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Made in the USA: Bringing runway flair to the fairway

Skirts featuring gold buckles and back-exposed zippers. Slim-fitting polo shirts with long silhouettes. Hand-woven fedoras with grosgrain ribbons. These are not your average golf clothes.

Though inspired by the latest looks on the runway, these fashions are part of a new line of clothing designed for the fairway. Fairway Fox golf wear, founded by Kate O’Connor and launched in January at the PGA Merchandise Show, provides stylish athletic gear for women that is practical at the same time.

O’Connor was frustrated by what she saw as a lack of performance material used in golf clothes and the fact that many she purchased were dry clean only, which added a hassle as well as an unnecessary expense. “I couldn’t be comfortable if I wanted to be cute,” she said. “I couldn’t be cute if I wanted to be comfortable. They were mutually exclusive. I was looking for it to be functional.”

Her main priorities were creating clothes that were machine washable, with moisture-wicking fabric, and that were fair — “not made in some sweatshop in China.”

Just as importantly, O’Connor said, was style. Some existing golf clothing lines were very sophisticated, others were almost too cutesy. “There really was nothing in the middle — sophisticated, but it has a little more flair,” she said, describing Fairway Fox’s first season as “Tory Burch-esque.”

Fairway Fox was in good company at the golf industry’s largest trade show. According to Ed Several, senior vice president of PGA Worldwide Golf Exhibitions, January’s show was the platform for the introduction of equipment, apparel, accessories and golf-related products for more than 1,000 companies and brands.

“Fairway Fox is one of several new women’s golf apparel lines that have successfully identified an important niche in outfitting women who play golf and are looking for fashionable clothing that can be worn both on and off the golf course,” Several said, noting that success for the company would mean expansion for women’s interest in golf.

Fairway Fox

“With the industry-wide campaign to grow women’s participation,” he said, “companies like Fairway Fox stand out in their efforts catering to women looking for more modern, trendy fashions that embody an active golf lifestyle.”

A natural fit
Fairway Fox is a side business for O’Connor, who works in the financial services industry. She comes from a golfing family in California’s Bay Area and has played her whole life. In addition, her 14 years of analyzing businesses gave her the right skills to develop a viable company, which took three years from concept to testing prototypes to launch.

“It’s a jobby — a job that’s a hobby,” O’Connor said of Fairway Fox, which is now carried in 20 shops — from Hawaii to New York, California to Ohio — and is available online at Fairwayfox.com.

O’Connor has a hand in all aspects of the business, creating designs, working with the factory and selling her wares at trunk shows. “Doing it in Manhattan, I can get on a subway and go to the factory to be right there and see what’s happening,” she said. In addition to keeping jobs local and supporting the city she loves, O’Connor said she hopes the clothes’ “Made in Manhattan” labels — which feature the island as a putting green with a golf flag stick in it — will lend additional cachet. “I just thought that people would appreciate that if I was going to sell something that was golf wear … it came from the fashion capital of the world,” she said.

Customers have responded. “I chose to make it in America,” she said. “But how many people have asked me, ‘Where is this made?’ is so many more people than I ever, ever thought would ask me that question. It’s important to them. I just did what felt natural to me. It didn’t occur to me that it would be such a selling point and it really, really was. People really care.”

Making it in America comes at a price though.

Fairway Fox’s prices are on the high end for women’s golf apparel, partly due to the higher cost of producing the line in New York. According to the Association of Golf Merchandisers, the average retail price of shirts sold in public, private and resort shops is $44.78. Fairway Fox polo shirts sell for $90, while just 6.1 percent of shirts sold in on-course shops and 4 percent of shirts sold in off-course shops were $75 or higher.

Driving success
Women have rallied behind the fashions as well. “I think anytime you can give women something pretty to wear, it’s helpful to them,” O’Connor said. Added features like a ring snap that secures it into a front pocket — something she’s looking to patent — have pleased players as they hit the links.

And it’s not just golfers getting into the sporty dresses and skorts. One customer told her she doesn’t play golf but she bought the skorts because she can be fashionable while still being able to pick up and play with her kids. “It genuinely warmed my heart,” O’Connor said, adding, “It’s perfect for moms who do that whole Lululemon thing. They do other stuff but just want to look nice.”

Desane Blaney, executive director of the Association of Golf Merchandisers, a Phoenix-based non-profit organization of golf professionals and buyers, said Fairway Fox is on the right track in terms of its mission of functionality and style, as major brands like Peter Millar Ladies, Sport Haley, EP Pro and Calloway set the trend for a “preppy, beach-chic kind of look.”

“Women will pay the price for the right garment,” Blaney said, “but they don’t just want it to be a one-use kind of garment.”

And they are discerning buyers as well. According to the Association of Golf Merchandisers, ladies’ merchandise comprises about 13 percent of the overall business in a golf shop, behind golf clubs and men’s clothing, which makes up about 26 percent. “We ladies are shoppers,” Blaney said. “Men, if they like it, they buy it [in different colors].”Word of mouth has been growing in the first several months, based on website sales from areas where clubs carry Fairway Fox.  “It’s not like there was a marketing effort,” O’Connor said. “Word got out ... it was grassroots, just somebody talking to somebody else, and that’s fun.”

It’s also enjoyable for her to use the creative side of her brain. “I literally work 60 hours a week, if not more than that, at the financial services firm,” she said. “This is another part of me that I just wasn’t utilizing. For somebody else, it’s painting something. For me, this is fun.”

And if O’Connor helps to grow the sport of golf, that’s even better. “I am hopeful, like in many cases, that if you look good, you feel good. To the extent that our clothes make women feel good and that might propel them to be more excited about their golf game, yes, I would say that we are helping women play the game.”

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