Fashion Designer James Perse Has Built an Empire Selling the California Dream

The self-professed “aesthetic junkie” has quietly branched out to real estate, dining, hospitality, and more

It’s a balmy September Tuesday on Point Dume, and designer James Perse, 47, is sitting on a cloudlike white sectional from his furniture collection and overlooking a lawn that meanders down to a private path accessing one of the prime and all-but-private surf spots in Malibu.

The home, one of Perse’s residential pet projects, was recently listed for sale at almost $40 million, but he pulled the listing after a buyer dropped out. Scanning the lawn, bordered by plush hedges that frame a vertiginous view of the Pacific Ocean, Perse says, “You see, I’ll never get this back.” He is at peace with keeping the house. A paddleboarder glides past as if on cue.

Though he lives elsewhere in Malibu with his wife, Brandi, and their two boys, the Point Dume property has become a sort of extension of the designer’s studio. He recently hosted a party for his son’s soccer team here. “It was absolute mayhem,” he laughs, “but it sort of solidified why I didn’t want to give up this spot.” Today he likens the place to a bachelor pad and a laboratory for his interior design ambitions.

Though the atmosphere is rarefied, he points out one room where he used to play video games with his kids, back when the home was his main residence. He’s totally straightforward and normal, so much so that you almost forget you’re standing in an almost $40 million pad on one of the most exclusive stretches of beach in the world.

James Perse’s estate in Malibu

Courtesy James Pierce

A handsome assistant named Jared proffers water from an industrial-grade fridge. He is clad exclusively in black to match the home’s dark palette and wears cloth booties over his leather shoes, presumably to protect the home’s wide-plank floors. Perse is barefoot.

A self-professed “aesthetic junkie,” Perse first launched his California casualwear empire in 1996. When you are selling T-shirts at a luxury price point—his basic Luxe Lotus jersey will run you $165, thanks to some sort of high-tech Japanese fabrication—it’s important to get the details right.

In the intervening years Perse’s vision grew far beyond the world of wardrobe staples, and yet, somehow, few people really know much about his expanding real estate ambitions and his upstart in the world of interiors, food, and hospitality. In part it’s because Perse has been quietly working away while eschewing the typical PR strategy.

“There’s so much taking yourself way too seriously [in fashion], where it’s all pretend. I mean, sure, pretend sells. I just don’t like it,” he says. “I watched a lot of design kids get caught up in press and PR and building an engine, but they didn’t have a business. And it doesn’t make any sense—you are going to burn out on that and have nothing else that pays the bills. So I just stuck my head in the sand and decided I wanted to be a doer.”

Being a doer has turned Perse’s retail network into a $250 million business, with 55 shops and more than 400 employees. And then there’s his nice little sideline flipping houses. In 2016 he sold a different Malibu investment property to philanthropist Aileen Getty, scooping up $12.5 million for a property he had purchased years earlier for half that. In 2013 he purchased a $10.8 million Hidden Valley horse ranch from Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi; that property is available to rent for one-off events.

In his residential projects Perse is able to go all out to realize his vision of the California good life: a matte-black surfboard propped just so, an almost-severe jute rug underfoot, and a handsome teak Ping-Pong table, reminding you that even at gobsmacking price points, L.A. luxe is really all about play.

But Perse’s understated approach may have to be adjusted, he says, as the designer prepares to debut a flurry of ambitious projects in late 2019 and 2020. “I think over time I really started to enjoy a low-key personal life,” he says. “It’s a perfect thing. I have my privacy because nobody knows anything about me. But in the same breath, you have to be a part of this thing you are trying to build. Quite honestly we have to get a little bit louder.”

And louder (yet tasteful) it will be. This month he will open the doors to his 11,000-square-foot Furniture & Home flagship and café on Robertson Boulevard, in the former Ralph Lauren space. Last July he opened Greycape, a private five-suite estate with hotel amenities, in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. A second Cabo estate, Antes, will bow soon, as will a store-and-café concept in Greenwich, Connecticut. Next summer he will oversee an expansion of his space at the Malibu Lumber Yard, creating a brand ecosystem that will include a furnishings-and-apparel store as well as an Eataly-like food hall in miniature, plus pop-up spaces to sell small-batch items like Greycape-branded tequila or etched teak paddleball sets from his sportswear line, Yosemite.

James Perse’s Melrose Avenue boutique reflects the designer’s elegant simplicity

Courtesy James Pierce

It’s a massive expansion for a usually somewhat under-the-radar fashion figure, which spurs the question: Why now? From his airy office in Marina del Rey, Perse jokes, “I’m running out of time. I am asking myself the same question: Why now? Why am I making myself insane?”

