Clothes Encounters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

J. Peterman Co., the quirky mail-order catalog whose founder became a cultural icon after being parodied on the "Seinfeld" television series, will open its first West Coast boutique at Fashion Island Newport Beach in May.

The 5,000-square-foot store will sell clothes, accessories and home furnishings that appear in the company's three mail-order catalogs, plus a host of one-of-a-kind gifts not available in its catalogs.

"We want to be in the top 50 markets in the country and Newport Beach is definitely one of them," said Arnie Cohen, chief executive of the Lexington, Ky.-based company.

The Newport Beach store is part of a five-year plan by the company to open 50 boutiques and 20 outlet centers nationwide, Cohen said. Peterman currently operates four stores, including an outlet center in Camarillo.

The company was founded by John Peterman in 1987, but it didn't become a household name until 1995, when comedian Jerry Seinfeld and other actors on the top-rated sitcom became enamored with the novella-like writing in the unconventional catalogs. The amusing prose runs the gamut of styles, from storytelling to conversational to romantic, and accompanies sketches of its vintage-inspired garments instead of photographs.

Here's the text on a $228 sleeveless women's summer dress splashed with terra-cotta roses:

"Martinis. White dinner jackets. 'Happy birthday, Mr. President, happy birthday to you.' Curves. Radiance. Hope. The sense of possibility and promise. A genuine interest in fun.

"That was the good part.

"Here it is again.

"Gorgeous Dress (No. 60A6276)"

The Peterman character on "Seinfeld," played by actor John O'Hurley, is a stiff, globe-trotting eccentric who is immaculately groomed and talks at length about subjects that bore his employees.

The exposure and notoriety that "Seinfeld" has brought to both the company and its founder "has been terrific, and a whole lot of fun," said John Peterman, who clearly has sense of humor about his persona.

In its most recent catalog (Owner's Manual No. 60), the company offers a $298 black double-breasted jacket and slacks called the Elaine Benes, named after the character who works for Peterman on the show. She is played by actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

How does the corporate Peterman differ from the TV character? For starters, he's a tad shorter, has a receding hairline and a mustache, and is very laid back.

"I like boots and jeans and canvas shirts, don't take myself too terribly seriously and I generally speak if spoken to," Peterman said.

The two Petermans do have one thing in common: a love of travel. The real Peterman just returned from a two-month expedition to Asia, which included a four-day trip on camels through the Thar desert in northwest India.

Along the way, he also bought a host of goods for the company's catalogs and stores, including antique sari quilts, rugs and "lots of Thai silk." A film crew also was in tow to document the trip for an upcoming series on the Travel Channel.

"It was hard work," Peterman said, chuckling. "Somebody's got to do this."

Despite the huge exposure that "Seinfeld" has given to Peterman, the company hasn't been able to fully capitalize on it.

"While 70% of people recognize the brand name, many don't know we're a catalog business," said Cohen, the chief executive.

The expansion into retail stores is being financed in part by $10 million raised from private investors and follows a difficult period for the privately held company, which racked up $60 million in sales in 1997.

Peterman posted undisclosed losses in 1995 and 1996, feeling the effects of higher postage and paper costs. It returned to profitability last year, Cohen said.

Peterman, 56, practically stumbled into the catalog business after a brief baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization (he never made it to the big leagues) and a stint selling plant and dog food in the Southeast.

On a trip to Wyoming in the mid-1980s, he bought an ankle-length cowboy duster that drew many compliments from friends. In 1987, he and a partner bought a truckload of the light riding jackets, took out an ad in The New Yorker magazine. They sold 2,500 jackets.

The first catalog--a black-and-white pamphlet with sketches of five products accompanied by dreamy prose--appeared in the fall of 1988. The company now publishes three catalogs, mailing 20 million of the undersized books annually.

Along the way, Peterman has added some pizazz. It offered a vintage Bugatti race car for $525,000 in its Christmas 1996 catalog.

And last holiday season, the company bagged many of the props used in the blockbuster film "Titanic." The lifeboats fetched $25,000 apiece and Kate Winslet's Edwardian chiffon gown brought $11,500.

The Peterman store is a coup for Fashion Island, Orange County's second-largest mall in sales.

Peterman bypassed South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, believing that Fashion Island's outdoorsy ambience "is in keeping with the Peterman consumer, even though there is less traffic there," Cohen said.

Fashion Island is undergoing a "re-merchandising" that will devote about 10% of its space to new tenants in the coming months, said marketing director Nina Robinson.

The Peterman store will be between Cathy Jean Shoes and Athlete's Foot near the koi pond.

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DANA PARSONS: Peterman prose with an O.C. twist, B1

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J. Peterman Co. At a Glance

* Founded: 1987

* Chairman: John Peterman

* Chief executive: Arnie Cohen

* Headquarters: Lexington, Ky.

* Operations: Mail-order catalogs for apparel, accessories, home furnishings and exotic gifts

* Catalog titles: J. Peterman Company Owner's Manual, Peterman Eye, J. Peterman Company Gift Book

* Retail operations: One boutique, three outlet centers; plans to open 50 boutiques and 20 outlets over the next five years

* Annual mailings: 20 million

* 1997 sales: $60 million

* First Seinfeld appearance: 1995

Source: J. Peterman Co.; Researched by RUSS STANTON / Los Angeles Times

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