Adam Vanunu’s new T-shirt line Cotton Citizen features colors that fit to a tee

Special to the Los Angeles Times

In L.A., there’s a T-shirt line born every minute (or so it seems). Crew, scoop and V-necks are burned out, silkscreened and Swarovski-crystal-studded beyond recognition. Words like buttery, vintage-style and boyfriend (fashion speak for “oversized”) are rendered meaningless from overuse.

Still, even in this saturated landscape, occasionally a brand finds a fresh approach. That’s the case with Beverly Hills native Adam Vanunu and his new T-shirt line Cotton Citizen, treated with sophisticated dye and distress techniques usually associated only with premium denim.

Last November, Vanunu “soft launched” — unofficially released — a small sample selection of tees and tanks exclusively in Ron Robinson at Fred Segal. Getting placement in that store was the first sign that the brand had promise.


“I spotted the line in August 2011 at ENK [a trade show] in Vegas, and it stopped me in the aisle,” recalls Karen Meena, vice president of buying and merchandising at Ron Robinson. “No one was doing color at that time, and they had a really fresh take on it. I loved the way they mix fabrics like bamboo, organic cotton and French terry; there was an almost acid-washed effect on some of the shirts. Also, that it’s made and designed in L.A. means a lot to our customers. From the first weekend, it was a top seller.”

Now the inaugural full collection is rolling out, with bamboo zip hoodies, maxi-dresses and a bevy of tee silhouettes from slouchy to trim, and prices from around $60 to $200. Celebrities are picking up on it too — Jessica Alba was photographed wearing one of the tees on her way to her office in early May, for instance. Cotton Citizen plans to launch an e-commerce site in June, and other boutiques will now carry the line, but Fred Segal still will have special colors and dyes and exclusive silhouettes. “We told them that they can try anything they want with us in order to test the market,” Meena says.

Vanunu is 23, but his story actually began 25 years ago, when his parents took over an 80,000-square-foot dye house, about 20 minutes from downtown L.A. in Gardena. As a kid, the designer was awed by massive machines surrounding his parent’s office, where he played with Pantone color swatches, creating his own palettes and even offering opinions to clients. “A lot of kids start with ABCs,” he explains. “I started with colors.”

Vanunu spent his childhood learning to treat denim. And even though many dye houses copy colors, washes and detailing based on, for instance, a specific pair of vintage Levi’s, his family refused to do knockoffs, instead developing unique styles in-house based on trend forecasting and thus attracting high-end customers. “We started from the beginning with premium brands like 7 for All Mankind, Hudson and Joe’s,” says Vanunu. “They get new washes they can’t find elsewhere.”

Even now, the son proudly runs operations for the family business, American Dye House, which gave him rare access to tools and the flexibility to develop his own line. Tests, custom pieces and last-minute orders are no problem. “We’re able to design on the fly, creating anywhere from five to 10,000 pieces at a time, which is a great advantage,” he says. “Usually, something unexpected comes out of experimenting. You take ideas from your mistakes.”

Vanunu spent two years toying with high-end fabric, chemical and color combinations (percentages of red, yellow and blue) until satisfied. In researching, he noted that most existing luxury T-shirt lines emphasized either nice fabric and/or cool washes but rarely offered great color palettes as well, so he pledged to create classic pieces in poppy hues and buttery materials.

“Denims [are] very bright and colorful right now,” says Cotton Citizen’s head of operations Daniel Rosen, a onetime finance guy who most recently worked in production and operations at American Apparel. “We wanted to bring that vibrance to T-shirts. But if you dyed 30 different fabrics [the same way], then put a blindfold on and touched them, they would feel completely different. The wrong fabric might not stay soft or hold up during intense washes. Colors can flare completely differently.”

The result of their experimentation is defined by both denim techniques and inspiration but is more evocative than heavy-handed. “In addition to the simple bright colors, we created washes that are bleached out and stone washed, and like vintage Levi’s, which have interesting waistband and bottom trim characteristics, we did hand-grinding [with a sandpaper wheel] to create very gentle, clean abrasions on the collars and bottom hems of our shirts,” Vanunu says.

Looking ahead to the holiday season and to spring 2013, Vanunu and Rosen are playing with wax-coated, metallic and glittery finishes. But they’re most excited about a new mill fabrication, a jersey and French terry blend, called Indigo. “[It’s] lightweight enough for T-shirts but looks like denim,” Vanunu says. “It’s really, really beautiful.”