L.A. brand Cotton Citizen brings a fresh take on colorful clothes to Melrose Place

When Adam Vanunu, founder and creative director of Los Angeles brand Cotton Citizen, opened his first boutique on hip Melrose Place last month, it was a long way from his start in the fashion industry.

At the opening, fashion insiders including stylist Maeve Reilly, model and designer Sami Miró and blogger Natasha Oakley mingled with L.A. designers Rob Garcia of En Noir and Lamar Taylor of XO in the jewel-box boutique with futuristic backlit alcoves and a single rack running the length of the store.

Every piece of the luxury casual wear line on display — the cropped hoodies and the sharply cut joggers, the slouchy tees and well-cut tank tops in men’s and women’s styles — was a particular shade of mint green.

Vanunu’s obsession with color and all its permutations drives the line with its hand-dyeing and distressed effects that distinguish it from other brands as fashion increasingly turns to streetwear-inspired styles. (Prices range from about $80 for a T-shirt to $245 for a sweatshirt dress.)

Each season, Vanunu intends to introduce a handful of colors — as he did for this fall, with burgundy, rose and olive along with the mint green. So every few weeks, the concept-driven store’s merchandise will “turn,” putting the spotlight on about 30 men’s and women’s pieces in a single hue. (Ongoing basics such as black, white and navy are available online.)

“Black is a color, and white is a color,” says the 27-year-old designer. “But to really bring something to life and captivate an audience, you have to produce a color.

“It can be just as simple as this T-shirt I am wearing,” he adds, referring to his mottled but bright orange shirt — a preview of his upcoming holiday season palette. “It’s so vibrant and so rich. It’s a trend color, but it can live beyond that season.”

And Vanunu should know. A few days after the August opening, he was in a side conference room with built-in racks of samples far from Melrose Place. He was in a vast industrial tract in Willowbrook, about 20 miles south of his boutique.

He was sitting in the place where it all began: his family’s sprawling factory, a “dye house” that specializes in coloring, distressing and finishing for premium denim brands such as J Brand that are made in L.A.

In one area of the factory, there were industrial washers for dyeing and, in another, enormous commercial dryers. On the second level of the building, jeans were being hand-sanded while hanging on inflated forms or individually distressed with the rips and fraying that each style demands.

“The first time I came to the factory,” Vanunu says, “I was in a stroller.” He grew up tagging along with his father, who owned the South Los Angeles factory that specialized in denim.

“When I was finished with high school, I said to my father, ‘I want to go to FIDM [the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising]. I want to go to fashion school,” Vanunu recalls. “And he said, ‘Nope. If you want to get involved, you get your hands dirty. Come over here, and you learn this business hands-on.”

So he started at the bottom, running back and forth to the laundry. He learned how to work the machines, mix dyes and make the formulas. He also learned about sewing and construction.

After his father’s death, Vanunu, then 19, was tasked with keeping the factory going.

Vanunu started playing around with wash treatments for T-shirts about five years ago after his life stabilized. He was looking for something that was his own — something that wouldn’t compete with the denim companies that were clients at the factory.

With an early assist from retailer Ron Robinson at Fred Segal, Vanunu found his footing and then went on to expand into a full designer collection. Ron Robinson still carries the line, which also is sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and American Rag.

Now, he’s planning to roll out more concept stores and expand his colorful view into home furnishings next year. Recently he highlighted the factory setting, which has shaped his life and brand, in a series of advertising shots for fall that were featured on Cotton Citizen’s website.

“I love it,” Vanunu says. “Even now, the initial samples we make for each collection, I physically make myself. When we find the silhouettes we’re working for, I go in and experiment with all the colors and make every single formula from scratch. I go in and run the machines myself. Still, to this day, it’s a very hands-on product.”

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