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Wearing pride on sleeve

Times Staff Writer

Born in 1950s Oklahoma, Peter Mui says he never felt proud of his ancestry. Afraid of ridicule, his Chinese immigrant father would ask Mui’s mother not to speak Mandarin in public so that the family wouldn’t stand out.

But Mui has turned those childhood memories of prejudice into a $12-million clothing company. With his YellowMan brand, Mui has taken a slur and turned it on its head.

YellowMan, worn by entertainment industry elites and hipsters with lots of disposable cash, is probably the only high-end clothing brand that employs Buddhist monks, Japanese yakuza groupies and Maori tribesmen to design “wearable” tattoos rich with symbols and ethnic pride.

The designs on the form-fitting shirts, printed on breathable polyester spandex that absorbs body moisture, always have a symbolic component. One of Mui’s favorites illustrates an ancient Japanese parable of a fish swimming upstream that overcomes adversity to become a dragon.

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“I like the whole story about the life struggles of a boy becoming a man -- I’m still a boy growing up,” said Mui, 54. “This is one way to learn art and about culture and history. Each piece has a significance of meaning.”

As an adult, Mui spent years traveling through China and Malaysia, getting to know the cultures he once repudiated. The idea for YellowMan came to him after he had co-founded a successful clothing manufacturing company in Hong Kong.

“I wanted to do something meaningful. This brand is a battle cry,” Mui said. “My father wanted us to be American and he was made fun of for having an accent. I want my children to learn to be proud of who they are.”

Mui, the youngest of three children, acknowledges that he has never fully fit in anywhere.

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The first time Mui set foot in mainland China in the 1970s, he kissed the ground. It felt good to taste the land of his ancestors even if his father, an economics professor at Oklahoma City University, never talked to his children about their heritage.

“His father had three wives and was a laundryman,” Mui said. “There was nothing to be proud of, in my father’s mind.”

After wandering aimlessly throughout China, he borrowed money from his maternal grandfather and went into the jewelry and furniture import/-export business. Along the way, he met and married Teresa Carpio, an Asian singing star.

Using his father’s credit cards, Mui stayed at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, where he befriended Benson Tung, his tailor at famous high-end custom shirt maker Ascot Chang. In 1986, Tung, Mui and associates founded Tungtex Holdings Co., which employs about 10,000 people and makes clothing for such retailers as Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Talbots, Coldwater Creek and Garnet Hill. Although Mui still serves as president of Yellow River Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of Tungtex, he found the cutthroat world of garment manufacturing too brutal.

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So in 2005 he took out mortgages on his three homes and launched YellowMan with the idea of combining wearable art with Asian empowerment.

“I literally bet my house on it,” he said.

He traveled around the world and found the best tattoo artists to make the designs. The first was Filip Leu, a second-generation tattoo artist from Switzerland known for his detailed and colorful eastern dragons. Mui also hired Horitoyo, a Japanese tattoo artist who designed a yakuza shirt in honor of the Japanese mafia. The shirt details the Japanese myth of Kintaro, a boy who was abandoned by his parents and was raised by bears in the forest.

Even though he and his company are based in Manhattan, Mui decided to open his only store on trendy Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, across the street from the Ivy, the eatery to the stars. Understanding the power of celebrity, Mui also took YellowMan to the Sundance Film Festival to promote the line.

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“I don’t wear tattoos on my body but I liked the shirts. . . . It’s wearable art,” said John Paul de Joria, a co-founder of beauty product maker John Paul Mitchell Systems, who met Mui at the festival. “I’m a biker, and if you want to be a little edgy and funky you wear it when you want to go out.”

The shirts, targeted at the upper-end shopper, average $218.

Within weeks of the store’s opening in 2005, an executive from Walt Disney Co. wandered in, drawn by its luminescent white floors. John Rogers, director of franchise management for Disney’s Buena Vista Pictures, ended up buying a shirt for his girlfriend.

“When you put a tattoo on your skin, it works with your flesh, and the curves of your shoulders and spine,” Rogers said. “I was amazed that YellowMan was taking this to a level where you have the best tattoo artists in the world and bringing their work to you so you don’t have to sit down for 128 hours to appreciate their artwork.”

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Disney executives then contacted Mui to make YellowMan limited-edition “Pirates of the Caribbean” shirts, including one for Johnny Depp, who starred in the movie.

“We thought we could take icons and plot points from the movie and have the artists interpret them,” Rogers said. The shirts were sold at the YellowMan store as well as Disney’s high-end retail store, Vault 28, in Anaheim.

After the YellowMan line, Mui launched three others: Misplaced Cowboy, designer jeans with stitched tattoo art; Mui Mui, a Hawaiian-inspired shirt line; and Samurai Surfer, a casual shirt line. Items from those labels range from $28 to $2,500 for limited-edition jeans.

Soon after Disney forged the deal with Mui, Janet Grove, the vice chairwoman for Federated Department Stores Inc. (now Macy’s Inc.), approached him about selling the Samurai Surfer line at Macy’s stores.

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“He has a great creative sense,” Grove said. “I think we will do very well with this particular line.”

Mui recognizes that his prices aren’t the ready-to-wear norm, but he doesn’t intend to lower them, in part because the material and designs don’t come cheaply. He also says he doesn’t have it in him to “negotiate a price.”

“I am not a pushy salesman or a hustler, which is why I do high-end garments,” he said.

Mui’s marriage to Carpio didn’t last, and the divorce is one of his regrets.

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He says he has learned from the experience and is now focusing more on his new family as well as his 25-year-old daughter from his first marriage, T.V. Carpio, who recently starred in Julie Taymor’s musical “Across the Universe.” Mui now lives in Manhattan with his second wife and their four children: Tigre, T Rex, Mikael and Ethan Axel Thor.

“My No. 1 priority is being a good husband and a good dad,” he said.

“I was married once before and I screwed that up. I never want to do that again.”

Another priority is expanding YellowMan, which employs more than 100 workers and manufactures its clothing in Vietnam, India and China.

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Of course, the money is nice. But mostly he hopes the line will inspire pride.

“There is a reason to be proud to be Asian,” he said. “That is my whole thing with YellowMan, embodying that spirit.”

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Asian apparel

Business: Produces high-end shirts under the YellowMan label that are influenced by ethnic pride and tattoo art. The company’s other lines are Misplaced Cowboy, designer jeans with stitched tattoo art; Mui Mui, Hawaiian-inspired shirts; and Samurai Surfer, casual shirts.

Founder: Peter Mui

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Revenue: $12 million

Employees: More than 100

Operations: The company is based in Manhattan but operates its only store on L.A.'s trendy Robertson Boulevard. Clothing is manufactured in Vietnam, India and China.


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