How Selling $160 Sweatpants Turned A SoCal Surfer Into One Of America’s Richest Women
Paige Mycoskie’s Aviator Nation took off during the pandemic as TikTok teens embraced the Venice Beach vibe by snapping up its pricey smiley-faced sweatpants and rainbow-striped hoodies.
If there’s anyone who embodies the SoCal spirit, it’s Paige Mycoskie. Blue-eyed and sun-kissed with a mess of wavy blonde hair, the Aviator Nation founder looks like she just stepped off a surfboard. “Being in the water is huge for me—I’m a Pisces,” says Mycoskie, arriving at an Aviator Nation outpost in Austin, Texas, where she also has a home. She might be more than 1,000 miles from the Pacific, but she’s in a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt, ripped jeans and a pair of dark-tinted Aviator (natch) sunglasses. Nailed to the walls around her are surfboards, waterskis and Jimi Hendrix posters, all things she collects.
But don’t let her laid-back look and breezy talk fool you. The 42-year-old has worked her way from stitching together T-shirts on her Venice Beach kitchen table 16 years ago to running one of the nation’s hottest fashion brands, which is especially popular in TikTok nation. Known for its pricey smiley-face sweatpants ($160) and retro-looking rainbow-striped zip-up hoodies ($190), Aviator Nation took off during the pandemic as homebound teens and twentysomethings swapped designer denim for soft sweats.
The company increased its sales from $70 million in 2020 to $110 million in 2021 and is projecting at least a doubling of that figure by 2023; its gross profit margins are estimated to be over 70%. Aviator Nation, which is still headquartered in Los Angeles, did so well that Mycoskie, who owns 100% of it, paid herself a $47.5 million dividend last year—her first-ever dividend. Forbes estimates she’s worth $350 million (she says the number is at least double that). She just bought her ninth property, a $15 million lakeside house in Austin, adding to a portfolio that includes homes in Malibu and Venice Beach, two Marina del Rey beach pads and an Aspen ski chalet.
Much of her financial success has come from taking no outside investment, instead relying on expanding lines of credit from various banks including Wells Fargo and Citi National—$8,000 in 2006, $35,000 in 2007, $100,000 in 2009—to grow the business early on. “If I was going to take money from someone, I would have to owe someone something, and it would be not in my control. I wouldn’t feel the freedom that I feel to design what I design,” Mycoskie says. “To have the creativity, you can’t have the pressure.”
Every piece of Aviator Nation apparel is sketched by Mycoskie and handmade by people, not machines, who are paid a minimum of $17 an hour in the company’s Huntington Park factory (the signature six stripes are stitched on one by one). “I have hired assistant designers before . . . but I’ve never liked it,” she says. Keeping production local has also enabled Aviator Nation to insulate itself almost entirely from the supply chain crisis that has roiled many competitors.
But at triple what it costs to buy a pair of Adidas sweatpants, Aviator Nation’s prices raise eyebrows. Alixandra Barasch, an associate professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, says the brand is succeeding partly because of the outlandish prices. “From the perspective of those individuals who can afford it, it allows them to nicely signal wealth, but also signal these other values like ‘I’m laid-back,’ ” she says. The few models featured on its website—predominantly white, lanky and very fit— boast her same low-key, athletic surfer style.
For her part, Mycoskie defends her prices as the product of high-quality fabrics, the complexity of the hand-stitched designs (most clothing companies use computer-generated graphics) and the premium of making everything in the U.S.
Even as sales soar, Mycoskie is sticking with her business plan. She has seen the alternative. Her older brother, Blake, 45, started the pay-it-forward shoe company Toms in 2006, the same year she launched Aviator Nation (in a curious coincidence, they even came up with their business ideas on the same day; Paige designed the Toms logo). Its “One for One” donation model, in which Toms gave away a pair of shoes for each one it sold, made the company very successful very quickly. Bain Capital paid Blake a reported $300 million for a 50% stake in 2014, but the novelty soon wore off, and efforts to diversify flopped. In 2019, creditors took over Toms, including Blake’s stake. He exited that same year. Its flagship store down the street from Paige’s on Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard shuttered in January, but the company is still in business.
