For five decades, retailer Fred Segal has played an integral role in the shopping scene in Los Angeles as a landmark, a destination and a reflection of the city's larger style culture. And for 24 of the retailer's 53 years, native Angeleno John Eshaya was part of the business, climbing the rungs from his post-high school role as a salesperson in 1984 to his position as creative director, vice president and buyer of womenswear when he left the company in 2008.
With the power to determine which fashion brands hung on those revered racks, Eshaya gave the green light to labels that helped put California fashion on the map. He recalls that Juicy Couture co-founder Pamela Skaist-Levy was one of his salespeople at Fred Segal when he picked up Juicy's initial V-neck T-shirt.
L.A.-based designer Trina Turk was another Eshaya find. "His support was instrumental in getting my company off the ground," Turk says. "I made an exclusive group of bright silk jersey print styles for John, using a cache of colorful rolls of '70s vintage fabric I had found. That special mini-collection for Fred Segal helped to establish the print identity that has become essential to our brand's DNA to this day."
Late last month, Eshaya came full circle, debuting the first free-standing JET (John Eshaya Tees) boutique in the U.S. on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood, where he attended Fairfax High School and his fashion career began. Beyond stocking the JET line of fashionable casual wear (from $60 for a screen-printed T-shirt to $448 for leather-paneled jeans), the flagship store also carries vintage designer accessories by brands such as Chanel and Manolo Blahnik (including sandals formerly owned by Sharon Osbourne); minimalist Juliana Eshaya jewelry ($120 to $1,000 for styles with rubies and diamonds) by Eshaya's sister, who runs the boutique; fabric sculpture of teddy bears ($300-$600) by Los Angeles-based artist Brian Schetzsle and framed prints by local photographer Nick Farrell ($600), whose images are depicted on a just-launched line of collaborative JET T-shirts. On May 25, JET will add a capsule line of menswear.
"I want to create this hub where people come in and hang out," Eshaya says. "It's small and cool, not corporate and a machine. It's what L.A. is about, I think."
It was in 1987 that Eshaya almost inadvertently became a fashion designer. When the then-21-year-old, influenced by '80s New Wave musicians, wore a pair of bleached, vintage Levi's denim cutoffs he created to work at Fred Segal Melrose, a buyer asked him to consider making them in multiple for the store. Eshaya obliged, adding eyelet trim and floral embellishment. Next came similarly decorated and then screen-printed cropped Hanes T-shirts (a la the '90s shrunken baby-tee trend), followed by screen-printed burnout sweat tops and pants loved by the likes of Sienna Miller and Christina Aguilera.
"My whole concept is soft and comfortable; I want [every piece] to be your favorite," says Eshaya, explaining that the super-soft finish of his T-shirts and sweatshirts, a brand trademark, was initially the result of a mix-up at the dye house that he begged them to repeat.
Around 2004, JET's skinny jeans, with signature lightning-bolt emblems on the back pockets, became a style staple for Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Nicky Hilton, triggering the brand's cult following in Japan, according to Eshaya. He recalls selling to an 8-year-old Richie and a 12-year-old Estee Stanley (now a celebrity stylist and interior decorator), who both regularly shopped with their mothers in his department at Fred Segal.
"I've known John since his days at Fred Segal and have been a fan of the brand since then," says Richie, the actress and fashion designer. "I love his jeans; I even wore them during my pregnancies. He really knows how to design jeans that are comfortable and fit a woman's body."
"All the pieces he creates are so well-thought-out for girls," says Stanley, who co-hosted the West Hollywood boutique's official opening party. "It is super easy, sexy clothing that I've always worn since the day he started making it."
Soon the JET line developed into an entire department at Fred Segal. In 2008, 10 months after leaving his longtime position, Eshaya opened a JET shop-in-shop at Fred Segal Santa Monica and expanded the brand from novelty T-shirts, sweatshirts and jeans to include easy-chic jackets, sweaters, blouses and dresses. A hybrid sweatshirt-jean jacket, launched in 2010, was seen on Cameron Diaz, Katy Perry and Jessica Alba; Julianne Moore and Julianne Hough donned an army jacket with buttery leather sleeves. Most recently, pop culture queen Kim Kardashian has been spotted repeatedly in the faded, distressed slim Jamie boyfriend jeans.
"I'm loving the new [JET] overalls right now, but the super luxe soft T-shirts are a must as well," says actress Jessica Biel. "I love that the label combines classic cuts and comfort with stylish and modern design elements."
In 2011, Eshaya signed a licensing deal with Japanese company World Co. Ltd., which exclusively produces, designs and sells a JET Los Angeles line made in Tokyo; this fall, the West Hollywood boutique will offer coats and sneakers from that collection. Last year, the first free-standing JET store debuted in Tokyo and a second Tokyo location opened last month. A second U.S. location is slated for Malibu by the end of the year.