Spencer Antle, founder and creative director of resort clothing brand Island Company, began his career directing television commercials in L.A. He hoped to eventually direct feature films, but changed career paths altogether when he left L.A. for Florida to start his own company. He began his resort clothing brand out of his car in 2002, launching with 13 bikini styles after his then-girlfriend struggled to find an appealing fit.
The brand is now sold around the world, including storefront locations on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts and in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Naples, Florida.
Antle spoke with Crain's about the process of building Island Company’s clothing and swimwear line and the company’s recent rum brand launch.
How did your background in film play into the start of Island Company?
Film offered me a business school like no other because every time we did a job, I would have to discover a creative way to make the project come off perfectly within budget. In a sense, every day I was running a different company. One day I was dealing with dwarves and Santa Claus on a dirt bike and the next it was helicopters and a stuntman in Louisiana.
In film, every day your job is to solve problems. It’s a constantly evolving, complicated business and it has all sorts of problems all day. You have to creatively keep it happy and smiling on the beach when in reality you’re doing an incredible amount of work to make it look that way.
I do everything here. I design the clothes, I shoot all the pictures, so it’s a lot for one person. I don’t think I would have been able to pull it off without the film background.
What challenges do you typically face at Island Company?
Manufacturing in Peru and Brazil and Hong Kong and India . You’re talking about cash flow; having to pay $5 million in inventory every year hand-over-hand. We have eight stores now. The labor laws are impossible in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.
We have stores in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard—those are impossible to staff because they’re so seasonal. The housing expenditure there is insane. North Avenue and the Ritz Carlton in Fort Lauderdale are super high-end locales and suffer weird swings that seem to be predicated on nothing sensible.
What sets Island Company apart from its retail competitors?
I think we’re authentic. My competitors aren’t. All these large, publicly-traded companies are pretending to be tropical providers of island clothing and they shouldn’t be if they’re not going to be living and operating in the sandbox.
We’re doing the real work and we’re getting afforded a lot of offers that no other brand names are getting. Being offered hotel space is a big example. The hoteliers are really concerned about what goes into their space. They’re really serious about making sure stuff [is] fun and engaging.
There aren’t a lot of brands doing really fun and engaging stuff, but I consider Island Company an entertainment company. I’m not a fashion designer, I’m a filmmaker. Everything to me is a set, and it needs to be experiential these days. I’ve had open, free rum bars in my stores since 2008. Now, people are serving beer at the Gap and everyone thinks it’s a big deal. It’s not a big deal.
Tell us about the rum brand your company launched in April 2017.
Our lawyer prodded us to [launch Island Company Rum] and we did it. It took two years to build and sold out in the first eight weeks. We had a super successful launch and I think we’re going to do big numbers for a first-time brand. The good news is that Island Company already has a backbone branding-wise, so it’s easy for us to open a lot of five-star accounts and hotels and restaurants already know us.
The idea is to occupy secondary space, something lateral, and the brand can support it now. We have a new rum cake, too. In fashion, I’ve got to redesign and build everything every two months. I don’t have to do that with rum and rum cake.