Melillo Breaks Generra Mold

NEW YORK — Here is an illustration of just how unusual the placement of designer Tony Melillo behind the relaunch of Generra is: Less than a year ago, Dan Shamdasani, chief executive officer of Public Clothing Co., had never heard of Melillo, nor had Melillo ever heard of Generra.

How the two became intertwined into what could well be one of the best-received collections of the spring season, however, is a testament to the willingness to take a chance on both the part of the designer, who had never placed his fate in the hands of a big Seventh Avenue manufacturer, and the company, whose executives are more interested in talking about Generra in terms of image than volume.

Generra was a hot commodity in the junior realm in the Eighties, with $400 million in sales for its high-energy sportswear, but when Public Clothing Co. acquired the brand last year from Generra Holding Co., a licensing operation founded after Generra’s bankruptcy in 1994, the brand had largely been dormant for a decade. Only a couple of licenses remained in footwear and accessories, and those were canceled.

Shamdasani remembered Generra for its youthful spirit more than anything else, something he believes will inspire a new generation of customers to be drawn to the brand, this time as a contemporary resource for high-end specialty and department stores. As the company, which also holds the license for Perry Ellis women’s sportswear in the better category and owns the moderate brand, French Cuff, approached Generra, Shamdasani said he had a different, more abstract concept for its re-creation, where the only parameters were the vague adjectives of modern, youthful, fresh, creative and individual.

“There seems to be a huge movement in our marketplace away from the way business is done traditionally,” Shamdasani said. “Our interest was to break the mold and come out with something different. We looked at the heritage of the brand, but what we did not do is to go back to the clothes. The DNA of the brand is intact, but it is resurfacing in today’s world.”

In the company’s grassroots search to find a creative director to fulfill that mission, Elissa Bromer, president of Perry Ellis women’s wear, asked friends and employees for suggestions and to bring in their favorite item of clothing. Stephen Carnes, an account executive in sales, brought a pair of Melillo’s pants from his last collection three years ago. His cell number was procured, an interview arranged and Shamdasani discovered in Melillo the personification of his vision, an energetic and photogenic designer whose speciality is delivering clothes that are casual and comfortable, but not sloppy.Melillo, a former stylist for Esquire, had made his mark on the fashion scene during the late Nineties, developing a large following with a collection called Nova USA that dressed up casual street styles with luxury fabrics and a more elegant fit than traditional activewear, which was positioned as a designer collection.

When his partnership with Nova broke up in 2000, he opened a signature line, but was unable to make it a financial success. He worked freelance for Abercrombie & Fitch for two seasons and styled for the New York Times Magazine, spending two years in Los Angeles and then eight months in Miami before he got the call from Public Clothing.

“What they offered me was the freedom to do what I do, with backing,” said Melillo, who is 39. “It doesn’t feel like Seventh Avenue. I never go outside once I’m here. The streets to me are too chaotic.”

To a large degree, Generra is an extension of the collections Melillo had designed previously. He has taken basic elements of sportswear and rethought them from the minor details through the bigger picture. T-shirts, in thin 3.5-oz. cotton jersey camisoles, crewnecks and tanks, were washed in enzymes to make them even less substantial so they can be layered over a crisp dress shirt or under an off-center zippered sweatshirt.

Melillo brought back his fine-wale corduroy pants and a soft cotton and silk fabric for straight-leg pants or an ephemeral slipdress with the raw edges of the seams exposed, plus a machine-washable pink leather bomber jacket that will be sold as a rolled-up wad —?bound in a giant rubber band — so that it is extra wrinkled. The collection is priced to retail in an average range of $40 to $88 for T-shirts and $66 to $188 for most sportswear and dresses.

Each item is designed so that it can be worn on its own or in five or six interchangeable layers, with the goal of presenting a customer with options to create an individual look, not to force-feed a lifestyle concept.

“Lifestyle to me is such a weird thing,” Melillo said. “Who wants to be part of a lifestyle? I have no authority to tell people what to wear, but I can give them the merchandise and let them do what they want. I’m just helping their lifestyle out.”“It’s going to be handled with a lot of intelligence behind it, which is not usual in our business,” added Bromer. “Today’s youth culture is more individual. You’re not going to tell them to wear a brand and look like XYZ.”

Young customers, accustomed to marketing pitches, are more savvy to the tricks of lifestyle campaigns, Shamdasani said, which is why Public Clothing is taking a measured approach to Generra’s initial distribution. It could be a $25 million or $200 million brand, but its projections are largely undetermined, as the volume is dependent on Shamdasani’s focus on channels that are perceived as enhancing its image of quality. Public Clothing has at least one traditional aim in this strategy — traditional in the sense that everyone on Seventh Avenue is trying to do it — which is to diversify its offerings with new channels of distribution, targeting stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys Co-Op, Fred Segal and Scoop for the first time.

“We’re not looking to ring the cash register at the expense of product or design,” Shamdasani said. “We will have a very measured approach to distributing the brand. We’re putting image as a priority over volume. We’re not out there trying to build a disposable brand.”

Melillo, as creative director, was given an unusual amount of leeway in developing that image. In the company’s new showroom at 499 Seventh Avenue, Melillo hired architect Thomas Juelhanson, who trained under Richard Meier, to create a soft, egalitarian environment of blond wood floors and tables before a backdrop of blown-up images from Generra’s new image campaign. Those were created by Kelly Klein, showing a cast of young models, focused on their faces and offering only peaks of a variety of white T-shirts to reinforce the notion that Generra is more about the individual personality than the clothes. David Lipman also was hired to create Generra’s label and packaging:?simple black text on a white background.

When the company unveils the line next week, it will not be on a runway, but in an informal presentation at the Spike Gallery in Chelsea, where Melillo has constructed an artificial California Contemporary house, complete with a basketball court. The models will be hanging out in a scene from everyday life and editors and buyers will be looking in on them through portholes and sliding panels to get a sense of how Melillo’s take on Generra can be adapted by individuals who are slightly younger than those who would remember his previous work.“This market is very fast moving,” he said. “That’s the thing I have to keep remembering. When I think about it, I’m just designing. I’m not downgrading by any means because I don’t think this customer is going to a store saying, ‘I’m going to the young contemporary market.’ They’re going in shopping for things they want to wear.”

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