What the Hell Happened?

Inside the collapse of the Mossimo empire

If you and your dirtbag friends could have scraped together a couple of hundred bucks last week, you could have owned Mossimo Inc. Well, not owned, perhaps, but at 50 cents per share—15 cents less than an Almond Joy at your local AM/PM minimart—you could have bought yourself a sizable chunk of the company. What a sizable chunk of the company means is unclear these days since these days, the name "Mossimo" sounds less like "Hilfiger" and more like "Pearl Harbor," as the company slides ever faster from its 1996 high. Those were the days when company founder and leader Mossimo Giannulli was mentioned breathlessly in the same first-name way reserved for Ralph, Calvin, Donna and Tommy.

Your couple of hundred bucks could not have bought you Giannulli, of course. That would be wrong—people can't buy people. Corporations do that. Target Stores closed a deal for Giannulli in March when it guaranteed Mossimo Inc. $27.8 million—and Giannulli himself $8.5 million—in royalties in the first year of a three-year agreement. In exchange, Target has the exclusive rights to sell Mossimo's sportswear, as well as the right to put the Mossimo name on baby clothes, suitcases, rugs, sacks of grass seed—whatever it likes. The deal also bought the assurance that Giannulli will "at no time . . . disparage the association with Target Stores" and that Target now owned the rights to Giannulli's "name, signature, photograph, voice and other sound effects, likeness, personality, endorsement, biography and statements"—all the stuff teachers told you was outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

And the worst of it for Mossimo Inc. and Giannulli was that that wasn't the worst of it. Target, at least, had promised them a lot of money. The worst of it was in July 1999, when the company settled for $13 million lawsuits brought by investors who said the company had misled them with falsely optimistic financial statements. Or perhaps the worst of it came in April, when the company laid off 90 percent of its work force. Or two weeks ago, when three creditors sued to get their money now because they said Mossimo Inc. would not be around when the Target deal goes into effect in February 2001.

We get confused. But at least one thing is crystal-clear: man, we love this shit. This is what makes America—and VH1—so great. Guy goes up; guy goes down. Guy goes up; guy goes down. One day you're making T-shirts out of your garage; the next you're only the third fashion designer ever to make the Forbes 400 (with a personal fortune of $490 million) and are quoted saying, "Clothing is pretty basic. We're not talking rocket science here"; and the next year, the magazine announces you've fallen off the list under the headline "Minimo Mossimo."

And so it is that most of the stories chronicling Mossimo's bad news have made references to the fact that Mossimo was "cocky" and "brash," that he had a big ego and it was this big ego that caused him to shoot high, and that ultimately, spectacularly, "Ha, ha, fuck you"erly, it had been his undoing.

I've got to be honest: I have no idea what Mossimo Giannulli's personality has to do with any of this. I've never talked to the guy. I called his office several times, got his extension and left messages in which I said I wanted to talk to him for this story. But he never called back. I've talked to people who said he seemed like a nice guy. I've talked to people who said he was indeed a nice guy who "got turned around" and eventually sold out the people who believed in him. I've talked to people who said he's a great guy who will eventually not only find his way out of this mess but also find his way back to the front of the fashion pack.

Like I said, I've never met the man. It's pretty much agreed that his problems spring from aiming too high, too soon, trying to make his company something it wasn't, or at least something it wasn't ready or equipped to be at the time. But to pin that on being too ambitious or having a big ego is ridiculous: accusing a fashion designer of being egotistical is like accusing an NBA player of being tall.

No. What may have killed or perhaps only wounded Mossimo was impatience, inexperience, popularity and the standup bass Giannulli owns but never plays because he can't. That much is clear. What isn't clear is whether the company will be around next February to start collecting on that Target deal. Some people I talked to said yes; others said no. Either way, one thing is for certain: man, we just love this shit.

okay, now: it's important for you to know that this stuff happens all the time in fashion, an industry steeped in steep declines—Anybody hear from Isaac Mizrahi lately? Granted, Mossimo's flameout has been spectacular (the stock once traded at $50), so spectacular that Wall Street Journal reporter Teri Agins referred to it as "fashion's theater of the absurd" in her book The End of Fashion.

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