NEW YORK — The past two years have seen quite a lot of changes for Bryan Bradley. The Tuleh designer met his personal and professional match with Marco Cattoretti, moved to the Upper East Side after bunking in the back of Tuleh’s Chrystie Street atelier for years, and tried his hand at lower-priced fashion with the Bryan by Bryan Bradley line for Lord & Taylor — all while facing the financial challenges of any young, independent designer business.
Ten years after the brand was founded, Bradley and Cattoretti, who serves as the company’s president, on Wednesday finalized a deal to start a new chapter. They sold a 49 percent stake in Tuleh to private equity firm Trilea Partners and David Shelsky, the fashion veteran who is perhaps best known for founding the Cousin Johnny contemporary business, which he recently sold. Shelsky also has been appointed chief executive officer of the fashion house.
“At a certain point, in order to build a viable, stable and competitive fashion company, there needs to be structure, and investment funds available when you need them,” said Bradley, sitting in his First Street space, which he often uses for parties. (For a glimpse of Tuleh’s resort collection, see page 16.)
The designer said that, over the past few years, he has met several potential investors, but he was always reluctant to sell a majority stake for fear of losing creative control, citing cases such as Helmut Lang and Jil Sander as deals gone sour.
Besides a personal sympathy with his new partners, Bradley said he was particularly drawn to Mark Friedman, a co-founder and painter of Trilea, and Shelsky because they grasped the Tuleh concept from the get-go. “They understood what Tuleh can be and that it can be reached in stages,” he said.
Shelsky recalled running into his friend Marni Sherman, Trilea’s other co-founder, on Broadway, who introduced him to Friedman, and together they decided to invest in small companies like Tuleh.
“When we were introduced to Tuleh through a mutual friend, I was blown away,” Shelsky said. “Marco showed me the whole collection, and I thought, this is the kind of company I would love to work with.”
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Before deciding to invest, Shelsky spent two months analyzing the business and its structure, and developing future growth vehicles.
“We understood this is an incredible brand with an incredible footprint, one that could be a next big brand,” Shelsky said. “It is a nice-size company, but really a brand that has such great recognition and could be in so many categories.
“We will be layering in people to support growth, but we want to be very careful,” he continued. “Our goal is to have measured growth. We don’t need to be a $100 million company tomorrow. Our goal is to grow carefully, with the right distribution in the right places.”
Friedman concurred. “We think there is a lot of growth,” he said. “We felt it was underdeveloped. We felt there is an opportunity for the brand to expand into other categories.”
With the new ceo and financial partner, Bradley and Cattoretti are already planning for growth, including a secondary line, called Bryan Bradley, that could come as soon as fall 2009. Bradley’s contract with Lord & Taylor expired this year and wasn’t renewed.
Bradley also plans a more serious push into the home sector, and a real, structured expansion into accessories. The space on First Street is expected to serve as an experimental retail unit.
“I think it was time to go to the next level,” Cattoretti said. “I also thought that the most important thing was for Bryan to be free to create, to have total control, creatively, to keep the 51 percent, and it was difficult for me to find someone who would understand the concept and accept it. I want Tuleh to stay Tuleh, and the only way to do that is to keep Bryan in charge and continue doing what we were doing so far.”
Cattoretti, who, since being named president last year, has lowered Tuleh’s price points by 20 to 25 percent, said he was close to signing a deal with a European showroom to build the distribution there, particularly in the booming Russian market.
The executives said Tuleh’s wholesale volume is just south of $10 million.
This is the first fashion investment for two-year-old Trilea. Friedman, who is also on the board of Iconix Brand Group Inc., said there could be more, though they would occupy a different luxury space than Tuleh.
As for Bradley, he is crystal clear about his goal for the brand. “I am trying to create a better future — a sound, happy future for Tuleh,” he said. “The people who work for me deserve that stability. I am not trying to get a big payout because I am not going anywhere.”