T-shirts were once novelty items: Disneyland giveaways for deeply uncool vacationers, concert keepsakes for the young and disheveled, kitschy thrift-store finds for young women with hair in Princess Leia buns. But in the last decade the garments have transcended that reputation, becoming refined wardrobe staples for everyone, everywhere.
Arguably this phenomenon started in L.A., with C&C California. The T-shirt company launched in 2002 out of the homes of founders Cheyann Benedict and Claire Stansfield. By 2005, Liz Claiborne had purchased the enterprise for $28 million with additional payments based on annual earnings through 2009. The founders agreed to act as co-presidents for five years, but Benedict quickly realized that a more corporate environment was not for her. She negotiated an early exit and — without a plan beyond dinner in Bombay — hopped on a plane to India.
Now, after seven globetrotting years that culminated in the purchase and renovation of a 1924 Runyon Canyon area home, this prodigal SoCal designer is back in the warm embrace of L.A.'s fashion world to launch a new namesake apparel line.
"C&C started the trend of treating T-shirts as fashion items," asserts celebrity stylist Lysa Cooper, who counts Rihanna as a client and Benedict as a pal. "This new line is fuller, very versatile — easily dressed up or down. It's very Cheyann." This inaugural "modern basics with a twist" collection — a reflection of the designer's now older and more evolved self — is still distinctly wearable, but more dramatic.
She unveiled it in early February at her brand new Cheyann Benedict Boutique on La Brea Avenue. By design, Benedict's vibe is projected from the moment customers approach her shop on a stretch she sees as "classic L.A." but with "a permanent energy" thanks to longstanding neighborhood businesses. In protruding windows, mannequins draped in vibrant colors of tangerine and hyacinth purple gaze toward the sky or sideways instead of facing front.
Inside, the space is clean and fresh, but details — such as layered, cream-colored Moroccan rugs from Jamal's on La Cienega Boulevard beneath a midcentury-style Monteverdi Young wooden display table — lend warmth and personality. "When we walk into an old building, we have a kinetic response," muses the designer. "My goal was to create an experience that has authenticity and spirit with antique pieces that resonate with my heart."
She enlisted the help of interior designer Bret Witke, who masterminded Jar Restaurant and Smashbox Studios and homes for celebrity hairstylist Sally Hershberger and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea. "Cheyann wanted the store to be like a salon or gathering place," recounts Witke, "so we added ottomans and a kitchen where she can cook."
Witke and Benedict custom-ordered built-in shelving and Benedict designed a raw-edged wooden coffee table and benches, inlaid with turquoise, that are for sale. The duo searched out unique vintage pieces such as a 1950s Paul Tuttle round desk surrounded by well-loved 1960s Bellini Italian leather chairs. A glass-topped 1970s jewelry display case stands as if in ballet's second position. Under 1960s glass Venini chandeliers, ceramic pieces are clustered in bunches. Functionally, the space is inspired by 1940s department stores with clothing showcased on minimal racks and spots to relax with cappuccino or wine.
The garments, priced from $80 for a tee to approximately $2,000 for a cashmere sweater, pop. Benedict is guided by colors "so beautiful you could eat them," an impulse cemented by time abroad, so a brightness characterizes the collection and the store. "I remember being on the streets in India those first days, seeing women in beautifully colored saris," Benedict says. "That began my journey back to being inspired."
For Benedict, color is "a celebration of femininity, joy and generosity towards others" and she has woven that vision, along with travel impressions, into signature prints including her favorite, "Mount Shasta," like a "linear collage" of brush strokes. Classic Scoop tees and flowing Wildflower and Tulum dresses abound. But various pants in the collection — Sahara harem, cuffed Tuk Tuk, relaxed Buddha — have most impressed stylists like Cooper. The Vega Dress and Teenage Sweater with unexpected geometric slits are also standouts.
Benedict eschews trends (though she is thankful that C&C turned into one), prioritizing comfort, flattering fit, day-to-night versatility and a gut instinct. Her store stocks pieces by lesser seen designers like Purpura Patula's handmade Mexican jewelry, bijoux by H.O.W.L., JADETribe bags, Balatos handbags by a former Rick Owens designer, linens and scarves by her best friend, Rachel Craven, and original Navajo and Zuni jewelry.
Before conceiving this brand, Benedict conferred with life coach Hugo Cory about how she could comfortably build a business. The resulting philosophy is like slow food for retail: "It's not about competition. It's about an offering. It's about risk aversion, rely[ing] on the longevity of the idea rather than the quick turnover." Perhaps the proof is in the pudding: During the first week's soft opening, "Mad Men's" Christina Hendricks came in and bought three dresses.
"Cheyann stands out because she's not trying too hard or too much," Cooper says. "You can feel that this is just the beginning."
Cheyann Benedict Boutique, 318 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 936-2600; http://www.cheyannbenedict.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times