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James Perse takes after designing dad, with a twist

Tommy Perse of Maxfield fame introduced a generation to the all-black look. Then his son helped usher in laid-back beach chic.

June 21, 2009|Adam Tschorn

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.

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."

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."

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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