About 5,000 units are treated each day at Los Angeles's American Dye House, the go-to premium denim dyeing and distressing facility for brands such as J. Crew, J Brand, Chrome Hearts, En Noir, RTA, Baldwin and more. And at the center of it all is Adam Vanunu, 27, who grew up experimenting with colorful chemicals and took over the family business seven years ago. Today, he continues the dye house's tradition of never cutting corners and designing specific washes and treatments based on clients' needs. "What we do over here is so special, the treatments that we offer and everything, so I wanted to take some family secrets and offer them to my own brand," says Vanunu about the genesis of his side project turned cult line: Cotton Citizen.
Vanunu launched the T-shirt line in 2012 exclusively at Fred Segal, and he still develops all the dye colors and washes the mens and womenswear collections by hand. "It really just went from being one T-shirt in a variety of colors to an entire lifestyle; it went from being in one retail store to 100-plus retail stores," he says about the line's growth. It's now sold by Shopbop, Revolve, Saks Fifth Avenue and more. He takes design inspiration from Kate Moss in the '90s and hopes to expand Cotton Citizen to home goods and childrenswear in the future.
But the cherry on top of the brand's development so far was the opening of its first retail location on Melrose Place on Aug. 12, where he hopes the family feeling of his business is felt by shoppers, too. It certainly will look different from every other boutique on the street: In addition to black and white basics, Vanunu will highlight only one color at a time in the shop's well-lit central rack, switching it every two to three weeks, to "keep people fresh." First up is a fresh mint green.
I spoke to Vanunu about running the family business at age 20, what makes Cotton Citizen different from other T-shirt lines and why he still has faith in brick-and-mortar shopping. Read on for highlights from our conversation.
You went straight from high school to the working full-time. Why?
It was an unfortunate situation: right when I got out of high school my father was diagnosed with cancer, so I came in. I always wanted to come in and join the family business, but I had no intention of doing it that early at that type of capacity. And customers would see me and they would have a respect towards me because of who we are in the industry and who my father was. They would support me and guide me through certain steps that you can't really go to school for. Then when my father passed, I was the one to take a lead. That came at the age of about 20 years old.
How have you seen the denim industry change in the last decade?
The whole industry has changed. It has all shifted from the extreme, large-scale brands that have been pioneering the industry with product and design — you're talking brands such as 7 [For All Mankind] or True Religion — these were the ones that pioneered things seven or eight years ago. It was everywhere and the product, at the end of the day, was very standard and it was very basic. [Now] people want a more direct relationship with the brands, therefore they're not shopping department stores or mass retailers as much. Once we started seeing that type of shift, you have to go and create a more speciality product. [Customers] want less of the generic, washed blue jean. They want more detail.
You launched Cotton Citizen four years ago. How did that come about?
I've always wanted to have my own brand, but I've always wanted to do something that wouldn't [compete with] my customers. So I said: you know what, let me start a T-shirt brand. Jeans and T-shirts are such a lifestyle. It's a product that I know how to manufacture and I kind of just went into it and started making men's and women's classic T's. And it took off from that.
How is Cotton Citizen different from other T-shirt lines?
We really offer a premium garment. Having a facility where we can produce everything in house, we're not cutting any corners. We're going through every single step that you need to produce a quality garment. I pick the fabric, I launder it before I even cut and sew it, just so all the shrinkage gets out. That's a very important stage which most brands don't even do. And on top of that, when we're doing our dyes and our treatments, we provide a color fascinator to our washes so that the color doesn't bleed or fade and it stays as rich as the first day you got the shirt. No one else really does this. [The shirts are] knit in Carolina, everything made in the U.S., U.S. yarn, U.S. spun, everything is out here. And really it's just a great 100 percent cotton.
You opened the brand's first retail shop on Melrose Place earlier this month. Why was that important to you and how did you design the space?
The whole concept of the store is to have a real home for the brand and have a place where people can walk in and really get the true experience of what Cotton Citizen is. It's in the location where I've being going my whole life, it speaks to who I am. The location itself was very important to me. I wanted it to be a place where I'm always around, where everyone I know is always around.
Brick-and-mortar retail is having a tough time right now. Why invest in that format?
Most of time, I don't love something unless it's on me. And I'd rather do that in the comfort of my home. There's a comfortable aspect to shopping online. That's why you got to offer that experience. You've got to walk in and feel something different. From designing shopping bags to boxes to getting things gift wrapped for absolutely no reason — it's part of how we want to make you feel and come join our family and join our community. I haven't felt that way in a store in a long time. I had to make it... I want people to come in and feel a certain way about the shop.