Growing the Michael Stars brand beyond T-shirts

Susan "Pete" Peterson is guiding the Michael Stars brand to a full range of apparel.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Michael Stars, a nostalgia brand after more than 25 years, is branching out.

When it first hit its stride in the early 1990s, the label’s bright-colored, clingy T-shirts in signature stretchy Shine fabric wholly embodied the moment. The style, as seen on the original “Beverly Hills, 90210" in the early ‘90s and “Gilmore Girls” a decade later, is casual but girlie, just slightly, almost accidentally, risqué in its tight silhouettes and shimmer.

Since its official launch in 1986, Michael Stars has maintained a loyal fan base — including celebrities such as Katie Holmes and Natalie Portman — that has translated into a presence in more than 900 specialty stores and nine flagships.

PHOTOS: Michael Stars Fall 2013 collection


Now, just as that first core audience has grown and evolved, so must Michael Stars itself, according to its co-founders, the husband and wife team Michael Cohen and Suzanne Lerner. The line is exchanging its “Original Tee” slogan for a fresh, broader perspective under the guidance of designer Susan “Pete” Peterson.

That means moving beyond tees into a full range of apparel. On Saturday, Michael Stars will open its first Malibu store as part of its preparation for unveiling a redefining fall collection that’s only 1% Shine and 100% of the moment.

“A few years ago, we launched cashmere sweaters that had the sheerness of tees — a huge success for us,” Lerner says. “So we started designing dresses, bottoms and jackets. Pete put it together as a collection, adding linens, leather-trimmed sportswear, really just a cooler vibe.”

Observing Peterson in her element at Michael Stars’ showroom at the Cooper Building in downtown L.A., it’s obvious why brands such as Arden B. and Bebe and now Michael Stars have trusted her to bring their lines up-to-date and add contemporary flavor. Her deep-parted straight hair is tucked on one side behind a diamond-studded ear, while the rest falls across her face, evoking adolescent angst. In her own Michael Stars striped, long-sleeved T-shirt, shoved casually into the front of slouchy trouser jeans, over white leather wingtips with French blue soles snagged in Paris, she is at once elegant and tomboyish, the juxtaposition of chic woman and skater kid. She is, in a word, “now.”

Petersen, who grew up in the Marina in San Francisco, got experience as a boutique buyer and moved to New York, where she styled windows and customers at Ann Taylor, then went to work for a buying office, sourcing garments for au courant stores like the Upper West Side’s Charivari. That led to manufacturing T-shirts and to a few other designing stints. Eventually, she headed to L.A. and started her own line of men’s jackets for women called Audience, which garnered a nomination — alongside Trina Turk and Mossimo — for CaliforniaMart’s 1996 Rising Star Award.

PHOTOS: Michael Stars Fall 2013 collection

Peterson was snapped up by Arden B., then Bebe, and spearheaded a surprising collaboration with Imitation of Christ (notably featuring a full, polka dot skirt in vintage 1940s style and a coveted trench coat) that drew attention from the Michael Stars team.

For Cohen and Lerner, Peterson seemed like the perfect person to reinterpret and broaden their line, while maintaining its core. “Pete has style, imagination and a sense of humor,” says Cohen.

These days, Peterson works overtime with her hands in every element of the process including design; social media; working with licensers for sunglasses, hats and scarves; and conceiving the newest store.

New pieces crept into the line slowly. First came washed linens, then leather-front tees, which flew off the shelves.

The brand’s first full fashion collection is scheduled to hit stores in late July. Its160 pieces include reversible cotton/cashmere sweaters, oversized Bouclé tweeds, impossibly soft denim Tencel drawstring pants and leather-sleeved, slouchy striped silk tops. Prices range from $58 to $348.

T-shirts are still key, of course, and are available each season in 24 colors — a challenge for Peterson, who is all about navy, black and gray. “This is a color company and people love them, so that’s important,” she explains. “In the leathers and silks, we did some more understated tones.”

More than anything, the line is rooted in materials. “We’re [emphasizing] flowy Pima cottons, more elegant fabrication, adding texture and striping linen knits,” says Peterson. “Fabric is clay for a designer, the painter’s paint. It’s about going to a wash house and making a fabric look unique, like you own it, not all stiff and crisp.”

The response from retailers has been positive, resulting in large orders from department stores including Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus. Loyal boutique owners don’t seem alienated by Michael Stars’ new incarnation either.

Ann Gitter has been ordering Michael Stars for her Philadelphia store the Knit Wit since the line launched. “In the beginning, there were only a few [units] of unisex graphic T-shirts, but he added slowly and soon offered a huge assortment of beautiful colors, so you can always find a home for yourself each season,” she says. “Now, there’s hardly a category the brand doesn’t dabble in. But they still keep it California casual and haven’t lost their identity along the way.” For fall, the shop owner bought sweaters, silks, Tencels and, of course, T-shirts.