This one’s always weird. “What’s your exit strategy?”
It’s a standard business question, meaning, “What’s the end goal here? How will you part with your company?”
I’m left without an answer. Some people build brands for profit and payouts. Others are just looking for a stage to perform. When your work is your life, the idea of leaving your passion project is so foreign, it’s offensive. Our peers and predecessors sell their company at some point, bring investors on, or license it out. But, we never planned for that, and when confronted with the option, have balked. Plus, I can’t think of (m)any who’ve exited gracefully.
I was talking about this with Jeff Staple last year, and we couldn’t mark a brand owner who did it right. Historically, founders (in our space) are squeezed out, sell under duress, or hold the wheel as their brand crashes and burns. Even if someone gets out on top, the divorce leaves an emotional aftertaste. Entrepreneurs fail to consider these realities when planting their dream. Brand start-ups are all heart, all right now. Exit strategy? That’s like engineering the break-up on the first date.
Okay, “Mossimo.” I’d want to get out like Mossimo.
Everything looks neat and tidy from the outside. The beach-vollyeball brand blows up in the '90s, licenses to Target after its peak for an obscene amount of money. The Mossimo brand continues on to this day, raking in a billion a year. Meanwhile, the Mossimo man continued on to run Paul Frank and Modern Amusement. He married Uncle Jesse’s wife from Full House. His kids are cooler than he ever was. Today, Mossimo helms a golf brand, because he likes golf, and why not? Plus, he has great hair.
So, I’ve been in search of Mossimo for the past decade. I’ve shook hands, broken bread with, and absorbed advice from the other pioneers along the way: Jebbia, Shawn, Hiroshi, Klotz, Eli, Tommy. But, Mossimo was elusive, like a limited T-shirt, except out of stock for 20 years. And then,
“Bobby, Big fan.... happy to.”
I read my email again, circle the hallway, and come back to my desk. Two things. “Big fan” means he knows who I am and what I do. “Happy to” means not only do I get to ask him how he did it, but also I get to share what I learn with you (my audience). We set a date.
There’s a masculine square M on the building that matches the boxy imprint on the welcome mat. Shoulders set apart by a proportional confidence, Mossimo Giannulli is the human embodiment of the thirteenth letter. He greets me outside his corner office - I’m led here by 1 of 3 attractive blonde staffers - no surprise. Mossimo (or “Moss”) is L.A. tan with a tight, silvery haircut. Like a Richard Gere in his prime, gelled with California cool. With a name like that (and a style like that), you half expect - almost want - Moss to speak with an accent. “Well, does he? Does he have an accent?,” is my friends’ first question when they see the Instagram pic I posted of him (Mossimo is perhaps so allegorical amongst the fashion-conscious set, that in our personal '90s narrative, he’s extraterrestrial).
Nope. No accent. But, he has a sharp tongue that can’t be tamed. Case in point: “I’m going to go fight with Tommy Hilfiger. I think those guys suck, I could kill them,” he snarls.
Let’s start at the end of the Mossimo brand story. This is where it all went wrong. “They’re doing billions, we should be able to do billions. When I did that, and the line was completely suited to do that, I was bailing on all my specialty bases that brought me up – probably in the wrong way. My sales force didn’t understand this other side of the business, not even a clue, and that’s when I got killed.”
It’s March, 1996 and a 29-year-old Mossimo Giannulli has just taken his college T-shirt project public. The stock is hammering away at 50 Ms, and Moss sees a billy on the horizon. He’s ordered the G5 - “it was probably even a G4, it was so long ago I don’t even know. Went to Long Beach, picked out the fucking interior, did the whole deal. I was running. We were going.”
That October, Forbes props him up on the 400 cover. A month later, his CFO walks in and declares, “We have a problem.” Moss shakes his head, as he dredges all this up. He’s parked behind his desk, also very square, also very heavy. “Penthouse to the shithouse, right? Stock just takes a dive, takes another hit, takes another hit. And when the momentum is going that way, if the retailer thinks you’re dying...” He doesn’t have to finish. This is one of those humbling moments as a designer where you realize that the marketplace is out of your control. In nine months, ten years of hard work is punctured. Oh, it’s not over.
