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The Boys in the Brand

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Three months after they stunned the fashion world by winning a prestigious industry award for new talent, the founders of Trovata were holed up in SoHo, auditioning models.

Eyeing one contender's knee-locked trot, head designer Sam Shipley said with a snort, "There is absolutely nothing sexy about that. Not one thing." Then he muttered to himself, "I don't get it. Why do you need to do runway shows? Can't you just show the damn clothes on a rack?"

They couldn't. The invitations were already out to their New York Fashion Week show at the Supper Club near Times Square. And now, with the spotlight brighter than ever, there was nothing to do but get on with it. In one corner of the label's showroom, sales and marketing guru Jeff Halmos was deciphering logistical nightmares on his laptop and trying to find a Saint Bernard willing to appear on the runway. Shipley was tweaking the program for the show and gulping Orangina. Creative director John Whitledge was struggling to fit a woman shaped like an asparagus with a cream-colored blouse, while the production director, Josia Lamberto-Egan, hummed a Journey song and methodically cataloged a stack of models' call cards.

They all seemed a little stressed. They weren't saying it, but who could have blamed them if they were thinking it: What if we crash and burn?

In November, Trovata, a company with 12 employees based in Newport Beach, walked away with the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund prize that recognizes promising newcomers, scoring $200,000 and 12 months of business mentorship. Their win was surprising because, unlike most of the 160 competitors, Trovata doesn't make dramatic, embellished couture gowns meant to sweep red carpets.

In fact, a lifestyle brand like Trovata's on a Ralph Lauren model is to highfalutin couture what deviled eggs are to the Fabergé variety. The Trovata stock in trade are very casual clothes with classic tailoring: shorts and polo shirts in whisper-soft pastels that invoke summers on Martha's Vineyard; cozy, seafaring sweaters and wool coats that a WASPy grandfather might have bequeathed. And many Trovata pieces are downright affordable—$50 for a T-shirt, $150 for a pair of women's pants.

"We barely think of ourselves as designers," Whitledge said one day at the Alta Coffeehouse in Newport Beach. "I'm sure there were a lot of people who got pissed off that we won the CFDA award." Added Lamberto-Egan, "Frankly, it doesn't sadden us that we're not couturiers, or that the fashion world does not perceive us as such."

Trovata's headquarters, in a former boathouse a couple of blocks from the sand, is generally off limits to outsiders, which seems in keeping with the boys' club aura. For business meetings, team Trovata gathers at the Alta. There they come across as polite young men torn between art, business and goofing off—kind of like the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night."

In the often mirthless milieu of high fashion, they are low-key and affable. They don't blow double air kisses—nor do they blow deadlines, their business associates say. At stuffy fashion parties, where nonchalance is the norm, everything about their demeanor chirps: "We're just happy to be here!" For some, their aw-gee-whiz-dude shtick is an affectation, and it was just too much that the young men (all are 26 except for Lamberto-Egan, who is 28) wore tuxes accessorized with old Vans knockabouts and Converse high-tops to the gala where the CFDA award was bestowed.

But spend some time with these guys, and the Trovata persona comes off as genuine. If anything can be said to encapsulate the label's tongue-in-cheek approach, it's the literal weave of whimsy into the clothing. For the fall 2006 collections, this story is called "A Mountain Spelled Murder."

Jackson Archer is a private eye from Salt Lake City. He's snappy, brash and handsome. He also needs a vacation and hopes the quiet charm of Château Lenzerheide, with its soothing views of the Weisse Kiefern peak, will clear his mind. No such luck: On the night of his arrival, the owner of the chalet is mysteriously murdered with a fondue fork. The main suspect is Suzette Claris, a chic but pouty French actress. Everything about this setup screams a warning to Archer, but how can he resist? After all, he and Suzette have so much in common: Weltschmerz and a shared fondness for Swiss raclette. And, of course, they both wear Trovata.

The story and the clues that lead Archer to solve the mystery are sewn into the label's clothes. There are drawings and messages in pockets, on linings, up cuffs. Evidently, if you buy enough of the line, you'll get the whole story—and with some trenches and toggle coats costing as much as $425, it could add up to one of the most expensive novellas of all time.

The general story ideas behind each collection are hammered out collectively, but it's Lamberto-Egan who fills in the details and writes them up. Fall 2005's fantasy was "Pompous and Penniless"—the saga of the Fitzgilbert clan, renowned for their bold American spirit and extravagant yacht parties. Lamberto-Egan and Shipley created a slide show of the Fitzgilberts' adventures and posted it on the company website. From it we learn that patriarch "Iron" John Fitzgilbert was a magnate and big-game hunter who in his youth was "fond of lace and lollipops," and that daughter Muriel had a tragic affair with her headmaster and sought solace by becoming a taxidermist.

