Designs from Fighting Eel's Spring 2006 line include the romper in watermelon stripes at $99.
Glamorous grunt work
Fighting Eel's designers do heavy lifting to get their fashion line off the ground
"Help wanted: Must be able to work 24-hour shifts, lift 50 pounds, be detail-oriented and maintain composure in high-pressure situations. Weenies need not apply."
SOUND LIKE your dream job? Then, as your guidance counselor, I suggest you may want to be a police officer, a fireman, or, a fashion designer. In the first two lines of work, the requirements and hazards are obvious. That's not the case in the fashion world, where very few outside the biz understand or appreciate the labor behind the glamour. Rona Bennett and Lan Chung are discovering it firsthand, one collection at a time.
The two are the designers behind Fighting Eel, a local clothing company poised to win over Manhattan, now that it has settled into more than 140 boutiques nationwide -- from Ron Herman in Beverly Hills to Déjà vu in Alabama -- plus nearly a dozen online shops.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Rona Bennett, left, and Lan Chung are co-owners of Fighting Eel, a small Honolulu company taking the nation by storm.
Dressed in their own casual, draped, carefree designs, they look like any of their 20- and 30-something clientele, but don't be fooled. Their girly presence masks a steely mien and a capacity for heavy labor, all carried out with the mantra, "We're warriors!" repeated as many times as necessary.
More help would be nice, but they're realistic.
"A lot of people want to help us but they have no idea how much work is involved," Bennett said. "They think it's glamorous, that we're sitting around in a studio, designing."
The two look at each other and laugh.
"They don't know there's a lot of dirty work behind that beautiful dress," said Chung. "We'll sit there and fold, pack, put tags on, put plastic over them and put them in boxes."
"One time a friend offered to come with us to L.A. to help us," said Bennett, who, weighing in at barely 100 pounds, will pack, lift and load 50-pound boxes of garments for distribution, while Chung examines and trims dress after dress. "Anything that needs to be done, we just do it, so after one day she's like, 'OK, enough of this.'
"Some moments you just want to cry, but when one of us is having a meltdown the other one says, 'Suck it up. Cry when we're on the plane going home,' " Bennett said. "You can't get stuck on one thing. Luckily, we don't feel the same thing at the same time."
"When there are so many things to do, we don't have time to get bummed. We don't have time to do anything fun when we're there. We have to mentally prepare for it," Chung said, wistfully asking, "It's going to pay off, right?"
A design from Fighting Eel's Spring 2006 line: The tie-dye Dress Lily is $103.
IN CHARTING their careers, Bennett had planned to be a photographer and Chung wanted to be a stylist. Neither knew what they were getting into when they came out with their first casual but high-quality appliquéd T-shirts and tank tops in August 2003.
Their paths had crossed in the second grade at Jefferson Elementary School, but Bennett didn't have much to do with the new kid, newly arrived from Vietnam.
"She couldn't speak English."
A little more than a decade later, both ended up as sales clerks at Agnès B., a French clothing boutique at Ala Moana Center, when Bennett came up with an idea.
Chung remembers, "She said, 'Hey, you want to make some T-shirts? You can make them with me if you want to.' And I said, 'OK.' "
Such were the "Romy and Michele"-like roots of Fighting Eel. They tested their ideas on friends and through sample sales, and when Agnès B. closed in November 2003, Bennett said, "That helped us. It was a sign. We weren't ready for it yet, but we thought that now that we knew how much work was involved, we were gonna have some free time, so let's just do it."
They did all their own cutting and sewing until last year, when they could no longer keep up with boutique demand and branched out to production in Los Angeles. But that hasn't eased their production involvement. The two fly to L.A. every couple of weeks to check up on operations.
"Sometimes we'll pick up something and it won't be right so the whole thing needs to be resewn," said Bennett, who says neither of them would have trouble delegating tasks if there were someone to delegate to.
"We can let go, but we just have to find the right person to be there, looking out for us. We've had to dump stuff because the black wasn't black enough or it was cut weird. That represents a lot of money lost."
It would be nice if production chores could be handled locally, but they said the cost of shipping fabric in and clothing out would require raising prices, now set at about $62 for shorts and $103 to $152 for dresses, often made of a fluid, body-skimming, stretchy light-weight knit.
THEIR CLOTHING has won praise in the New York Times Style section and Lucky magazine for its simple sophistication and versatility. The pieces can be dressed up or down, mixed and matched with other pieces, including button-down blouses when the weather gets nippy. Of course, in Hawaii wearers are more likely to live in their casual, comfy string tops and dresses, the next best thing to going au naturel.
In June, Bennett and Chung will be heading to New York, where they recently won over buyers at Barney's, Intermix and Searle. Fighting Eel clothing will hit the racks there next month, and in July will be featured in Elle magazine's beach issue.
"People like the fact that we're from Hawaii," Bennett said. "Everybody likes to feel like they're on vacation and our pieces kind of give them that feeling."
Now that they have entered the national market, their design cycle has sped up to coincide with spring and fall markets. A natural next step would be to move to the mainland to be closer to markets, but the two are unwilling to do so.
"Now we get to do what we want to do and just keep telling ourselves it'll pay off later on," Bennett said. "We work hard but we're still able to go to the beach."
Meanwhile, Bennett has become Fighting Eel's resident photographer, while Chung is the company's stylist. Sometimes things just work out.
In Honolulu, look for Fighting Eel at Crazy/Beautiful, Ginger Boutique, Koko Cabana, Mary Z's, Pineapple Country, Second Skin and 99 Boarding Co. Visit www.fightingeel.com
for more locations.