In the center of the office, a lineup of prototypes is displayed in museumlike fashion: a modernist chess set, a dog bowl with teak surround, several longboard surfboards, and a model sailboat with an onyx sail. “That’s totally the wrong fabric,” he says pointing to the sail. “It’s not going to look like that,” as if to say, “The horror!”

The reception space here is set up like a bar, and the office kitchen and dining room are laid out like a stylish Venice eatery, with tables bearing linen napkins and Heath ceramics. No one is eating there, but if someone were, it’s easy to imagine the food would be equally photogenic. Outside, transplanted mature olive trees create a dappled light over the pea-stone courtyard created by Perse out of a converted parking lot.

Perse has cited architects Luis Barragán and Louis Kahn as influences on the office’s design, and it’s undoubtedly an experience, which is to say, he’s utterly serious about the ambiance he lives and creates. Hip architects, designers, and assorted staffers drift around, clad in cream, white, black, and, occasionally, a pop of blue. The bathrooms may well be keeping the luxe skin care brand Aesop in business. It’s casual yet very, very posh down to every last fitting, and the alchemy works. Somehow you want it all, from the buttery cashmere sweaters to the utilitarian tote bags. “Why yes, I do need a James Perse scuba suit,” you think.

Brand consultant Marcy Medina, the former West Coast bureau chief of WWD, has known the designer for nearly 20 years. “For Gen X he was at the forefront of the lifestyle brand,” she says. “He hasn’t changed. The world has changed. People who wear James Perse are not necessarily the Supreme or the Gucci customer. But his is an equally creative brand, it’s just a quiet luxury consumer who does not need to telegraph their adherence to fashion. His core customer might have 19 of his shirts.”

As for the matter of why now, after two decades in business, Perse is about to aim even higher, the answer is all about mood and timing. “It started as L.A. trying to be what New York was, doing L.A. Fashion Week, and you’d see everyone come and pretend,” he says. “And it was just weird. Nothing was relevant. It was so not authentic, and that aggravated me. I think when that didn’t work, people started to embrace the authenticity of California and what that meant. So I think that’s where L.A. became more and more important. They finally woke up to lifestyle, and the lifestyle got more elevated. I feel very fortunate because I had the right idea at the right time and was part of this casual globalization thing.”

In his travels to Japan and beyond, Perse says, he sees a through line to Los Angeles in the impact of the surf and skate worlds on streetwear. “That’s how big the California influence is,” he says. “Here they were trying to pretend they were in the fashion industry, but they were really doing something much bigger than that, influencing the globe. You go to Tokyo now and see what kids are wearing, and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m in Brentwood.’”

Once he saw himself as having a strong voice in the California vernacular, building James Perse-branded pool tables ($25,000 a pop), drum kits, and even electric bikes, started to make sense. “We’re playing with this idea of kind of being at a different level of product,” he says, “like an Hermès, just cool stuff we can put our stamp on and do in a clever way. When I did the pool table and Ping-Pong table, we had just done a marketing mock-up at the Malibu store, and people wanted to buy it. I was like, ‘Nah, this is not quality. I didn’t make this to sell it. But I will make one.’ I didn’t expect to create a business out of it, but we’ve now sold over $10 million [in] Ping-Pong and pool tables. I didn’t plan on that, but it was a way into people’s homes.”

In 1969, when Perse was “just a California kid,” as he puts it, his father, Tommy Perse, created Maxfield, the first L.A. retail destination of its kind. The iconic boutique would introduce the city to edgier labels like Jil Sander and Yohji Yamamoto and champion designers like Rick Owens and Chrome Hearts. “I watched that whole thing happen,” James Perse says. “My mom [real estate agent Sarah Marks] was very close with [restaurateur and artist] Michèle Lamy [Owens’s wife], and my dad was kind of like the Godfather; he’d be holding court every single night at Les Deux Café. And Rick lived across the street and hadn’t done anything, was just starting; Michèle would wear his line around the restaurant. I watched that go from zero to global in such a small amount of time. My father, he’s the original influencer. He’s the guy who has connected the dots.”

James and his father, Tommy, at the New York City James Perse launch party in 2007

Patrick McMullan

Though Perse as a teenager attended fashion shows for Commes des Garçons, Issey Miyake, and John Galliano, he initially had zero interest in following his father into the business. Still, his youthful immersion gave him a unique education in architecture, design, and style. “I grew up with my mother and father in two different worlds,” Perse says. “He was a whole ’nother level. He was a huge collector of [French furniture designer] Jean Prouvé. He had important pieces at home, [and] as a kid, it was a world of ‘Don’t touch the walls. Take your shoes off. Don’t sit on the furniture.’ So he exposed me to minimalism, yet at the same time I was around a lot of warmth, so that’s where some of my palettes eventually came from. We use a lot of wood materials and earth tones.”

