IT MAY HAVE “ALL STARTED WITH A SKORT,” BUT THERE’S MORE TO THE TALE OF HOW THIS SUBURBAN MOM BECAME A SUCCESSFUL FASHION DESIGNER AND ENTREPRENEUR
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI • PHOTOS BY AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTOS TAKEN AT EAGLE OAKS GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB, FARMINGDALE, N.J.
Perhaps it was fate that Susan Hess was born in the golf capital of Augusta, Georgia, where the Masters Tournament is played at Augusta National Golf Club. Fate, and an innate ability to react to the unexpected circumstances that figure so prominently in her journey.
The vivacious Hess is the owner and designer of Golftini, a luxury brand of stylish and functional women’s and junior’s golf apparel sold at more than 400 pro shops, resorts, and boutiques in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Ireland. Her growing inventory of exclusive products, personal effects, and fashionable prints and fabrics have made Golftini a go to brand, both on and off the course. That’s due, in part, to the way her products started in the first place.
“My grandparents taught me to golf as a kid,” she said.
“They played all over the world until they were 90. It kept them young and active.” After moving around the country and then graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in communications, she settled in Westfield, in New Jersey’s Union County. There, the mother of three young boys would rush to school to pick them up after playing a round of golf, feeling uncomfortable in what she calls “women’s versions of men’s golf clothes.”
After she was unable to find an attractive golf skort (a skirt with shorts attached underneath), she located a pattern maker in Manhattan’s Garment District. She showed him what she wanted, and he made one out of her desired solid black stretch cotton, adorned with what has become Golftini’s signature ribbon trim. Her friends noticed, and asked for the same, so Hess obliged by creating more skorts, in a variety of prints and colors.
“When they kept asking for them, buying three at a time, I knew they really liked them and weren’t just being nice,” Hess recalled with a laugh. The merchandiser wife of a golf pro noticed the skorts, and asked if she could bring samples to other clubs, becoming the as yet unnamed firm’s first sales rep. That fateful year, 2004, a golf pro suggested she bring her skorts to the annual PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) merchandise show. She rented a 10 foot by 10 foot booth “in the worst spot” at the show, then traveled to Florida with her best friend, her niece, a new banner, and her innate chutzpah. On the show’s first day, she got a $70,000 order from the PGA Superstore, which was about to open its first location.
Stunned, she retreated to the ladies room, contemplating her next move. There she ran into a friend and shared her concerns. As luck would have it, the woman’s husband was a manufacturer in New York, and she volunteered his professional guidance. He helped Hess get started and literally “set up shop,” becoming her business mentor. They continue to work together today.
“That order put me on the map; I could go into production, but I had six weeks to make it happen,” Hess said, adding, “I haven’t stopped running since 2005.”
The company’s name was born on a cocktail napkin at a martini bar where she and a friend were reading names on a drink menu. Humorous names for much of her line are now a Golftini trademark. The Golftini logo is a martini glass with a golf club for the stirrer and a golf ball as the ice.
Initially, Hess produced everything in New York, learning to source things like trim and zippers. Eight years in, she enrolled in an intensive, 16 week Goldman Sachs small business program where, she said, she “learned what I was doing wrong. But I was doing a lot right, too. It was a game changer.” Today, besides her famous skorts, her line includes shorts, tech fabric tops and bottoms, cotton and Spandex polo shirts, pullovers, tunics, dresses, sweaters, ponchos, accessories, and a Golftini Girls line for golfers aged 5 to 10.
“My skorts are mostly printed and patterned, but we do offer solids with fun accents,” Hess noted. “All my tops are solid upside down from most lines. We have added products as we learn what we and our customers need. For instance, I went to Scotland without pants and froze my rear off. Now we have pants.” The company is currently moving into the burgeoning “athleisure” genre, and has added tops with woven in sun protection. Hess said that most women’s golf apparel brands have eliminated classic cotton, carrying primarily tech/performance wear. Golftini customers, she said, frequently thank her for continuing to carry cotton.
“Everyone is running from one event to the next, so we want our golf clothes to transition from the course to the baseball field to dinner,” Hess said. “Clothes should give you confidence; you do better when you feel good. Comfort and fashion are the two determining factors we keep in mind. Women who wear Golftini should feel fierce and empowered.” The company is headquartered in her home, with a warehouse nearby, and has four “self motivated and positive” employees and 13 sales reps.
Creating her own designs helped distinguish her garments. She’s inspired by whatever catches her eye, including carpets or wallpaper. A colleague helps her design patterns on a computer, then the pattern is transferred to her choice of fabrics.
The firm recently partnered with SKIN Sunscreen of Arizona, which makes products specifically designed for golfers. Hess uses the products herself and is onboard with skin cancer prevention efforts, including early detection.
“I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was 14, and some of my best friends are survivors,” she said. “Before Golftini, I walked in five three day Breast Cancer walks in four different cities and raised a lot of money and awareness. Now I can raise awareness through all the country clubs I’m in. I offer a free pink skort to be raffled off in over 400 clubs.” She also puts a pink label on all pink Golftini products.
“Ironically, I just had a skin cancer on my forehead, so I’m even more into promoting sunscreen,” Hess revealed, adding that hats and visors can also be found on the company website. “We like to bring the whole package to the golfer,” Hess said, so she added her preferred brand of Italian golf shoes to her line, as well as Chrysmela earrings made by a friend that feature a special catch that won’t come loose on the golf course.
Besides sponsoring women golfers who become brand ambassadors, Hess is involved with the Ladies Professional Golf Association and supports touring players with her clothing. She recently attended the LPGA’s Shop Rite Classic at the Stockton Sea view Resort in Galloway, New Jersey, and attends major tournaments when she can. She displays her wares at PGA shows, traveling to Orlando in January and Las Vegas in August, while her reps attend regional shows throughout the year.
Although the busy businesswoman doesn’t belong to a country club, she plays at county courses as often as she can, occasionally competing in tournaments. Making new friends around the country is a side benefit. She “persuades” her basketball player sons, now 20, 23, and 25, to hit the links with her on Mother’s Day.
The stamina and positive attitude she requires come from working out before 6 a.m. daily. She loves to travel, find new golf courses, eat at Mexican restaurants, and cook when she has the time.
“Golftini is pretty much my life; it makes me happy to wake up every day,” Hess said. “If I can do this from scratch, anyone can. You have to go for it. I credit a lot of my success to the people who’ve helped me along the way. My whole premise is that people helped me, and now I get to help others. If someone saved me a mistake, I want to save the next person three mistakes.”