Designs For Living

That watched it all from the sidelines, on a cool hunt of his own: the morphing of kids' club gear into his own interpretations for the retail masses. The first dozen or so lines were T shirts, including the Caffeine logo for club promos." Most were a combo, he says, of "old school grafitti, Dee Lite logos and Japanese animation characters. The Buggirl logo represented the underground club culture girl: one-third girl, one-third insect, one-third alien." Lost in his thoughts, That recalls, "I'd design lines in my head by watching the kids."

We make plans to meet at the Javits Center, so I can see the machinations of the label Caffeine in its natural environment— the sales floor of the Boutique Show. The place is crawling with signs of the denizens of the alternative army: jellybean colored cropped hair, pierced and tattooed, neo bondage wear or utility gear. Old friend Raymond Ercoli mans his booth of interesting romantic gothic threads, Ercoli. At Archaic Smile, Jeff Gladhart— ginger quiff immaculately lacquered in place, dressed like an English teddy boy— shows me his line of quirky cocktail kitsch: atomic motif '50s send-up lamps and shower curtains with line drawings of coy nymphets perched atop martini glasses.

The small-town camaraderie among the purveyors of what is known in the clothing biz as streetwear belies the fact that these hot little resources that can turn on a dime, who design their lines closer to the point of shipping, often serve as the design inspiration for behemoths like Calvin Klein and the Gap. Prada creates prissy little versions of Yak Pak's body bags. Big-ticket European designer Claude Montana frequently samples an S/M 'tude in his slick black creations. All about the cavernous wholesale hall, knock-off companies are checking out designs on the racks.

At Caffeine's booth, Alex That has made certain that Caffeine gives away nothing.

One has to part heavy draperies to enter the secretive little womb/room where the current line of utility gear is racked. Crew Caffeine is casually huddled about the Sbarro pizza slices fueling the sales staff in the middle of this early August afternoon. Scrubbed clean, cheerful and chatty, these guys and gals are the very embodiment of the customers who buy Caffeine club gear. Mostly longtime friends and family members, including his No. 2 man brother Jeff, they're just about a decade older than the Caffeine customer: teens who have immense disposable income— spending money, not earned money— that Teen Peoplemagazine estimates to average about $90 a week.

Caffeine is no longer a small-time operation; it now has worldwide distribution and multimillion-dollar annual revenues. What started out as a two-man operation of That and Kraft now employs about 25 people and is always looking to diversify— Caffeine is talking to major labels about product and distribution deals involving Caffeine Records. That also is developing a Caffeine footwear line— starting with sneakers— that is scheduled to be on the market in the fall of 2000. Recently, That has joined forces with Knight Industries, forming a partnership with the major clothing manufacturer that produces the Palmetto and Tapemeasure labels to create That Industries. He says he'll keep the Caffeine retail store on Park Avenue in Massapequa Park but plans to open a retail venue in Manhattan in the next year or two. Despite all the wheeling and dealing, Alex That says he still calls the design shots.

Like many other businessmen who grow up along with their companies, That matured into a family man— a private one who doesn't want the names of his children and wife disclosed. He is carefully expanding his lines slowly, so that he is on a firm footing with current output before he goes to the next level. An avid follower of success guru Tony Robbins, That has planned every step of Caffeine's ascent.

Today at Javits, he's wearing a Caffeine top with khaki bottoms from the Gap.

"I'll wear the Caffeine tops, but I'm not going to pretend to be our 18-year-old customer," he says. "We plan to expand our customer base and yet maintain our street credibility— to be the Ralph Lauren of the new millennium."

At Haven's House: Class is in Session

In a historic house on Main Street in Sag Harbor, Susan Penzner's carefully edited vintage shop, At Haven's House, is a bustling little hive of girlie activity. Inside what is one of the premier haunts for Manhattan fashionistas who summer on the East End, Jemima Kirke, 14, of the NYLON (New York/ London) set busies herself tidying up hand-sewn peach silk lingerie carefully displayed in an antique armoire.

Dressed in a sheer white cotton batiste peasant blouse that falls saucily off her tanned shoulder, Kirke is a sunny blonde. The daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, she has a posh-English accent. She wears the drawstring top paired with turn-of-the-century silk ruffled bloomers the color of a lime Necco wafer.

"I used to work at a horrible shop I hated, but I always loved to come here," she explains succinctly. "My mom loves vintage and so does my older sister. I was influenced by them."

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