“Even though we started our businesses at the same time and even though we’re brother and sister, she’s really done this all on her own,” says Blake, who is now living in Costa Rica, taking a timeout from the “entrepreneur ring” to focus on his family. “Especially when your business has gotten as big as hers has gotten, everyone’s telling you, you need to hire these executives, you need to bring all these investors in. . . . But she just stays true to what feels right to her and her instincts. . . . That’s something I wish I’d done better at Toms.”
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Despite the conspicuous California accessorization, Myscoskie’s roots are in fact in Texas, where she grew up in the Dallas-adjacent city of Arlington, part of a family of athletes with a creative streak. Her mother, a former aerobics instructor, wrote health-forward cookbooks; in the 1980s and early ’90s, her father was the team doctor for the Texas Rangers baseball franchise.
It wasn’t until she was 22 that Mycoskie finally made her way to California after competing with Blake in the second season of The Amazing Race, a CBS adventure reality show that involves traveling around the world and competing in goofy challenges—finding a tree in Rio de Janeiro called “Fat Maria” or operating a cargo crane in Hong Kong—for a $1 million prize. The “all-American” brother-sister duo, as they were called, placed third, resulting in a Los Angeles press tour.
That’s when Mycoskie fell in love. “I’ll never forget walking out to the beach and seeing people rollerblading and biking and playing frisbee and volleyball and surfing, and I was like ‘Oh, my God, this is my dream,’ ” she recalls. She dropped out of Arizona State University one semester short of getting a journalism degree and moved to Hollywood, where she took a job at CBS helping with casting for Survivor, another of the network’s hit reality shows.
Surfing before work and housesitting for traveling movie producers at night: Mycoskie’s life seemed like a twenty something’s fantasy camp
Surfing before work and housesitting for traveling movie producers at night: Mycoskie’s life seemed like a twenty something’s fantasy camp, but she found herself frustrated by the disconnect from the creative passions of her childhood. So she quit her glitzy job to focus on photography, supplementing wedding and headshot gigs with part-time work at a mom-and-pop surf shop in Venice Beach. It was there, inputting orders on the store’s computer, that she discovered she loved retail.
Using a $200 birthday gift from her grandparents and a series of how-to DVDs, she bought her first sewing machine and started taking apart shirts she bought from thrift stores, then reassembling them, incorporating her own hand-stitched designs.
Reflecting her lack of formal training, the clothing she made was simple. She would cut out individual stripes or sunbeams and sew them onto the fabric, a technique known as appliqué, which is still used for most of Aviator Nation’s clothing, including the brand’s signature stripes. Though uncomplicated, the clothes elicited a strong response when Mycoskie wore them in public. “I would go to the grocery store and people would be like, ‘What are you wearing?’ It didn’t take longer than me wearing the stuff for maybe a week when I was like, ‘I should sell this.’ ”
None of this was surprising to her parents. Paige, they say, was constantly thinking up moneymaking pursuits as a child, whether setting up a lemonade stand at her local golf course (she made hundreds of dollars a day) or selling homemade friendship bracelets. “She really did enjoy selling things,” says her mother, Pam Mycoskie.
The young Paige’s first stab at monetizing the newly formed Aviator Nation—the name inspired by the “cool” and “classic” sunglasses worn by Tom Cruise in Top Gun—was a raging success. After months of sewing in her kitchen and dyeing garments on her stovetop, in September 2006 Mycoskie rented a booth at a Venice Beach street fair for 500 bucks. She sold out of everything, making $8,000 in one day. She immediately quit her job at the surf shop.
Mycoskie rented a booth at a Venice Beach street fair for 500 bucks. She sold out of everything, making $8,000 in one day. She immediately quit her job
By 2009, with her clothes consistently selling out in local stores and at trade shows, she started looking for her first storefront, finding the perfect location on what is now Venice’s main drag, Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The building’s owners, Wolter and Patti Mehring, had all but signed off on another tenant when Mycoskie pleaded with them to give her a chance. After her pitch, Wolter recalls his wife turning to him to say, “ ‘There’s something really special about this girl.’ It persuaded me. We moved forward with her, and we’ve never looked back.” The couple sold the building to Mycoskie this April for $5 million. “It’s one of those true American success stories,” Wolter says.
