Hard Tail comes in red, white, and blue—and more than 100 other colorations .
Hard Tail, the prodigious line of brilliantly hued workout and casualwear that is a perennial favorite from Los Angeles to Long Island, is such a staple in the marketplace that it is easy to focus on its success and miss the story behind the company. It might be called an American tale, and it starts, appropriately, with its founder and creative director, Dick Cantrell, sole proprietor of a multimillion-dollar enterprise, who went from fighter pilot to retailer, to manufacturer of groundbreaking workout wear, and beyond.
In the latter part of the ’60s, Air Force Captain Cantrell was flying combat missions over North Vietnam, a hundred of them during his six-year stint. He had a friend from Alabama who used to call guys "hard tails" and young women "slick legs"— "as in ‘look at those three hard tails chasing that one slick leg," Cantrell explains. "Hard Tail means a muscular tush, that you are physically fit." That term would stick in his head and resurface in the early ’90s as now apparel manufacturer Cantrell began to address the need for stylish and functional workout and post-workout gear for women as well as men.
The start-up of Hard Tail in 1992 came after 20 years of retail experience beginning in San Francisco in the early ’70s when a friend asked the ex-pilot to become a partner and run their denim shops, London Britches. With retail and apparel experience at zero, Cantrell nevertheless agreed, and never looked back. He moved on to the lucrative yet untapped realm of then-fledgling Hawaiian shopping malls, ultimately opening six shops, including one at Honolulu’s prestigious Ala Moana. When he sold all his holdings, after 15 years of commuting from Los Angeles and having married his buyer and merchandiser, Patty, Cantrell happily took up residence in Brentwood as stay-at-home dad to his three daughters. In his early forties and retired, Cantrell and Patty were charter members of the celebrated Sports Club L.A., where Cantrell, between workouts, was noticing a need for stylish gym clothes.
"My original concept was to do tattoos on arms of long-sleeve rib-knit shirts for men," Cantrell recalls. His designs, cleverly printed to avoid cracking as they expanded, were instant hits. Shortly thereafter, he came up with the idea of printing a large star, which caught the eye of celebs Jon Bon Jovi and Michael Stipe of REM, along with a large number of women. Hard Tail’s iconic star print on tees, tanks, and caps was turning up everywhere, and Cantrell then decided to launch a line of workout clothing for men and women. "We wanted to be inside the gyms where people were working out," he says. "Then came the dance studios, and then yoga"—a match made in heaven. "We are, if not number one, close to it for yoga wear," Cantrell says.
It is hard now to imagine, after years of knock-offs and the incredible spread of workout wear to streetwear, just how influential Cantrell’s early designs were. Hard Tail’s mantra was "soft and comfortable," and its roll-down waist with bootleg flare yoga pant took over the market, changing waistlines forever. The pant is still Hard Tail’s biggest seller. Pushing the envelope steadily into the fashion arena, Cantrell really knew he had hit it just right when one of his daughters, who "never wanted to wear anything Dad made," saw his clothes on classmates. "She said, ‘Dad, I didn’t know you made those kinds of things. Can I come down to the warehouse and get some stuff?"
The Hard Tail of today is a dyer’s delight. "We really are all about color," Cantrell says. More than 100 colorations, with evocative names such as babbling brook, starry night, crushed blackberry, and night owl–the name of Cantrell’s Vietnam squadron–permeate the collection, as well as 70 fabrics, including silk and cashmere, a new two-tone featherweight fleece that features cotton on one face and Tencel on the other, featherweight 21-wale corduroy, and voile–"one of our really volume fabrics"–which Cantrell is mixing with the corduroy. "Our vision is of a person walking out of the house wearing six different fabrics and six different colors, and looking like a flower," says Cantrell. "You just pop."
Hard Tail produces lines for men and women "young to old," and girls sizes 4-6x and 7-14. Once available in 32 countries, Cantrell isn’t travelling as much these days, focusing closer to home and on his first love, the American specialty store. "If they sell jeans, I should be there," he explains.
Hard Tail’s year-old flagship store on Santa Monica, Calif.’s Third Street Promenade, a clean-lined space bursting with eye-candy separates deliciously pulled together by visual wizard Patty, is a testament to Hard Tail’s love affair with color. "Good colors are great forever," Cantrell says. "I’ve always tried to be true to my customer so that season to season, the colors don’t go out of date." still in the palette are the military drabs that figured prominently early on, a continuing testmant to Cantrell’s military past.
Another testament to Cantrell’s unshakeable patriotism is his insistence on buying fabric from American mills and manufacturing locally in Southern California.
Everything is made in the U.S.A.," Cantrell says. "That’s part of my Air Force flag-waving."