“Think twenty-nine and there’s stupid things you were doing and saying. Right?”
“The worst...,” I reply.
“Imagine having a stock worth $600 million dollars and you’re fucking running that pig. You get a little coo-coo in the head.”
Mossimo’s first marriage collapses (“I started to believe my own bullshit”), and he leaves his son at six months old (“which is a horrible human being [thing to do]”). But then, he cuts back, “Quite frankly, I had to be single in those days because it was demanding that I had to be out there... we were coming up here every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night partying, and it was good for the brand. That’s how I got a lot of inroads through the right people. And then there was always that bullshit like, 'Oh, these guys are mysterious, where the fuck are these guys going?’”
Those “guys” were the O.G. Mossimo crew (including our mutual friend Fuzzy); in Moss’ words, “everyone looked like a bigger, rockabilly, tattooed crazy fucker.” The boys would pile into a stretched-out black suburban or on the backs of motorcycles and rake through L.A. nightlife. It’s to these brethren that Mossimo is most indebted. “I feel like all those guys...I let down. For me, it’s like the Rat Pack. We were probably all only killing it for four or five years, but it probably looked like we were thick as thieves forever. We had a real shot. They were all making shit tons of money, and it sort of got [cut throat sound effect]. That’s the part that bums me out.”
It’s hard for me to feel too sorry for Mossimo Giannulli. He doesn’t say, but industry estimates ballpark his Mossimo earnings around hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet, he finds the soft spots in the fruit and presses hard. I tell him over and over that he won, and as a designer and brand owner myself, I’d be happy with a fraction of that success. But, he won’t let it go. He’s left too much on the table.
Even though he canvasses his career through a sepia filter, “Listen, I’m a firm believer that shit is meant to be,” Moss feels abbreviated: “If I knew what I knew now, and I was back there, it would be a very different ending to the story, I could tell you that.”
I ask, “Would you still have it? Do you think you’d still be doing it?”
“I would still have it for sure. I would be doing billions of dollars and I would be realizing all of it. Yeah, totally.”
A lot of us go to college without ever going to class, but Mossimo went to USC without being enrolled at all. He not only convinced his dad that he was a student by falsifying report cards, Mossimo got him to fork over fees with fake tuition bills. In fact, Moss used this seed money to initiate his foray into the T-shirt biz. “SC was expensive, so that was how I was starting my company. I used all that cash,” he declares unapologetically. He handled basic screenprinting jobs for campus organizations and then his ambition triggered. “I used to have hundreds of thousands of cash in my top drawer in my fraternity house. And I was like, 'this is kind of too easy. I need a bigger platform. If I had a bigger account base, I could really kill it…’”
You may not know, or remember, this, but a lot of the big California beach brands got their start through shorts, not shirts. Quiksilver’s claim to fame in the '60s and '70s was an innovative boardshort utilizing snaps and Velcro. In the '80s, as an avid beach volleyball player, Mossimo sought a waterproof short that was fit for the sand. “I went to a guy who makes sails - like, sail cloth for sail boats. 'Is there a fabric that dries quickly and feels like cotton, but it’s not cotton?’ And he goes, 'No, but come here.’ He has these three rolls of this stuff called Supplex. And he’s like, 'I got pink, yellow, and green.’”
But, it wasn’t just the fluorescent, 3-panel boxer-style shorts that put Mossimo on the map. It was the “M” – that same “M” that follows me around his Beverly Hills headquarters. The “M” that means Moss is in the vicinity. “The reason I put the M on the ass was because when you were sponsored, you were prevalently logoed, and it was usually on the back. But at retail, you could never get that. So I thought, 'Wouldn’t a kid want to look like he’s on the tour?’ So, why shouldn’t that be available to a kid at retail?”
