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In his father’s footsteps

It’s hard to imagine a father and son who have shaped Los Angeles fashion as profoundly -- and as differently -- as Tommy Perse and his son James.

In the 1970s, the elder Perse introduced the black-clad look to Southern California, through his influential West Hollywood store Maxfield.

In the ‘80s, Tommy Perse was the first to bring the collections of Giorgio Armani, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons to town. Today, the shelves of Maxfield are filled with bleeding-edge labels such as Rick Owens and Libertine. And the skull-loving retailer was mining that trend long before Ed Hardy forced it down the gangplank of passe.

A long-haired retail eccentric, Tommy Perse is known for his ring-festooned fingers, a penchant for all things black, and for conducting interviews in a Maxfield dressing room.

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James Perse -- clean-cut, classically handsome and favoring jeans, T-shirts and slip-on Vans, is practically the polar opposite. His aesthetic is a laid-back beach luxe, exemplified by simple, solid and super-soft T-shirts that hug the body.

It’s a look that defines many upscale Angelenos who’ve moved beyond the shredded, distressed, overwrought denim and tattoo-splattered tees of the last decade. And the appetite for his plain, unadorned $50 cotton jersey T-shirts and $195 French terry hoodies has fueled a Perse universe that now includes 11 stand-alone stores and product on shelves of boutiques (Scoop, American Rag) and department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York). James Perse says his empire had $80 million in sales last year, double what it was just four years ago.

Anita Ortiz, national merchandise manager of contemporary clothing for Nordstrom, the first department store to pick up the fledgling line seven years ago, says the line continues to grow in popularity “because it’s a full lifestyle brand that represents a cool, casual L.A. lifestyle, that appeals to a customer beyond that base,” adding that the line’s continual evolution is a key to its success. The single T-shirt has been joined by kids clothes, bed linens, bicycles, surfboards and furniture. Oh, and there’s a Baja boutique hotel on the drawing board too.

Monocle magazine recently dubbed James Perse’s Beverly Hills boutique one of the world’s top 20 retailers, and J.Crew Chief Executive Mickey Drexler is a fan. “In our business you know who’s good out there -- who ‘gets it,’ ” Drexler says. “He’s one of the people in our industry who does good stuff. It’s cool stuff, very modern, very connected. These aren’t elitist goods. There’s broad appeal.”

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Drexler is a fan of both generations. “I’ve always admired enormously what his father’s done,” he adds. “I guess there’s DNA there from the dad [to the son].”

Though it may not seem like it at first glance, there is a distinct lineage that becomes apparent after you study the new James Perse flagship store at the Malibu Lumber Yard shopping center, wedged between the Malibu Country Mart and Pacific Coast Highway. The exterior of the 3,015-square-foot boutique is angular and black, with an uncanny similarity to the minimalist Maxfield facade.

James Perse, who professes an unhealthy fascination with architecture, said it was envisioned as a beach house. Along the front, louvered wooden shutter doors in black swing open to reveal warm blond wood and floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with his California-infused, understated clothing. A wooden deck attached to the store is filled with James Perse lounge chairs, and matte black and burnt orange-colored custom bicycles stand at attention in a rack near the front door.

Drexler, who knows a thing or two about retail environments himself, says Perse has a natural instinct, stocking his shelves with the kind of covet-worthy clothes you never know you want until you encounter them. “It’s something inside of him. You look at the stores and you immediately emotionally connect.”

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Born in 1972, James Perse spent his early years bouncing around Los Angeles, Hancock Park and the Hollywood Hills.

“When I was growing up in the ‘80s, minimalist architecture was becoming very popular, and my dad was really into it, but it was museum-like and cold,” he remembers. “At the same time I was growing up in sunny Southern California, going to the beach, calling our teachers by their first names -- a real casual lifestyle.

“At my dad’s house you had to take your shoes off at the front doorstep. You didn’t touch the walls. But when I lived with my mother -- they split when I was very young -- it was a different world. My mom’s was comfortable, cozy and inviting. It was the total opposite.”

His father’s obsession with all things black was a constant theme. “No matter what it was, he’d make it black -- even if it was red brick with white he’d turn it into black brick with white, which was kind of hideous,” says Perse. “Natural wood was never part of his vocabulary.”

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His aesthetic, Perse says, is a direct result of melding these two disparate influences. The spare minimalist lines form the bones of his stores, the shape of his clothes and the framework of his furniture. The warmth and sunny vibe of the California beach life are echoed in plush poplins, jerseys and twills; dresses that can survive being balled up at the bottom of a tote bag all day and still drape the female form as chicly as if they came right off the rack; and practically diaphanous T-shirts and hoodies with graphic word clouds of hyper-local beach names. (And really, where else can Dan Blocker Beach get a T-shirt shout-out?)

After high school, Perse went to Denison University in Ohio (“for like a minute,” he says). He soon returned to the West Coast and enrolled in Santa Monica College. But course work failed to hold his attention the way a certain side project did.

“I couldn’t find a baseball cap I liked,” he explains. “I wasn’t into the trucker shapes; the fabrics and logos that were on the market. I have a very specific idea of the way I want things to be, so I started developing one on my own.”

At 19, Perse started crafting his own caps. “I made a Maxfield hat and put a little hang-tag on it with the name JP Classics and my phone number,” he says. “That’s when people shopping at my dad’s store started noticing it.”

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One of his first coups was making hats for Martin Scorsese’s 50th birthday party (thanks to a connection through a friend at CAA), which led to the launch of a merchandising company. Perse recalls that early customers included the Hard Rock Hotel (“Peter Morton was my hardest sell”) and Joel Silver (wrap gifts for his 1995 movie “Fair Game).

Along the way, Perse noticed that, like the hats, there wasn’t a T-shirt style that fit his aesthetic; the fabrics were too thick, the necklines too binding and the shapes were just a bit off for his taste. “At the time you couldn’t find anything that was just a little more simple, a little more fitted. So I started experimenting with T-shirts.”

In 1994, the James Perse brand launched with his luxurious take on the T-shirt, again starting on the shelves of Maxfield, spreading to boutiques around Los Angeles, then into Nordstrom and to the East Coast.

In 2003, James Perse opened his first boutique, literally in his father’s retail shadow -- across Melrose Avenue from Maxfield’s temple of minimalist luxe. So it’s noteworthy that at some time in the next few months (store representatives wouldn’t be more specific, and despite several attempts, Tommy Perse couldn’t be reached to comment on his son’s successes) the father is set to open the second Maxfield in the store’s 40-year history just a crumpled T-shirt’s toss away from his son’s new store in Malibu.

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“I was part of making that happen,” Perse says. “I thought there would be a fun beach-chic interpretation of what he does.” Then he adds with a chuckle: “Hopefully he’ll make his son proud.”

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com


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