Perse says he wasn’t caught up in the glitz and glam of the fashion world and was really more of a jock. “I was a hockey player. I didn’t care about fashion, definitely not until my 20s. I think I was ambitious in that what sounded interesting to me was having a business. As a kid I was totally into skateboarding, and we would go to this store called Val Surf and buy Stüssy clothes, and we were into the whole vibe.” Vibe is a big word with Perse. “I think I thought those brands were cool,” he recalls, “which maybe started me thinking about clothing in that way.”

Then, as now, authenticity is his thing, he says, and he has stayed true to his roots. He’s known most of his close friends since nursery school, and he first met his wife when the two were ninth graders at Beverly Hills High School.

It wasn’t until Perse’s early 20s, after he dropped out of Denison University, that he began dabbling in corporate merchandise, making high-end baseball caps for Hollywood premieres. That’s when he saw an angle for himself. When he broadened that vision to clothing, someone at a showroom floated the idea of changing the name of his company from “JP Classics, since 1972” to “James Perse.” “That might have been the dumbest thing I ever did, to attach my name to my label,” he says. “When we were playing with the idea, and I showed something to my dad, he made a comment like, ‘Why are you calling it James Perse? You’re not Harley-Davidson. Nobody knows who you are.’ I had this thing where whatever my dad said, I would do the opposite.”

While his father dressed like a rock star and sold outrageous clothes by L’Wren Scott and Balmain at Maxfield alongside one-off found objects like a genuine shrunken head ($37,500!) Perse doubled down on the clean-lined sophistication of his own creations, which he says were inspired by minimalists like Helmut Lang. “I mean, he was a major inspiration on every level,” he says. “I loved the way he did his architecture, his graphics, his fonts. He is a genius of geniuses.” If Tommy Perse sold over-the-top works of art to the stay-up-late Hollywood set, his son buckled down and began to make garments for the working rich, the sort of Silicon Valley titans who embrace a uniform, “As trends have happened,” he says, “we’ve just casually ignored them.”

Aesthetic differences aside, to this day, Tommy and James Perse have a jocular relationship. In 2003 when the younger Perse opened his first boutique, in Beverly Hills, his father showed up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a grainy picture of his son’s fake ID. “My dad’s hilarious. He still wears it. It’s on my Instagram,” Perse says.

The elder Perse occasionally wears his son’s clothes. “I love when my dad wears my stuff,” James Perse says, “because he’s so not that guy. He wears lots of my women’s T-shirts.”

But while Perse himself tends toward a more subdued, pared-down look—simple tees and sports shorts or sweatpants from his Yosemite line—he is exuberant about putting the Perse imprimatur on everything from food to curated vacations.

In 2017 he launched his first dining endeavor, the café Côté Cuisine, which inhabits a space in his Montreal boutique, the first step in his grand plan for a 360- degree experience with a come-and-stay-a-while spirit. With his Canadian investors, says Perse, “somehow we pulled off this amazing café where we’re known for the breakfast burrito.”

“Our brand is supposed to be about your favorites, so it’s the same thing with food,” he says. “[When we were developing the idea], I remember they sent me a bunch of fussy menus, and I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t even want you to describe it this way. I don’t want you to talk this way [about food].’ And my team, the chef, and the partners, they just crushed it. Nothing makes me more proud than when I can give my team a mission and send them off and then have nothing to do with it, and they come back and it’s like, ‘Wow, you did this.’”

An outdoor corridor at Pierce’s Cabo San Lucas home, Greycape

Courtesy James Pierce

It’s this approach that has Perse excited about unveiling Greycape, the first of his hospitality experiences. Listening to him enthuse about his childhood visits to Cabo and its imprint on his imagination, it’s not hard to understand why the property feels like an extension of the James Perse universe. “My favorite thing in the world is to be in my Jeep and driving these dirt roads and stopping in these little taco stands and sitting in the little Corona chair,” he says. “That’s my form of luxury—to me, that’s the most relaxing form of escape.”

At the Cabo estate, guests will have a full staff, including chef, plus access to Shipwrecks beach, a top surf spot, and surf ponchos, rash guards, and towels—which will most definitely be for sale. The nightly rate will range from about $7,500 to $12,500, which, per suite, compares to the room rate for a five-star property, but he says the spot is more ideal for family gatherings.

For skeptics who reel at the steep prices of his clothing or furnishings, Perse notes, “Yes, we’re a designer price point. We’ve basically been the casual wardrobe for the luxury customer.” He is not exactly exasperated by the question, but he’s a little bored by it. “The bottom line in making an item worth that price point,” he adds, is that “I pay attention. It’s not that complicated. At our studio sometimes someone on my team will come out with a garment and say, ‘What do you think?’ If you get an “Eh,” I am like, ‘Does that answer your question?’ ”

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