I’ve gotta say, I don’t remember the “M” as vividly as I did Mossimo’s most famous logo - his signature – and if you grew up like me with an 8-ball keychain swinging on your belt loop and a St"ussy bucket cap, you’re in the same boat. While Mossimo was tearing through the beach sports circuit in the '80s (“There was Redsand, there was Sideout, there was myself, there was a company called Spot, there was Club.”), Orange County surfboard shaper Shawn St"ussy was dominating the streets through meticulous distribution and his scribbled autograph. That iconic St"ussy signature transcended continents, fashion sects, and (as relevant today as it was 30 years ago), generations. But, its success and notoriety also crossed streams with Mossimo’s John Hancock, precipitating one of youth fashion’s most memorable pissing matches.
“It’s just my signature (which, was very close to Shawn’s because of the S’s right?). I’m sure there had to be some influence at some point – I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t. But I was kind of in a different space than he was. He was way more surf and way more street and I was more beach volleyball, California lifestyle. Much lighter. I was going to go way more European inspired than street, but because of his success, we got sucked into that sort of draft of 'street-ish,’ and kind of, by association, got thrown into it. And, the fact that he was so selective and such a pain in the ass, it allowed us to be, well...” Opportunistic? Moss doesn’t disagree. He scraped off Shawn’s plate, bedding St"ussy’s less desirable suitors.
From that point forward, St"ussy and Mossimo were Spy vs. Spy, sharing headlines, topping tradeshow gossip, and fighting for rack space. “It actually was something that was so much bigger than it really ever was between us.” To Moss, it foamed over into a graphic tee tug-o-war. “We had this full war on T-shirts. He had a little rat. Do you remember his little rat? It was like a little mousey rat thing, one of his characters? I don’t know if you remember because on the 405 there’s this exterminator company...”
(Of course I know the exterminator company. Hasn’t he seen my inspiration wall, where I have both his and St"ussy’s parody of the same mascot? Or, the times I ripped ’em both, including this homage T-shirt from this last season I made in deference to the brand battle?)
He continues, “So the guy that’s gonna kill the rat... I took his rat and started it. And all of a sudden, there’s this full war on T-shirts, back and forth! He hated that. He thought he was so much cooler and I was getting all the fucking love. And every time there was an article, it was him and I. Always. Photoshoot and everything. And I’ve never said twenty words to him.”
What were some other T-shirts that went back and forth?
“Fuck, I forget. There were so many.”
They were direct jabs at each other?
“Direct jabs. Full on. Like, accounts didn’t know. I wasn’t telling anyone I was doing it, I was just doing it.”
Later, we’re eating in the kitchen with the aforementioned blondes. Everyone on staff lunches together here, and everyone orders the same thing. Today, it’s a cobb salad from La Scala, and we’re talking about employees who quit or are fired, and how it’s all about the right fit.
The girls all seem to genuinely love Mossimo, needling him over his coarse language and unfiltered opinions, like triplets taking the piss out of their grizzled dad. They also believe in his latest vision, a modern golf brand called G/FORE, born out of a need for something to do (“I’m still too young to retire”) and a void in the marketplace. “When you play golf, you only get a white glove or a black glove, maybe. I thought, 'Why aren’t there colors? The whole game is about colors.’” Gloves then led to shoes, because the competitors’ were “lame,” and “So we did a colored sole with that shape last. It’s super nice. It’s got a beautiful toe on it, super comfort. It actually feels like an athletic shoe on the inside but it looks more like a traditional dress shoe. And then we started to have some pretty nice success with that...”
You know what’s next. “Well, obviously, I got to start doing apparel again. Which, then led to fucking making me nuts at this point because it’s so small and I’m fucking around and I don’t know why I’m dealing with this shit. So yeah, that’s it.”
A pause. I ask, “Is golf a big market?”
So, this is more like a passion project?
“It was, but now it needs to be a business. And it’s big enough. The reality is there are companies doing hundreds of millions of dollars in the golf space, so why can’t it be us? And we have a really tight crew here. I don’t need it to be huge, I just want to make really cool stuff that’s decidedly different in the space. I don’t want to be like these other jackasses in the space; I don’t want to be like that.”
There’s something Mossimo said that I want to circle back to.
“You still – to this day – haven’t really talked to Shawn Stussy?”
He shrugs and shakes his head, “I don’t really know him at all, nuh-uh.”
“No way!” I cry a little too loudly, “How is that?”
