By  on September 23, 2010

James Perse wants to become a four-dimensional retailer.

The Southern California company known for luxe T-shirts is pushing ahead with four store concepts, each revealing a different side of the brand and its namesake founder. During the next five years, the brand is charting a course to transform from a $100 million business, almost 70 percent reliant on wholesale, to a $250 million business, 70 percent driven by retail.

“I’m right at that brink of going from a small, mom-and-pop start-up scenario to all of a sudden a professionalized company,” founder James Perse said during an interview at company headquarters in Vernon, Calif., where offices are filled with pictures of beaches and surfing scenes. “My intentions, no matter how big it gets, is to always remain boutique in spirit. I don’t want to look like a giant, corporate anything. I don’t want to ever loose that edge.”

Edginess is what James Perse is after in its newest, industrial store concept, which bears the name, although not the likeness, of the brand’s flagships. With its matte black exterior and warehouse-style interior, the first of its kind is a highly visible, if unusual tenant, on an eclectic stretch of Highland Avenue in Los Angeles.

The idea of the concept is to entice young creative types to large spaces — the Highland store opened in August at 5,000 square feet and will expand to 8,500 square feet after a second building on the property is finished — in off-the-beaten-path locations with low rents. The store has a deep selection of James Perse merchandise, primarily $200 or less. It will be a platform for sample sales, and houses a stage for bands to play, as well as guitars, a drum set, a Ping-Pong table, a black four-wheel-drive vehicle and a jungle-gym-esque display.

“The Highland store is the very stealthy modern side of the brand,” Perse said. “There’s no question, when you go into the store, this is not like any of our other stores. Of course, there are parallels in the sensibility, but you’ve never seen so much of the harder edge of what we do.”

Five more units based on the Highland Avenue model are planned by 2015. Perse estimated they would generate sales of $500 a square foot, compared with $1,000 to $3,000 for the nine existing James Perse boutiques in the U.S. The stores are an “opportunity to have fun and worry a little bit less about the dollars per square foot because you’re still putting everything in line with your rent and operating expense,” Perse said.

Yosemite, another retail arm of James Perse with surfing, hiking, biking, yoga, tennis and other workout wear priced mostly from $65 to $300, is closest to Perse’s early career aspirations. Steeped in Southern California’s surf and skate culture, Perse dreamed of becoming an athlete or a sporting goods magnate. But as the son of Tommy Perse, owner of the influential Los Angeles fashion retailer Maxfield, his apparel industry success seemed almost preordained even before he hawked caps in his late teens and created James Perse in the Nineties.

Perse isn’t just chasing a dream with Yosemite, which has been tested over the last year with a location at the Malibu Country Mart in California and an in-store setup at the James Perse Beverly Hills store that pushed sales to $1,000 a square foot from $400 to $500 before its installation. He believes there’s room in the market for an apparel brand that offers activewear with a premium look for a range of sporting needs that customers want to wear to, from and during their workouts. And he knew his customers and their peers were devoting more and more time and energy to pursuing healthy living but were spending dollars elsewhere to outfit themselves for those pursuits.

“The fun part about the sports is that it allows me to sort of connect the dots of what I always wanted to do and what I always wanted to be and what I am doing,” Perse said. “Most important is offering to the marketplace very chic, tastefully done, sophisticated everyday workout clothing.” Of his loyal customers shopping at Yosemite, he added, “They’re still using it in a fashion, everyday lifestyle way. So if they’re buying yoga pants, they’re really going to get coffee.”

Yosemite’s retail network should grow to some 25 stores over the next five years, with locations averaging 1,000 square feet and ringing up about $1,000 in sales per square foot, Perse said. The units are likely to be put first in places where there are already James Perse boutiques, such as Brentwood and Beverly Hills in the Los Angeles area, and could spread into locales known for outdoorsy lifestyles, such as Portland, Ore., and Jackson Hole, Wyo. Yosemite will also be available via wholesale on a limited basis to retail partners and will be sold at the Equinox fitness chain.

A furniture retail concept slated to launch next year reflects Perse’s passion for architecture and interior design. He’s always led the design of his boutiques, built furniture to go in the stores and is working on a hotel near Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, that embodies the James Perse aesthetic. “I love architecture; I love real estate,” he said. “I truly see it as a natural niche for us.”

The furniture concept remains in a developmental stage. Perse is unsure of the exact price points — he said they would probably be 30 to 40 percent less than designer furniture — and sales per square foot projections. He estimated that the furniture stores would be about 3,000 square feet and that five to 10 of them would open over the next five years. “We’re trying to figure out the return,” he said. “I want to be right in the middle [of the furniture market’s price points] and mix in designer luxury sophistication at a casual price point.”

Perse isn’t abandoning his original concept as he branches out. Another 35 James Perse boutiques are planned by 2015. Across all the concepts, the brand will target the East Coast, where Perse feels underpenetrated. “We’re focusing on really building our brand in New York,” he said. “We’ve been very focused on what I’m very comfortable with, what I’m close to, and now it’s time to sort of expand that, really, globally as well.”

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