LOS ANGELES — With the phenomenal marketplace response to $140 Juicy Couture velour tracksuits and $100-plus low-riding jeans from Earl, Seven and Joie, the niche category of better, designer contemporary-driven basics not only continues to thrive, it has retailers — and consumers — demanding the Next Big Thing.

A season into its soft launch of gauzy, colorful T-shirts and with expected first-year sales of about $2 million, C&C California appears to be topping the list. Certainly, other California T-shirt labels — including James Perse, Michael Stars and Three Dot — have cultivated followings for a pricier product cut more fashion forward and of higher-quality fabrics. Yet, it’s C&C California and its founders, Claire Stansfield and Cheyann Benedict, that are clicking in a way that is drawing comparisons to other local star brands.

“For sure, they are the next Juicy girls,” believes John Eshaya, women’s vice president of women’s for Ron Herman Melrose. “If they know how to merchandise and grow slowly, like [Juicy Couture founders] Pam [Skaist-Levy] and Gela [Taylor], they could be another huge success. I’d love to hear something more from my [customers] than ‘When are you getting more?’ That’s all I get, because we keep selling out.”

Famous fans in high places haven’t hurt, either. In six months, the line boasts more celebrity clients than retailers. C&C got a boost when Oprah Winfrey featured the tops on her biannual special of favorite things. A C&C-clad friend working out at the gym met one of the executives from Harpo, Winfrey’s production company, who picked up shirts for herself. Winfrey asked about them, got hooked and spotlighted them on the show. As a result, better department stores immediately began calling in orders for fall.

And Jennifer Aniston has been plugging the shirts, unsolicited, including endorsing how “amazing” they are in her May cover story in Harper’s Bazaar.

“That was crazy,” enthused Stansfield.

A key to C&C, Eshaya added, is its fit and styling — reasons that put Juicy’s tracksuits or Earl jeans at the top of hot-seller lists.“It’s the first long T-shirt that doesn’t show off bellies. It’s not just a T-shirt: It makes bodies look longer; the fabrics are sheer, soft, quality, and it has such a California feeling, which is something girls in New York are begging for,” observed Eshaya.

Stefani Greenfield of Scoop in New York thinks so…and will put it to the test when a “huge order” arrives this Friday. “John Eshaya turned me on to them and I’m obsessed with them. I know it sounds gross, but I wore the same T-shirt for two days. You just keep layering them. They’re sexy, casual and great quality.”

Like so many entrepreneurs before them, Stansfield and Benedict attribute their entrance into the apparel business as a result of coming up empty in search of the ideal, in this case, T-shirt.

“I was always really in search of that perfect, soft T-shirt that just hung off the body, like the ones my brother and his surfer friends wore,” said Stansfield, a London native whose family relocated to Southern California as a teen.

Like so many Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs (the Juicy founders included), Stansfield and Benedict dabbled in the entertainment machine before trading it for fashion.

Benedict, who grew up in beach cities around San Diego, pursued acting on New York stages before shifting to fashion at the retail brand, Calypso. She brought the line to Los Angeles, setting up the Sunset Plaza store, where she met Stansfield.

After years of bit parts in TV and film, Stansfield’s fit, towering, 6-foot-1 height landed her a recurring part as an evil Amazonian warrior in the “Xena” series, and a fan base that includes Web sites dedicated to her character. On an official site, Stansfield recently announced her upcoming convention appearances will have to be her last because of the rapid success of her new venture.

And Benedict is shelving her camera, after years of photographing rock bands, following her three years at Calypso. From that stint in fashion, she came away convinced that consumers are willing to collect styles in endless colors if the fit and styling are right, and that a solid business can be built on that concept.“The first season, we did include a pair of jeans and a dress in the line. But even with the interest in the dress, it became about the T-shirts for us. We know it’s important to stay true to that,” said Benedict.

“We’re never going to make more than 16 styles of T-shirts, in 20 different colors, four or five times a year,” added Stansfield.

Interest in the line lies in the 100 percent combed cotton jersey (on which they collaborated with a mill) and the “twisted” seams of the bias-cut bodies. What it lacks in hanger appeal because of apparently crooked seams, it makes up once it loosely clings to the body.

Silhouettes include the wholesale priced $18 tank, a $22 surf T with an open neck and a $24 extra-long sleeve model. New for fall II are four short dresses that can be worn alone or paired over jeans, wholesale priced from $32 for the tank cut to $38 for a long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder style.

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