“I don’t have interest. What do I care? I don’t have friends. I don’t need to be his friend. He doesn’t need to be my friend. It was so long ago.”
“Isn’t that bizarre? That you were always in the headlines next to each other and then you never even...”
“Well it was kind of fun because I think there was that—like, there has to be the yin and the yang, the good guy and the bad. In any drama, there’s that. My first goal was to take out Side Out and Club Sportswear. Those guys suck, I will kill them. Then it was I’m going to get fucking St"ussy. Then it was, Alright McKnight, you’re next. I’m taking out Quiksilver, Gotcha, and all those guys ’cause they were doing all the big volume. Then it was, 'Fuck you Tommy Hilfiger, I’m going after you...’
Then, I died.”
There’s a reason why everything means so much more in early adolescence. There are biochemical changes happening within your brain, too much leftover grey matter or something, and a limbic system that is grappling with a blitz of intense, newfound emotion. That’s why I’ll never forget my first girlfriend Brenda (even though we were only together for eleven days), every Gorilla Biscuits lyric, and all the Mossimo clothing I owned in a 12-month window.
In the early '90s, Mossimo was what the cool kids graduated to as St"ussy overwhelmed the schoolyard (in my town, anyways). Once the cheerleaders and jocks were onboard, there were only so many rasta stripes and jesters to stomach, and so Mossimo became the brand du jour. The label would sell out so fast, that if you scored a dingy red wool cap with a brown brim, you wore it with pride – just to be associated with the signature. I hunted the white T-shirts (graphics of motorcycles and speedometers), and clamored on to the suggestive cartoony stuff (sooo me) in Mossimo’s heyday.
But, it was the shorts I fell in love with – not the ones Moss talked about earlier, but the elastic-band shorts that came in an array of fabrics. Everyone had a different pair, so the only way to know if they were Mossimo, was by the direct-embroidered signature in the bottom corner. There was a specific feeling attached to seeing that mark fall over someone’s knee, and a tremendous power in wearing it. You felt six inches taller, louder, funnier. That’s the affection I’ve worked to pass down through The Hundreds - an electricity that goes beyond a logo and lifestyle. It’s the magic of brand.
There is no exit. There is no getting out. Once you succeed with a brand, it leaves an indelible mark on the incoming class. Echoes of recycled designs and past mistakes haunt you, like an unauthorized biopic stuck on repeat, and so I understand why Mossimo is frozen in these missteps forever. But, what he doesn’t see - maybe he can’t see - are the ripples that cap into mammoth waves through the generations. Maya Angelou once remarked, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” At the end of our day, after hours of stories of lawsuits and anecdotes of better business, all I’m left with is this one loose memory, of a fuzzy red cap. How I didn’t take it off for a year. And, how I dedicated my life to that feeling, may it never end.
This weekend, I asked on my Instagram for people’s favorite Mossimo memories. Here are some:
@mrmoonmission: “I remember my older cousins were into Mossimo when I was a kid, and I wanted to wear whatever they wore back then..”
@leahmob (Leah McSweeney of Married to the Mob): “I bought a girly tank with only one strap from Ron jons in coco beach Florida when I was in 6th grade”
@chrisunrvld: “@bobbyhundreds the shirts my parents didn’t buy me. I didn’t realize the brand was cooler than their selections. Guys like you are the reason I started a brand. So thank you.”
@heyedweirdo: “It was the first shirt I bought in ‘mens’ sizing vs boys sizing so I remember it very well!”
@wasdadeel: “Had a olive green w/ maroon mossimo logo sz xl that I stole from my brother when I was 6. They were so sick”
@plantswillcure: “This signature and the Stussy joint was on every one of my book covers..”
@chibacheebs: “Running around the neighborhood during the summer in Mossimo slides, carrying a Super Soaker, and getting into water fights.”
@scottdz: “Remember getting a few shirts for my birthday and then a couple weeks later… straight to Target (this was before Target was cool?)”
@themorrisonfamily: “I remember wanting a Mossimo shirt. Too poor to afford one so it was like a piece of something I couldn’t have. It was something that surfers wore and wanting it was like being a part of that culture.”