people in the industry will take you by the hand and help you, especially the Ontario companies. Many of us started around the same time and we look after each other, even when they’re a competitor. They’ll tell us, ‘We just met this guy— he would be a great fit for you.’ It’s a tribute to the culture of this industry. And, of course, we do the same for them.”

Sometimes the help you need is closer at hand. When Demerling developed a creative block for a new short-sleeve top design, Anvari called upon her psychology skills and asked her partner to visualize what their colleague and friend at Golfweek.com, Ashley Davis Crain, would wear (both Crain and Ashleigh Korzack had worn Catwalk apparel on The Golf Channel series Highway 18). Demerling had new patterns sketched in a matter of moments.

“That shirt, which we called the Ashlee, ended up being one of our biggest sellers last year,” Anvari observes.

Success in today’s fashion industry, however, exacts a heavy toll. Demerling recalls a two-week span with a total of 15 hours of sleep two years ago, when they were trying to get their shipments out. But sleep, even when it comes, is rarely sound for those adapting to the trials and tribulations of being a small fish in the big pond of offshore manufacturing. “There are so many things out of your control,” notes Demerling. “If we could make the fabric, dye it and manufacture it ourselves, we would. You put your heart and soul into something, and then you hand it over on a platter to the manufacturer, trusting that they will handle the production and delivery with integrity. Early in our career we had a pant manufacturer tell us they got a bigger client, so they’d have to push back our order two months. The option was either that or they’d burn our patterns. We had pro shops in California and the desert that were right at the end of their prime season; after that it would become too hot to golf. We had to explain to them what happened and dealt with it in the fairest way possible.

“As consumers, we don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes to get products to market,” Demerling explains. “We see a product on a shelf, it has a price tag and we buy it. Yet, there are so many people involved in getting that product there, so many unexpected obstacles that can pop up and make that journey to your shelf a difficult one. The important thing to understand is that there are people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on getting products from point A to point B, and for the most part, they do their best. However, it only takes only one mistake or one executive decision to throw the manufacturing or delivery process into a tailspin. When you’re on our end of it and have your name and reputation at stake, it is imperative to deliver the best quality product in a timely fashion. We really take it to heart when something goes wrong. It requires long nights, a lot of creativity, dedication and commitment to your buyer in order to land on your feet. Our honesty in dealing with situations has been critical in developing relationships with our buyers. They need to know that we have their backs and will not pass on product that we are not 100 percent happy with.”

While Catwalk has long since solved its overseas issues, it has also farmed out some of its manufacturing to Canadian firms. “We always wanted to produce in Canada,” Anvari says. “So now we have a mix of off-shore and domestic.”

Margins remain tight, though, Demerling assures. “It’s expensive to make our shirts. Our off-shore plant only uses expert seamstresses on our clothes.”

Domestic affairs have also provided their share of challenges. At the company’s first foray into Alberta, the 2007 PGA trade show at Edmonton’s Northlands AgriCom, the vehicle carrying their shipment was in a head-on collision with a FedEx truck. “When we arrived at the show for set-up, we looked around for our crate but didn’t see it anywhere,” Demerling remembers. “But sitting in our booth area was what looked like a bonfire, with shards of wood, smashed boxes and remnants of a skid. We looked at the pile and thought, ‘Is that our booth?’ It was. We had only three letters of our Catwalk sign, mannequins that needed reconstructive surgery and a pile of missing items, including catalogues, order forms and price lists. With some creativity, a sense of humour and a lot of help from other vendors around us, we managed to get things together in time.

“The next morning, I slipped on the ice and fell on both my elbows, breaking both my funny bones,” Anvari relates. “I was in a lot of pain that first day, but I did the entire trade show in two slings. We actually had a great show.”

The momentum, in fact, has never ceased. “We’ve pretty much doubled our sales every year,” says Anvari. “During the tough times, people look for something different to bring people into their shops, so we actually did well during the downturn. I had projected a 40 percent sales increase, but we did more than that, so we had to place additional orders.” Further, shops that initially took a wait-and-see approach a few years back are now signing on the dotted line. “People who didn’t want to take a risk in the beginning are seeing that we have staying power,” says Anvari. “Usually by the third year they’re in our booth (at the trade shows). This growth has allowed us to begin to outsource many of the little things that took up so much time, and to really focus on the things we need to do to grow Catwalk.”

Expanded their lines, for example. “We wanted to do lifestyle wear for a while,” says Demerling, whose company will introduce a new line later this season. “And now our tennis line is doing great as well.”

Anvari and Demerling are also grateful for those who stood in their corner from the outset, such as Bob Kennedy, the director of operations at Milton’s RattleSnake Point, Burlington Golf & Country Club head professional Trevor Fackrell and his buying crew, and Hamilton Golf & Country Club, which has carried Catwalk in its pro shop since the 2006 Canadian Open. “Those clubs stepped up to the plate for us, and others followed their lead,” Anvari notes. “The team at Golf Town have also been strong advocates for us from the beginning and continue to support us by including Catwalk as part of Golf Town’s expansion into the U.S.

Apart from online sales through Golf Town in Canada and via the Golf Connection south of the border, Catwalk can be found in 31 American pro shops and 61 Canadian golf club facilities, including Glen Abbey in Oakville and RattleSnake Point in Milton, where Josh Doan is a big fan.

“There’s a unique style and cut to their apparel,” says Doan, the club’s head professional. “The materials are very comfortable and the clothes look good on all shapes and sizes. From a business standpoint, it moves well. And Sima and Lauren are so passionate about their product.”

And so the sleepless nights will undoubtedly continue. But it’s worked so far. Cats, after all, do well in the dark.



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