“Moss” the real man behind the Target fashion brand

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The man behind the label is Mossimo Giannulli, 43, known as "Moss" to his friends, and he visits Target's home base of Minneapolis frequently. Last fall, Giannulli sold his company, the publicly traded Mossimo Inc., which generated most of its revenue through Target, to Iconix Brand Group Inc., a corporation of brands with licensing deals, including Joe Boxer and Candie's. In the process, Giannulli pocketed more than $67 million in cash and 3.6 million Iconix shares.

It's on the labels of apparel and accessories for men, women, plus sizes, juniors and kids at every one of Target's 1,494 stores. But did you know he's a real person?

Shopper Karl Gamradt of St. Paul, Minn., questioned recently at a SuperTarget, knew that, but little else.

"He's a designer who's big with the skateboarding crowd," Gamradt said while picking up a $25 maroon Mossimo sweater in the men's department. "But I couldn't specifically point him out."

The man behind the label is Mossimo Giannulli, 43, known as "Moss" to friends.

Giannulli, who visits Target's home base of Minneapolis frequently, isn't shy about discussing his name's ubiquitous place in the Target empire. He also knows how to create a persona. When asked about the lion in the crest of some of his men's polo shirts, he quickly crafted a tale:

"This one day in the jungle, this lion was going to get up on his legs and attack me," he said, then shifted into business-talk. "Really, I think, graphically, it was weighted nicely and works good with embroidery. You can use the first story if you like."

Last fall, Mossimo sold his company, the publicly traded Mossimo Inc., which generated most of its revenue through Target, to Iconix Brand Group, a corporation of brands with licensing deals, including Joe Boxer and Candie's. In the process, Giannulli pocketed more than $67 million in cash and 3.6 million Iconix shares.

Until then, his title had been co-chief executive officer.

"I sold the brand. It has no bearing on my relationship or the role that I'll play (at the company). It's seamless."

His new title? He's not sure, but has a sense of humor about it: "Chief loser … I don't know … Asset or liability, I'm bound."

Mossimo is still his name, and he embodies the lifestyle the brand personifies. Born and raised in California, the tanned, Los Angeles-based Giannulli grew up surfing and looks the part.

In the mid-1980s, he dropped out of the University of Southern California and made T-shirts and shorts that he sold from his garage. His beach-lifestyle aesthetic quickly became popular with surfers and fashion shoppers.

By 1996, he was on the cover of Forbes and named one of the country's 400 richest people. Then, as often happens in the fickle fashion business, sales declined and the stock price of Mossimo Inc. plunged from $50 in 1996 to 50 cents in 2000.

Enter Target.

In 2000, the pioneering partnership of a leading discount chain with a designer landed Mossimo in Target stores. "As its first fashion design partner, Mossimo brought fun fashion at a fair price," said Target spokesperson Amy von Walter.

"When Target got that line, it was a major coup," added retail analyst Patricia Edwards of Wentworth, Hauser & Violich in Seattle.

"One of the things that Target has done extraordinarily well is they don't just have generic pants. Mossimo was one of the first, and they have Cherokee, Isaac Mizrahi and OshKosh kids. They've created an identity for themselves that appeals to the higher sensibility."

Mizrahi joined the Target lineup with women's clothes in 2003. Last year, the company launched Go International, a series of capsule collections for women by a rotating roster of designers.

When Giannulli walked us through the Minneapolis Target store, there was a lot of territory to cover. In the women's department, he touched a corduroy jacket with the cool authority that fashion-industry experts use to inspect merchandise.

"Last season we did these great cardigans for women in these great sexy silhouettes in merino wool," he said. "When I think back to when we first did this, I didn't truly think we could pull that sort of stuff off. After being a success for six years, you develop a real understanding about what works at this level and what doesn't."

To mass-produce numerous styles that reach consumers in 47 states, there's bound to be some fashion compromise.

"Mossimo's roots are more in the skate and surf culture, and that's one of the hottest retail areas out there," Edwards said. "It has been a little Target-ized, so it's not as cutting edge."

Much of the line is basic T-shirts, sweaters and pants. With no visible logo, even Mossimo himself can't always distinguish his work.

"It's so hard to tell anymore, because a lot of the stuff is so subtly identified," he said. While Giannulli said he wears his brand, on the day of this interview — the same day he had a corporate meeting — he wore a lightweight tropical wool suit by Miuccia Prada.

While Giannulli will continue as a consultant for Iconix, he has also bought Modern Amusement back from Iconix for $4.8 million. Mossimo Inc. originally bought the brand from him in 2004 for $375,000.

The label, distinguished by a crow logo, currently focuses on menswear, including $70 polos and $150 sweaters. Giannulli plans to turn it into a broader upscale luxury sportswear company, adding women's sportswear in 2008.

Privately owning a company and not having to please Wall Street investors might return to Giannulli the design freedom he once enjoyed.

"To be successful in fashion, you have to take risks, and specialty retail is the hardest area to get right on in a consistent basis," Edwards said.

When it comes to Target, Giannulli is a huge proponent of its "Design for All" mission.

"It's harder to do great things at (Target's) level than it is to do something very avant-garde with very expensive fabrications and not have to please a lot of people. I'm inspired by this challenge. There's also a business side to it, too, so maybe if I just believed in art, it would be hard to me."

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