James Perse: Upping the Ante on Basics

LOS ANGELES — James Perse is a T-shirt kind of guy.<br><br>The line he launched five years ago is expected to hit $10 million in volume this year and is gearing up for further growth with aggressive expansion into Europe and Canada. But the...

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LOS ANGELES — James Perse is a T-shirt kind of guy.

This story first appeared in the August 7, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The line he launched five years ago is expected to hit $10 million in volume this year and is gearing up for further growth with aggressive expansion into Europe and Canada. But the designer, who’s cultivated a die-hard following for his flattering $30 to $60 T-shirts, doesn’t intend to cash in on jeans or other categories as so many of his contemporaries here have.

At least not for now.

“I have bigger ideas,” Perse recently conceded, as he was getting set to mark his 30th birthday Aug. 15. The bash promises to give guests a peek into the future “world of James Perse,” which could eventually mean even bed sheets. “But my focus for the next two years is to strengthen my core business. I want to build the world of James Perse — but not in five minutes.”

What’s core to Perse is the high-quality T-shirt dressing that has made loyal fans. Among them is Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, who insists it’s part of his daily uniform.

“James Perse T-shirts and Puff Daddy pants — that’s all I wear,” Ruttenstein said, also noting the tops resource is among Bloomingdale’s “most successful.”

The buttery jersey T-shirts that established the brand are at the heart of the company’s volume-building strategy. Even the upcoming expansion of the women’s and men’s lines into infant and toddler sizes is simply a mini-me interpretation of Perse’s signature styles. (Well, save for the double-ply, deep V-neck that doesn’t require a bra and got a huge boost in sales when Reese Witherspoon wore it in “Cruel Intentions.”)

Samples and prices were being completed as of press time, yet the infant-toddler line is expected to bring in another $2 million for the company in its first year.

In this next phase for the company, Perse is considering a newly defined and developed positioning of the two adult divisions: Standard, chic basics including Ts and sweatpants; and Collection, a higher-priced version cut from better fabrics and incorporating more complicated details like engineered markings or sophisticated dye treatments.

For example, a simple Standard jersey T-shirt wholesales at $14.50, while its Collection counterpart in rayon runs $23. And, whereas Standard offers washable cashmere-blend T-shirts, Collection’s version is all cashmere.

The two tiers have allowed retailers to buy deeper, said Perse. About 500 better doors carry the line — from Barneys New York in Tokyo to Colette in Paris — with 90 percent going to American and Canadian retailers, and the remaining slice to Europe and Asia.

Collection also includes Perse’s T-shirt dresses, which first bowed two seasons ago and have become a retail bestseller. A ruched, sleeveless dress that appeared in the July issue of Lucky elicited 110 telephone orders within the first few days from around the country at Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, Calif. — and that didn’t include the dozens still selling off the floor, said store owner Jackie Brander.

James Perse is among the store’s top-five lines, she pointed out. “No matter how much I order, I can’t keep it in stock. Once a customer buys one James Perse thing, they come back and buy anything in their size. It’s not inexpensive stuff, but it sells.”

So what’s the deal with these particular Ts? Fans, retail buyers as well as consumers, cite the fit, fabric hand and details. A long sleeve curves over the top of the hand, hitting the knuckles, although underneath it stops at the wrist, while the body slopes in just enough to show off the figure without clinging uncomfortably.

“It’s upping the scale of basics,” said Perse. “The market’s gone so casual, but there are consumers who still have certain expectations of quality, of style.”

The young designer cultivated his own high expectations in clothes as the son of Tommy Perse, owner of Maxfield in West Los Angeles. While a teenager, James did his time at the store as a delivery boy, yet he noted that his real education came not from working there so much as growing up around his father — who’s known as much for his eye for buying as his eclectic persona.

Still, the two didn’t see eye to eye initially. James didn’t listen to fatherly advice to just stick to the business he started in 1994 while still in college — producing high-quality ball caps for such corporate clients as the Hard Rock Cafe and Disney. Instead, he ventured into fashion. Maxfield didn’t even carry the T-shirts right away.

It’s clear Tommy Perse relishes discussing his son’s rebellion.

“He’s got his head screwed on correctly,” Tommy Perse said. “He takes care of all the aspects of the business. He’s learned he shouldn’t be everything to everybody and he’s not trying to be greedy and be too big too fast. I don’t take credit for any of it.”

The older Perse has, in fact, become his son’s biggest promoter outside of Bloomingdale’s Ruttenstein. At the Yohji Yamamoto book signing in Paris this summer, Dad sported the cloak James designed for magician and friend David Blaine for his last stunt. “I kept the hood on the entire time. I think people finally realized I slipped off the deep end,” he noted dryly.

For his part, James Perse believes he and his company are on sturdy ground. New showrooms in New York and Miami, a London distributor, as well as a press-celebrity studio in Hollywood are in place.

New on his 35-member staff, which mostly works at the Vernon, Calif., factory, is president of sales and marketing, Arnie Gale, a swimwear industry vet who joined in January.

Gale, too, is talking quality over quantity. “It’s not like we’re saying we want to be X million dollars. We want the right stores to maximize the business by buying deeper,” he said. “We’re looking at this as a global business.”

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