By  on March 16, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Gene Montesano and Barry Perlman are going back to basics.The Lucky Brand founders have shed the managerial red tape, complicated global supply chain, ambitious retail rollouts and unrelenting pressure to improve the bottom line that typified their previous corporate existence at Liz Claiborne Inc. to build Civilianaire from the ground up. The new brand is based and made here, where Montesano and Perlman are fully in charge both financially and creatively of a staff of about six. The new line reintroduces familiar shirts and jeans from their past to a generation of postrecession consumers rejecting noisy designs in favor of a stripped-down aesthetic intended to transcend trends.“The only rationale behind the pieces is that it’s all just timeless. It’s all been done before, and it stands the test of time. People want to buy something to wear for a long time and not look like a fool,” said Perlman. Added Montesano, “People don’t have a lot of money, so if you are going to buy something that’s not cheap, but great, you don’t want something weird and off the wall. You want it to be able to work with something you already have.”If not for the gray hair, Perlman, 56, and Montesano, 61, decked head to toe in Civilianaire during a recent meeting, could be mistaken for their younger selves in the Seventies, when their personal and professional relationship was cemented at a Miami jeans shop called Four Way Street. Montesano went on to co-found Bongo Jeans before teaming up with Perlman on Lucky Brand, which hit the market in 1990 and was sold to Liz Claiborne in 1999. Montesano and Perlman exited their operating roles at Lucky Brand last year and a non-compete agreement restricting them from rivaling Lucky Brand’s price points has ended, although Civilianaire’s prices aren’t in the ballpark of Lucky Brand.They might have more to spend now, but their clothing preferences haven’t changed much since they met. They take their fashion cues from rock ’n’ roll legends like Eric Clapton. “I was never big into the newest hottest fad. I just wanted to wear what I thought was kind of cool,” said Perlman.Civilianaire’s limited array of initial merchandise clearly articulates the duo’s fad-free aesthetic. It’s the stuff of faded album covers and coveted vintage finds. Men’s and women’s jeans out of Japanese fabrics are priced the same at $210. There are two men’s fits and three women’s fits, and four shades of denim for each. Chinos in three colors are $170. Shirts priced at $145 to $165 are all derived from military or Western styles. The color palette for shirts sticks to a narrow range of browns, greens, blacks and grays.Perlman and Montesano didn’t skimp on the details. The zipper teeth on the jeans are nickel and contrasts with a copper zipper pull with a cutout “C” for Civilianaire that took 12 weeks to perfect. Subtle labels appear when the jeans are cuffed that read Civilianaire right side up. Sizes are circled by hand on hangtags, and styles and sizes are written by hand inside the bottoms. Montesano stamped hangers himself with five sayings in cursive script to get the look he wanted.Montesano and Perlman stress Civilianaire’s customers aren’t from a specific demographic, but adhere to a psychographic. “It’s a taste level. It’s not an age group,” said Montesano. Perlman summed up a Civilianaire customer as “not looking to wear something that screams, ‘I’m wearing a designer T-shirt.’”Frou frou shopping environments wouldn’t suit the brand’s customer. The spare, Woolworth’s-inspired Civilianaire store on West Third Street in Los Angeles has pegged white walls displaying pants and shirts together in a manner shoppers can emulate. “We always wanted a store like a gallery. You walk into a gallery, and there are white walls, and there’s the picture. You either like it or you don’t,” said Montesano.More stores, store-in-store concepts and wholesaling could be in Civilianaire’s future. However, Montesano and Perlman insist there is no expansion road map set in stone. They even maintain they haven’t counted the money they’ve invested in the brand so far. That nonchalance follows the Civilianaire business philosophy that Perlman said is to “make the greatest sh-- you can make and, if people like it, the money is just going to start to flow.”The amount of money Montesano and Perlman pour into Civilianaire may not be of much consequence to them (Liz Claiborne bought 85 percent of Lucky Brand in 1999 for $126.2 million and has been working to acquire the rest since 2005 for total payments of as much as $90.7 million, after all) but that they are determining how it is spent is of utmost importance. They’ve learned some hard lessons from their Lucky Brand days that ceding control can lead to their vision being blurred. With Civilianaire, they are adamant about holding the reins tight.“We are not going to let it pull us along. We want to be really strategic this time. We don’t need to force growth on it,” said Montesano. Perlman said, “We are not looking to build something to sell it. This is what we do. This is a really interesting time. I don’t know how big it is going to get, but I think it’s something that could be great.”

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