Pepper Foster rarely stays put behind his desk, so when a recent hernia operation temporarily saddled him to the chair, he felt compelled to show evidence of the surgery. "Look at this," he said, opening his denim pants and pointing to a bandage on his pelvic area.
Foster winced a little after poking at the injury a few times. But neither he nor his twin brother Chip gets distracted for too long when it comes to their high-end jeans brand, Chip & Pepper.
The phone rang and Hollywood nightclub owner Chris Breed, who recently outfitted his Cabana Club employees in clothes designed by the Foster brothers, was on the line. Pepper began plotting his next moves.
"I don't have a deal in the Middle East. The Middle East and Russia? I love it!" said Pepper. "I love it!"
Such is the frenetic and quite unlikely world of Chip and Pepper, who run Vernon-based L.A. Lab Inc., a jeans maker and retailer whose visibility within the local fashion community far eclipses its annual sales of just under $30 million.
The Fosters, a pair of blonds who routinely come to work clad in jeans, weathered T-shirts and flip flops, have, in effect, used personality to grow their business. They make regular appearances on E! Television and the Style Network as self-appointed fashion mavens skewering celebrity get-ups (including a recent stint on "Glamour's 50 Biggest Fashion Dos & Don'ts" on E!, where they agreed that panty lines are major don'ts).
"Not being buttoned-up corporately is not a bad thing. They are very passionate about their business," said Michael Keener, an apparel marketing manager at Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Co., which recently reached a deal with L.A. Lab to make university T-shirts. "As brand owners, they understand the need to protect the brand."
And word has spread beyond the boutique crowd. After meeting recently with buyers from Nordstrom Inc. at the merchant's South Coast Plaza store, Chip Foster recalls seeing a 40-ish corporate-type shopper picking up one of his jeans, which retail for up to $300. He said the moment was awesome, a word that the two brothers seem to utter every other breath.
"Those guys are such good marketing guys," said Breed, who plans to keep dressing his employees in Chip & Pepper clothes in upcoming seasons. "As soon as you meet them, it is just a blast of energy. You want to get involved. Everything that they will do, they will probably do well at, because it just sounds so good."
Hawking tie-dyed clothes
Take it from Tiffany Wendel, co-owner of Dari. A few years ago, she had never heard of Chip & Pepper brand denim. Then the Foster brothers showed up at her Studio City clothing store uninvited.
The Fosters came to convince Wendel to sell their clothes in her store. Taken with their personal sales approach, Wendel decided to give the brand a try. "They actually came in themselves and told us about it and got us excited," she said.
By the way, Chip and Pepper are the real names of the Winnipeg-born twins. Chip was named after the movie "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and Pepper became Pepper after a nurse called the newborn "peppy."
When the brothers were in their teens in Canada, they hawked tie-dyed clothes out of their car. Having made $50,000 one summer, they soon realized they had a knack for the rag trade not the family pickle business. "We always loved cool clothes. It comes natural," said Chip Foster.
In 1987, they launched Chip & Pepper Inc., a sportswear label known for its sunglass-wearing bulldog logo. Pepper said the label generated $18 million in sales at its height.
To expand without having to build up the prerequisite back-room operations, they signed a licensing deal with now-defunct Chauvin International, better known as B.U.M. Equipment. Under the agreement, the Chip & Pepper label was placed on sunglasses, children's clothes and shoes, among other products.
"We thought licensing would take off some of the financial pressure," Pepper said. "It was one of the worst business decisions I ever made."
Perhaps that's because the Fosters had turned their sights to Hollywood. Through a series of coincidences, a videotape of Chip and Pepper singing "Chip & Pepper, get hip or get out," on Canadian television had landed in the hands of the late Brandon Tartikoff, then head of NBC's Entertainment division.
After Tartikoff saw the tape, the Fosters said he proposed that the brothers do a series. The result was a kids' show, "Chip and Pepper's Cartoon Madness," which they hosted on Saturday mornings in the early 1990s and which featured the voices of the two brothers.
While Chip and Pepper were in L.A. making the show, they claimed that their clothing business was spinning out of control. They said B.U.M. Equipment mismanaged the licensing deal by spreading the label too thin.
The Fosters ended up in a prolonged legal battle with B.U.M. over ownership of the Chip & Pepper trademark. Until 2002, the two weren't able to use the name in anything other than entertainment ventures. "We lived day to day to survive. We had to eat crap like Cup of Noodles," said Pepper.
Stephen Wayne, chairman of SOS Management LLC, which took over bankrupt Chauvin International in 1997, said the Fosters signed a licensing deal with Chauvin because they had mismanaged their brand and needed an infusion of cash to keep it going. "They had a business that was going nowhere," said Wayne.
The next time around the pair never doubted there would be a next time they vowed to grow their company incrementally.
Chip and Pepper started again in 1994 by opening Golf Punk, a two-rack store on Sierra Bonita Avenue, a side street off Melrose Avenue (the store was later moved to Melrose).
"I'd go golfing, and I always wanted to wear something really cool and hip and fun," Pepper said to explain the name. "Chip always said, 'What are you doing you little golf punk?'"
As their retailing expertise grew, the store was transformed from a mish-mash of vintage wares to a focus on denim. When customer interest in denim began to blossom, the Fosters phased out the Golf Punk label and broadened the store's vintage denim collection, building a name for Golf Punk as one of the go-to places for hard-to-find classic jeans. "I saw the swell coming," said Chip, noting that he'd see crowds of young hipsters, many of them Japanese, plucking through the latest vintage jeans offerings.
The pair decided to re-launch the Chip and Pepper brand by marketing jeans that resemble vintage denim, but without some of the problems most notably, the fit that hurt vintage jeans' appeal. They would peddle the jeans in higher-end department stores and smaller influential retail outlets.
The Fosters recognize the importance of expanding the Chip & Pepper brand. That's what motivated them to distribute a university line of vintage shirts through an agreement with Collegiate Licensing.
The Fosters shrug at the possibility of buying other brands to expand their business or going public, which other local denim companies Blue Holdings Inc. and True Religion Apparel Inc. have done. And instead of being the fashionable jeans choice, the two would rather sell jeans that are comfortable, much like Levi's.
"To really take it to the next level is a tough business," said Pepper. "For us, it is long term."
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