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.
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."