LOS ANGELES — No regrets.
That is the mantra designers John Cherpas and Kellie Delkescamp repeatedly offer as they “look to greener pastures” with the launch this weekend at the Los Angeles fall II market of their new better contemporary line, Grass.
In late January, the pair and their staff of nine were unceremoniously severed from Fever Jean, the eight-year-old jeans brand they nurtured, when their two-year partnership with moderate vendor John Paul Richards Inc. ended with only 24 hours notice.
“We were shocked,” recalled Delkescamp, who, along with Cherpas, have remained fixtures in the rising Los Angeles design community the last decade via Fever and their former individual lines John Cherpas and Josephine Loka. “The letter we got said the line was being dissolved. But there seem to be other plans in the works.”
The Calabasas, Calif.,-based JPR, which expected 2002 sales of $130 million for all its brands, acquired 51 percent of the boutique denim line in May 2001, not long after Nautica picked up Earl Jean, prompting other big brands to focus on this city’s hot jeans market. With 49 percent, Cherpas and Delkescamp were assured the designer and image-making roles, sharing shipping, administration, production and distribution facilities at the company’s headquarters.
At the time of the deal, John Paul Beltran, co-owner of JPR, told WWD the goal was to double Fever’s overall revenues to $10 million in the first year. Two years later, international sales reached $7 million, up from the $1 million it was doing exclusively in Japan at the time of the deal, yet only shipped $5.8 million, according to Delkescamp, adding to growing concerns over production quality and distribution.
While Fever had long been shipping to better specialty retailers, including Barneys New York domestically and in Japan, the new partners pushed to widen distribution to mid-tier Belk Department Stores Inc., the Charlotte-based chain that carries the manufacturer’s signature lines.
“That’s part of the reason we decided not to fight it,” continued Delkescamp. “The damage control to regain the line’s reputation would’ve been costly enough. Of course, we now know they’re looking for a licensing deal, so that means they’re not even liquidating.”
Beltran confirmed that the company is shopping for licensees for Fever for two separate apparel and apparel-related categories. He said a deal should be finalized in the next three weeks.
“One company is very large, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Beltran said. The firm has scaled back production on Fever, shipping to key accounts, and as a result has let 11 employees go.
Fever Jean is temporarily on hold while a licensee is secured, according to JPR.
“But we have no regrets,” insisted Cherpas, although they are still waiting for final payments from their former associates. “It was a great education for us, working within a corporate structure. We’ll take the good part of it, and leave the negative aspects behind. Grass is just a metaphor for our whole future and what we believe in.”
With a zen-like purpose, the two quietly decided in late March to move into a 3,000-square-foot loft office space downtown and go back to the drawing board. Photographic wallpaper of a cool forest is spread over the front lounge divider wall, and four of their former staff members concentrate on the new Grass silhouettes before them.
The sexy ease of denim remains a driving force, but a velvety cord and pinstriped twill convey the “cleaned up” interpretations of otherwise rock-influenced styles.
Grass already has caught the eye of Barneys, which has placed orders for its stores in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Pieces purchased include a cargo corduroy pant, a baggy cargo in cotton canvas and a lightweight cotton military shirt.
“It’s a simple, clean collection,” said Lam Nguyen, Barneys sportswear buyer for men, noting the collection’s crossover appeal. “The fashion guy understands it, and the guy who’s not so trend-driven will get it.”
“The true greasy rock ’n’ roll feel is dead. It’s all over the place — it’s over,” said Cherpas, who himself could pass for a rock star.
In visual music terms, that means more Roxy Music glam than grungy New York Dolls. Constructed jackets look almost Victorian with a suggestion of a bustle and puffed sleeves; wide-legged cuffed trousers slim up sharply toward the waist. And the classic Fever Jean, a bootleg cut with a pieced leg cut in an upward point above the knee for a longer look, is back. And in homage, the style is called Fever.
In all, Grass bows with an immediate Aug. 30 delivery with 20 looks in a choice of cord, twill and denim, wholesale priced between $54 and $85. The duo’s long-time sales representative, Stacey Rhoades, has dropped Fever for Grass. And New York rep, David Cory, has already written up the men’s line, with first deliveries arriving at Barneys for July 30.
Grass is expected to generate first-year sales of $2 million.
Days before market opens here, there was no escaping the challenges of launching a new line. Samples awaited buttons. A selection of labels sat on the front desk. “Going back in time is the hard part,” said Cherpas. “I’m in my car running errands I haven’t done in a long time, and wearing so many hats again.”