JOHN WHITLEDGE, founder and creative director of the New England preppy-meets-Orange County surfer label Trovata, is behind the wheel of a sporty little electric boat called a Duffy, motoring across Newport Harbor toward the company's newly opened, first-ever boutique.
The short trip from his office to the store is much faster by car, but when it comes to Trovata, Whitledge has always preferred the scenic route, choosing to grow the brand slowly. Besides, "the water is so much about what Trovata is about," he explains, jumping out of the boat and tying Boy Scout-caliber knots to tether it to a dock.
The nautical vibe does extend to the store. The whitewashed, barn-like structure, in the heart of the South Coast Shipyard in Newport Beach, was built as a ship repair shop in the 1930s. "Trovata" is Italian for "found," and the décor is composed chiefly of materials scavenged by Whitledge, and objects that have inspired the label's look since its inception. Old Army cots were given a coat of white paint and transformed into display tables. The rustic wooden walls of the dressing room were constructed from a fence that used to border a nearby lumberyard. A glass case houses vintage Rolexes and Super-8 cameras; books of photos by Slim Aarons and Helmut Newton are stacked up neatly next to folded merchandise. It's all for sale. "I'm not about having things in the store as props," Whitledge says.
One of Trovata's signatures is that each new collection is inspired by a quirky, often charmingly convoluted, narrative. The fall collection, "Ladles and Letters," centers around a moral battle between two teachers over the use of a Manhattan building, circa 1981. One wants to feed the poor; another wants to institute a museum in homage to vintage printing presses. The appropriate garb for such a row apparently includes super-soft, thin T-shirts for men (starting at $54), updated preppy wool coats ($425 to $600) and dresses ($134 to $385) such as a roomy gray cashmere cowl-neck tunic style, a navy jumper with nautical-inspired buttons and a cream '40s-style frock with puffed capped sleeves. The use of mismatched buttons, an early design stamp, has carried over into its latest collections.
Whitledge dreamed up Trovata at age 16, as a career path that would perpetuate his fantasy lifestyle, centered around his two big loves, surfing and traveling. He launched the brand in 1998, shipping merchandise to stores including Barneys New York out of his dorm room at Claremont McKenna College. Shortly after graduating in 2002, Whitledge asked three friends, Jeff Halmos, Sam Shipley and Josia Lamberto-Egan, to join him as co-owners and co-designers.
What happened next is the stuff of fashion fairy tale. The guys quickly became Vans-wearing darlings of the industry, as much for their pink-cheeked, anti-Fifth Avenue surfer style as for their collections. Then, in 2005, the company won the Council of Fashion Designers of American/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. The next year, they did about $8 million in sales.
But with wild success came four different opinions on how to handle it. Whitledge, for one, worried that growing too quickly would lead to the degeneration of Trovata's reputation as a cult brand. His aversion to the fast buck reportedly became a sore spot, and in December, Shipley and Halmos left the company (Lamberto-Egan had left months earlier for Seattle.)
"It's a lot easier now that we have a single vision," says Whitledge. He foresees opening more Trovata stores, but not at the risk of Trovata becoming a household name. "We'll grow to the point where we can keep our integrity intact."