Taxidermist? "Well," Lamberto-Egan said, "there was a great picture of a stuffed squirrel that popped up on Google. And I was like, 'Man, look at that thing! How can we use that? Let's make Muriel a taxidermist!' "

Stories like this enhance the idea that their operating method involves winging it as they go, and lucking into unsought-for success with a laid-back, dude version of joie de vivre.

But truth be told, there's a little more savvy than meets the eye.

Whitledge grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., surfing and dreaming of starting a sportswear label of the Volcom or Quiksilver variety. While studying at Claremont McKenna College, he interned with lifestyle clothing giant Abercrombie & Fitch, apprenticing in the merchandising and men's design departments. "I would work until a certain hour and then I'd stay on just to sketch or research until midnight," he said. "I did that pretty much all throughout college."

Lamberto-Egan, the son of a tugboat captain and a native of Roanoke Island, N.C., was in school at nearby Pomona College, running a lucrative business selling vintage T-shirts on the Internet. He and Whitledge met because their girlfriends at the time were chemistry lab partners, and before long the two had decided the polo shirt was in need of a remodel.

They pulled in long-distance help from Boulder, Colo., where Whitledge's childhood friend Halmos was attending the University of Colorado and rooming with Shipley, a former ski racer who had made a few bucks customizing hats and other accessories for snowboarding shops.

After designing a test line—three pairs of shorts and a lonely polo shirt—the four tracked down the buyers for American Rag, Fred Segal and the men's department at Barneys New York and scored meetings. Whitledge recalls heading for New York "with two vintage suitcases—of course, very nervous, because I had no idea what I was doing." Barney's bought the polo shirt "in all the colors. And that was like the happiest day of my life."

The partners in Trovata came together wanting their company to be an expression of all the things they had grown up loving: old movies, old books, music, surfing, traveling. Whitledge hit on the name, which means "found" in Italian, a reference to something else beyond surf and sand that they all have in common: They're thrift-store junkies.

After college, armed with a lot of chutzpah and a short video that they hoped made them look like a real company, Halmos and Whitledge embarked on a trip in the summer of 2002 to sweet-talk potential buyers and manufacturers in Asia, Australia and Europe. They persuaded a few Asian factories that were manufacturing clothes for well-known designers Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss to take them on.

For six months, Trovata was based in a tiny room in Halmos' father's office in Florida. Then, in January 2003, the four took up residence in Newport Beach, where the division of labor slipped naturally in place. "Over time, everyone's personality took hold," Shipley said.

When the quartet rolled in to their first shows in 2003, the industry theme was urban warrior: minimalist, military-inspired cuts using harsh, high-tech fabrics. In that environment, Trovata's New England prepster-goes-surfing-in-California vibe stood out.

"Maybe if we'd done that in 1984 or 1971 the response would have been, 'Yeah, you and everybody else,' " Lamberto-Egan acknowledged. "We got lucky."

Trovata "might be called preppy-grunge," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn. "It is the preppy side of hip."

That makes Trovata a niche within a niche. Is it sustainable? "I think that they very much understand that they need to stay with their own point of view," said Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor and a member of the CFDA prize jury. "I'm sure that they will vary it and move forward, but they'll stand within that aesthetic."

Cool to have a legend say that about you. But as the four headed to New York for their first big show since Wintour et al honored them, they surely knew what those kind of sentiments are worth: nada. Expanding their women's line, after all, has proved especially challenging. "Many aesthetically credible designers have stumbled during that transition" from one gender to another, said Reed Krakoff, Coach's president and creative director. Trovata "can have the same problem crossing over."

Days before the main event at the Supper Club, the Trovata team toiled as frantically as any couturiers to get the women's line ready for the runway. It was, as Halmos put it, "nerve-racking."

Working out of their SoHo showroom, they critically examined and futzed with every piece in the collection, whether it was on a model or hanging on a rack: "Lilienfeld," a white knit sweater in an Aran stitch; "Spruce," a sleeveless sheath in a purplish op-art print, fit for the best-bred of Swiss misses; "Fife," a cotton blouse with delicate ruffled accents at the neck; and Trovata's trademark peg-leg black pants that answer to "Berna."

When the show opened, the four watched nervously as the lights went up on a winter wonderland, revealing real trees and faux snow and a painted mountain backdrop. In the audience sat a trio of supportive editors from Vogue: Wintour, Hamish Bowles and Andre Leon Talley.

Afterward, there were accolades. There were also some less-than-ecstatic reviews. Renata Espinosa of Fashion Wire Daily said that Trovata took an "Old Navy kitsch marketing approach, and they convinced everybody that it's high fashion." Nicole Phelps, executive editor of Style.com (the online home of Vogue and W) wrote that "the boys from California are still pretty green. . . . Obviously, these young men have talent. Now it's time to get down to the hard work of fabric selection, construction and fit."

Trovata was stung by the criticism—sort of. "If people expected a Gucci high-end fashion show, they came to the wrong event," Whitledge said. "We are not couture fashion—and we were not trying to be."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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