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When the pandemic emerged in early 2020, Mycoskie panicked. She had just opened six new shops over the previous year, doubling the number of Aviator Nation’s storefronts. A day after opening the last, in the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, she received a call from the manager of her Aspen store: Everything would have to shut down.
Her next move was instinctual. “I got on the phone with my head of e-commerce and said we have to make as much money as we can in the next 24 hours,” Mycoskie recalls. With no open stores and the factory shuttered, she realized she’d soon run out of money to pay her nearly 300 employees, many of whom had been with her for years.
Mycoskie put all the inventory for the new stores onto the website, then blasted out an email to anyone who’d ever come into contact with Aviator Nation advertising a rare sale—20% off all items—with all proceeds going to its employees. The company pulled in about $30,000 through its website the day before the sale. That day it sold $1.4 million.
According to Mycoskie, the sale did much more than just rustle up a rainy-day fund to support her employees (they were able to reopen their factory about one month later, in March 2020, initially to start making Covid-19 face masks). She credits it as a key reason for Aviator Nation’s recent growth. “All that product went out and it was like a beast of word of mouth, because then everyone is at home with nothing to do, posting pictures in our stuff,” she says. “I really think that was huge.”
While Mycoskie predictably claims her company has no direct competitors—“We’re kind of in a world of our own”—in fact there are plenty of others making luxe athletic apparel. Streetwear brand Supreme sells hoodies for more than $150, while the L.A.-based FREECITY, which was founded in 2001, also specializes in hand-sewn and locally produced sweatpants that go for $250.
“It’s an extremely competitive market, and it’s a market where everybody can copy everybody else,” says David Swartz, a retail analyst with Morningstar. “A lot of people are starting online brands, and most of them will fail.”
In addition to battling to stay relevant in a famously fickle space, Aviator Nation has run into some trouble concerning its designs. It was sued by Adidas over its use of three stripes on its clothing; the two reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount in 2012, though Adidas, notoriously litigious, continued to allege that Aviator Nation was infringing until 2019. Mycoskie’s company has also angered indigenous groups, which have accused the brand of cultural appropriation by using traditional Native patterns in its clothing. They also dislike the brand’s use of tepees for marketing at music festivals like Austin City Limits. Asked to respond, Mycoskie says, “We love and respect the Native American culture. I have many friends and employees who are descendants of the Native American culture, and my goal will always be to not only respect these other cultures but celebrate them.”
Blessed with massive positive cash flow and no debt, Mycoskie is now focused on expansion. Coming soon: Aviator Nation shoes, sunglasses and home goods, including towels set to hit shelves this summer, plus tennis and golf gear.
“I want to be seen as more of a lifestyle brand than a clothing store,” Mycoskie says. “I would love it if when someone goes on vacation their whole bag is Aviator Nation. Their swimsuits, their tennis shoes, their luggage.”
The company is also experimenting with expanding Aviator Nation’s retail “experiences,” each tailored to the brand’s 17 physical locations. The new store in Nashville, for instance, will double as a live-music venue. Aviator Nation Dreamland, in the old Malibu Inn, is a mix between a concert space and a bar. This April Mycoskie debuted Aviator Nation’s first exercise studio, a combination cycling, boxing and yoga gym, just a short drive from its Venice Beach flagship.
Although Aviator Nation is suddenly growing quite rapidly, Mycoskie insists she’s staying true to the purposeful “slow growth” strategy that got her to this point. “I’ve had 15 years to figure it out, and I’ve kind of learned slowly how to do it right, so I do think in some ways we’re a little bulletproof,” she says. “Knock on wood, obviously.” Careful. That’s exactly what American Apparel thought . . . and The Limited . . . and Alex and Ani . . . Nautica . . . and . . .