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Moss the Boss : Red-Hot Designer Mossimo Giannulli Shoots for Fashion's Big Leagues

September 08, 1996|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mossimo Giannulli is on the move.

As he circulates through the crowded headquarters of the apparel company he founded just under a decade ago, employees pepper him with make-or-break questions concerning the spring lines that Mossimo Inc. is now designing.

"It's been a bit chaotic around here," Giannulli said during a recent tour of the Irvine headquarters building that's been stretched to the limit by a wave of recent hirings. "But this is a young company with an attitude, and I'm having more fun than I ever had before."

At 33, he's now the youngest chairman of a New York Stock Exchange-listed company, darting off to New York to court Wall Street investors, then to Las Vegas for a major apparel industry show and on to Europe to keep tabs on fashion trends.

He recently built a lavish home in Laguna Beach, and he's overseeing construction of a new headquarters for the company he founded in a Newport Beach garage.

When it's time for a break, Giannulli occasionally fires up the Moss Lounge, a well-appointed Chevrolet Suburban that serves as a limousine, and heads north to pal around with Hollywood friends, including superstar Janet Jackson.

Now Giannulli is making his boldest move yet as he starts to expand beyond his trademark men's clothing into the rough-and-tumble world of "better" women's apparel, a venture that bumps Mossimo up against fashion industry heavyweights such as Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and Ralph Lauren.

Any design missteps along the way could dull the company's polished image in the fashion world. Now that Mossimo is a public company, Giannulli is feeling increased pressure from shareholders to post fatter profits and keep the stock price high.

Observers also caution that Giannulli--a professed micro-manager--can't expect to keep his finger on all aspects of the fast-growing company.

For now, shoppers still scramble for his autograph, and Macy's West Chairman Michael Steinberg and Bloomingdale's Chairman Michael Gould have tabbed Giannulli one of the fashion world's brightest lights.

Giannulli--his given name is Massimo, but he later adopted Mossimo, an extension of his "Moss" nickname--broke into the apparel business in 1987, financed by a $100,000 loan from his father, an Orange County landscape architect.

Competitors credit him with developing an early recognition of the power of marketing. Lots of guys from the beach were selling casual wear, but Giannulli made his line stand out by slapping on his distinctive "Mossimo" script and a stylized "M."

But there was more to it than just writing his name on his product. Mossimo has cleverly intertwined his personality with his fashion sense.

The party invitations Giannulli mailed out for his 33rd birthday in June asked guests to provide their shirt size and favorite color. Within days, messengers had delivered 400 ruffled tuxedo shirts featuring a rainbow of colors. On the night of the party, the security staff at his home in a gated community on the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Beach simply looked for the telltale shirts.

That kind of flourish is typical of Giannulli, said Rosemary Brantley, Fashion Design Department chairwoman at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

"He's got charisma, and he's just what you think a designer should be," said Brantley, who lured Giannulli to her campus two years ago to moderate a four-part fashion workshop.

The fashion school has attracted its share of top designers, Brantley said, "but I saw something we hardly ever see when a guest designer comes on campus. Kids were asking for his autograph. They adored Moss."

"Our chairman thinks that Moss is the next major superstar American designer," said Larry Hashbarger, director of special productions for Macy's West, who has worked with Giannulli on fashion fund-raisers. "And I think he's right. He has the kind of personality that people think a designer should have."

So do a number of Hollywood stars, including Jackson, who recently invited the designer to appear in one of her music videos.

Hashbarger credits Giannulli with using his Hollywood connections to benefit Passports, a fashion industry fund-raising project that supports AIDS organizations in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Last October, Giannulli convinced several Hollywood stars to serve as runway models during the Passport show in San Francisco, a move that "really was an exciting addition," Hashbarger said.

"Moss is like a baseball star or someone from Hollywood," he said. "He's a very social person who loves to go out and meet people."

Giannulli, who counts actors such as John Stamos and Jason Gedrick as friends, downplays his high-profile connections: "It's just me and some friends I've developed. . . . It's not something I do to sell clothes or anything like that. They're friends."

*

A typical day for Giannulli, who is divorced and has a young son, starts with an 8:30 a.m. breakfast of fruit and yogurt eaten at his office in Mossimo's surprisingly nondescript building in an Irvine office park.

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