By  on March 21, 2007

For Yul Ku, the president of Koos manufacturing, every day is "take you kids to work" day.On a tour of his 400,000-square-foot factory in South Gate, where 700 employees design and produce jeans, T-shirts and other clothing sold under the AG Adriano Goldschmied and Big Star labels, he proudly introduced his son to David Forbes, an executive from Forbes Co., the Southfield, Mich.-based owner of Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich., Waterside Shops at Pelican Bay in Naples, Fla., and other high-end shopping malls where AG hopes to open several stores."Second generation," Ku said, pointing to Sam, 28, who designs the men's line for AG."I understand," Forbes replied. "I'm second generation."Family is one of the pillars supporting Ku, 56, and privately held Koos, which he said generates $100 million in annual wholesale volume. His is an immigrant success story — California style.By the time he was 18, Ku worked full-time in the knitwear plant that his parents owned in Pusan, South Korea. In 1975, Ku immigrated with his parents to Los Angeles with the dream of opening a factory. In the last 32 years, as many of his peers migrated their production overseas, he mastered English, increased the number of people on his U.S. payroll fifteenfold and kept pace with an hourly minimum wage that escalated to $7.50 from less than $2 when he arrived in California. Eventually opening a second plant in Mexico in 1997, Ku built his business and reputation in California as a reliable manufacturer of jeans for Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited and other American brands."He was always top quality, and you can always count on him for that," said Jeff Rudes, the founder of Los Angeles-based J Brand, which in 1981 began using Koos to make jeans for his two previous ventures, Paris 2000 and Jean St. Tropez. "When you visit Koos, it's like visiting the Mercedes Stuttgart factory in Germany. There's nothing like it."Ku said the key was to invest both time and money. He noted that other successes in the denim industry included Lucky Brand Jeans' Gene Montesano, who accumulated more than 30 years of experience selling and creating dungarees, as well as Peter Koral, a second-generation industry veteran who is chairman and president of Seven For All Mankind in Vernon, Calif."People think [success is] going to be overnight," said Ku, an avid golfer who often wears argyle sweaters and polo shirts that wouldn't look out of place on the greens. "It takes a long time."Approaching his fourth decade in the garment business, Ku is asserting a bigger presence in fashion. The goal is to evolve AG into a lifestyle label with jeans retailing from $150 to $190, denim sneakers, leather jackets, cashmere sweaters and freestanding stores around the country.Ku launched AG for the fall 2001 season as a partnership with denim guru Adriano Goldschmied, who sold the AG name to Koos in 2004 before launching his own jeans company, called GoldSign. Kristopher Enuke, who designs his own Oligo Tissew label, succeeded Goldschmied as AG's creative director before parting with Koos. Nicole Murray, former design director for sportswear company Mossimo and creator of junior brand Dollhouse, currently oversees men's and women's and designs for AG as vice presidentof design.Koos opened its first AG boutique in 2004 on Los Angeles' Robertson Boulevard, where its neighbors include Kitson, Lisa Kline, Paige Premium Denim and other contemporary clothing and jean labels. Having since expanded to six branded shops and five outlet stores, Koos plans to unveil an additional five units in cities such as San Francisco, Miami and Las Vegas in 2007.AG accounts for the bulk of Koos' sales, with Big Star and private label rounding out the portfolio. In 2003, Koos signed a deal with Swiss-based Big Star Holding AG to produce Big Star jeans in the U.S. under license. Big Star jeans retail from $80 to $100.The only private label production Koos handles is for The Buckle Inc., a Kearney, Neb.-based teen retailer that owns more than 340 stores in 38 states. Koos makes jeans for them at its 1,300-person factory in Aguascalientes, Mexico.To ensure smooth operations, Koos sets a 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule for its South Gate factory workers and offers free daily lunches such as Korean short ribs and steamed vegetables. Unlike other top executives who sit in a corner office away from employees, Ku's orchid-adorned desk abuts a wall in the spacious second-floor room that houses the design and production teams."If there's one word I could use to sum up Koos, it's efficiency," said Lana Cretz, a co-designer at Los Angeles' Found Denim, who worked at AG from 2004 to 2005 under Enuke's tenure. "Mr. Ku came from the manufacturing side of the garment industry, so he knows how to carry out designs in a cost-efficient way."Indeed, when Ku joined his son in a conference room to meet with a visitor recently, he noticed that the lining of his son's AG jeans stuck out. "The pocket facing is too short," he told Sam.Sam's first experience working in the family business wasn't wholly positive. When he was 12, his dad ordered him to turn a stack of jeans inside out as punishment for receiving low grades at school. After clocking in four hours, Sam grew tired and promised to study hard. He eventually graduated with a degree in economics from the University of California, Irvine, and joined Koos. After dabbling in different departments to study various angles of the business, he took over as men's designer for AG 18 months ago. His wife, Vivian, also works at Koos, serving as the point person for the relaunch of the company's Web site.The family awaits the possible addition of Sam's 24-year-old brother, Billy, who is enrolled in the master's program for sports management at New York University. Ku said Billy is a sharp negotiator. After all, when he was seven, Billy haggled with his mom over how much he would be paid for reading a book. "He can do good sales," Ku said.In the meantime, Sam is conjuring ways to grow AG. On March 15, Koos threw a party in its Robertson Boulevard boutique with GQ magazine to unveil a collaboration inspired by the HBO comedy "Entourage." Amid tables stacked with the new collection's dark denim and T-shirts emblazoned with cheeky slogans from the show ("Let's Hug It Out"), Adrian Grenier, Jeremy Piven and other cast members mingled with fans.Though jeans still make up more than half of AG's business, Sam is banking on T-shirts and cut-and-sew knits to bolster sales. "A typical department store or boutique sells three T-shirts to one bottom," he said.This is the sort of analysis that Ku has been cultivating in the next generation to prepare for when he retires to perfect his 4-handicap golf game. But, it's a bit too soon to count him out. "He'd work until the day he dies," Sam said."That's all I know," Ku explained. "This is my dream."

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