By  on May 8, 2008


Twenty-five-year-old John Earle, the founder of the cult line of mainly cupcake-inspired T-shirts and small accessories, decided about two months ago to open a 1,000-square-foot store on Melrose Avenue.

The decision to expand west — there are two Johnny Cupcakes units in Massachusetts — was spontaneous. It came when Earle, who still lives in his hometown of Hull, Mass., about 20 miles from Boston, was playing Ping-Pong with some buddies and decided to take a break and check his e-mail.

"It was all cold and dark out, and when I got on the computer I was thinking about warmer weather, so I just keyed in Los Angeles retail space and the perfect place popped up," Earle said. In Los Angeles "it's always T-shirt weather, so we can get a good start there, and I didn't want to waste time with summer coming up."

The store is to join the Johnny Cupcakes units on Newberry Street in Boston and another in Hull, where Earle started selling T-shirts five years ago out of the trunk of his car, a dented 1989 Toyota Camry.

Some shoppers wander into the Boston store looking for baked goods, and the confusion isn't surprising. The stores have bakerylike layouts — with vanilla-scented air fresheners — and the Melrose Avenue location will be similar.

The T-shirts and other merchandise are in glass display cases with a wall-mounted menu displaying prices. T-shirts are packed in bakerylike boxes, and the labels are sewn in the shape of miniature oven mitts. In the Los Angeles boutique, employees will access storerooms and inventory areas through a 10-foot-tall, Fifties-style baking oven that doubles as a door — and emits steam when it's opened or closed.

The shop will be on a section of Melrose Avenue near retailers such as Fred Segal, G-Star and Kid Robot, brands that Earle thinks appeal to his clientele.

"A lot of those [stores'] customers also shop on my Web site," he said. "We ask what other brands people wear when they make a purchase [online] so I knew. From our online business we've been shipping shirts to L.A. and all of California for the past four to five years, so already had a following out there."All the brand's shirts are made by American Apparel Inc. The designs are silk-screened by specialty companies in the U.S.

Johnny Cupcakes did a total of some $3 million in sales last year. The company doesn't sell its products in any other U.S. retail chains — just a few boutiques in Paris, the Netherlands and Canada. There are no outside investors.

Earle's signature shirts retail for about $35, with cloth belts for $22 and some handbags for around $250. The line already sells some jewelry, boxer shorts and underwear, offerings Earle said he'll expand in the next year along with posters, toys and collectibles.

"No matter what we make, T-shirts are always the number-one seller," he said. "When you get into stuff like jeans you have to put in dressing rooms, and people get really fussy. It changes your business. I want to keep it simple."

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