By Tim Parks
Philip Heckman, the creator and designer of the men’s swimwear line Low Tee, is reinventing the wheel on the traditional Speedo. This New York City resident has come up with a creative way to let beach-going enthusiasts wear their hearts, not necessarily on their sleeves, but across their backsides, with slogans, (such as “plays well with others”) and a plethora of pop music icons, like the queen of reinvention herself, Madonna, emblazoned on bottoms the world over. And, these recycled vintage concert and logo t-shirts that Heckman has turned into truly distinctive swimwear apparel are making quite a splash!
The genesis of Heckman’s enterprise sprang from utilizing his background in costume design for Broadway shows, which was his first foray into making the ordinary into the extraordinary, and made him a much sought after commodity in that area. From his day job, the seed of inspiration was initially planted in Heckman’s mind.
“I was designing strip costumes for a benefit called ‘Broadway Bares,’ which is where chorus boys (and girls) do this big burlesque show,” Heckman explained. “I’ve done it a few years in a row, and a lot of the guys would say, ‘You know, if I had a swimsuit cut like my little dance Speedo, I would definitely buy it.’ So, after hearing that several times I thought, ‘you know maybe I should give it a try.’”
The adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” became his mantra, as Heckman wasn’t pleased with his initial take for the swimsuits, which he termed as looking like “any old Speedo you could buy in any store.”
Then a way to make his garments stand out from the pack came about in a most unlikely fashion, so to speak.
“The shirt that I sleep in, which was this oversized logo tee, was sitting across the chair, and I thought, ‘Let me see if I could somehow convert that into a swimsuit, and kind of put the logo on the ass, and make a cute swim trunk out of it.’”
After several tries of converting the two fabrics into a singular entity, such as “getting the t-shirt fabric to act like a swimsuit fabric,” Heckman and his boyfriend, Rex Bonomelli, put the suits through rigorous testing to “see how they would hold up in the water and swimming and drying time,” while on vacation in Provincetown. Both he and Bonomelli, plus the sensation the suits caused with other beach-goers, deemed his creation beach ready for the public.
To go about making a business out of this creation became a family affair for Heckman and Bonomelli, who was a graphic designer, thus enabling Heckman to go about presenting his product online.
But, the venture also presented its own unique set of challenges – which was getting the word out on the suits, beginning as a grassroots campaign of sorts, as Heckman explained.
“We launched the business on New Year’s Day (of ’06). And we both sent out e-mails to just our own personal e-mails lists, that this new site was up and we were working on these swimsuits,” he recanted. “And a few of our friends bought suits and we sold a few that day. And then all of the sudden these orders started coming in; and we were calling each other up, saying, ‘Who do you know in Oklahoma? And who do you know in San Diego?’ It’s funny, because by word-of-mouth, it just started spreading like wildfire.”
Fortunately for Heckman, he finds himself in a rather unique position, as the pressures of operating the business are by far outweighed by his love of continually evolving the Low Tee line – plus it involves a lot of shopping, which is akin to most gay men’s idea of a dream job.
“It’s pretty low stress, actually,” Heckman replied. “Because when I’m in between costume designing shows on Broadway is when I will get a chunk of work done. And, what that entails is me hitting all the thrift stores. I usually do a big, mass shopping week, where I buy as many interesting t-shirts as I can find, and then I’ll produce a couple hundred suits at one time.”
Heckman chalks up his low stress approach to the business world by being very well organized. But he is keeping his fingers crossed that the demand for his supply will keep growing, and that by training a watchful eye out for his consumer’s tastes, he can avoid any business related anxieties.
“For awhile, there was this big East Village go-go boy explosion,” Heckman said. “And they were all buying the concert t-shirts, and then that sort of drifted away, and people wanted brightly colored logo shirts.”
And while one might wonder if Heckman’s sexuality ever comes into play in the business world, he has yet to encounter any discrimination due to either his suits primary target audience (gay men) or stemming from his alternative lifestyle.
While Heckman does have a very unique take on his product, he is dealing with the highly competitive world of the swimsuit marketplace on a day-to-day basis, and feels fortunate he did not go with his original, cut-from-the-same-cloth swim suit idea.
“When I saw that what I made (the original Speedos) was exactly what I was seeing out there on the beach, I thought, ‘I am so glad that I, just by luck, had this idea.’ Because nobody else is doing this; that’s what has made it not very competitive.”
One of the unexpected happenstances of Heckman’s Low Tee is that the designs come from actual discarded t-shirts, which make the garments very eco-friendly, and have garnered him praise.
“We never really started doing this with the idea in mind that we were actually recycling these tees,” Heckman stated. “But all of the sudden all of these environmental websites started contacting us for information. So, we kind of hit two markets at once.”
For Heckman, the Low Tee brings him a lot of satisfaction and represents the culmination of a childhood dream to a degree.
“One of my favorite things in design, and even as a child, is just looking at an existing garment, or actually anything, and fantasizing, ‘Well what can that become? Is that the end all and be all of that t-shirt? What else can we do with it to make it interesting and breathe new life into it?’” Heckman stated. “Just the idea of reinventing something to me, has always been very inspiring.”
To check out Heckman’s creations log onto http://www.lowtee.com/shop.html
This interview was first published in December 2007.