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Adding Another Spin: Kritik Updates Sweatsuits (Again)

Eisbar co-founder Bobby Benveniste, and his three partners, including Lizzie Grubman's former business partner Jonathan Cheban, aren't reinventing the...

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Eisbar co-founder Bobby Benveniste, and his three partners, including Lizzie Grubman's former business partner Jonathan Cheban, aren't reinventing the fashion wheel. Instead, they're giving it a new spin in the form of sweatsuits.

Their bicoastal line, Kritik, gives new luster to the no-brainer ensemble whose star once shone brightly thanks to the designs of Juicy Couture. According to retailers, there's a void in the market for matchy-matchy French terry sets even as customers embrace a more sophisticated silhouette of dresses, trousers and high-waisted styles.

"It turns out we need new sweats," said Lisa Kline, who owns boutiques in Malibu, Beverly Hills and on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles and picked up Kritik's first shipment in spring. "Juicy has been around for a while. Customers want something new and Kritik is the first to do something updated in that niche."

The capsule line began with about six knit hoodies, matching bottoms in shorts and long pants and rompers that pop with signature striping in high-wattage hues of kelly green, canary yellow and melon orange. In place of heavy embellishments or washes, Kritik strives for a clean edge under the design direction of Marisol Arteaga with white enamel zipper pulls, fabric-covered buttons, contrast hoodie inserts, long bat sleeves and sassy shapes, such as hot-pants bottoms with side ties and a wrap hoodie cover-up for poolside chic.

"We wanted to do the opposite of a distressed look," said Benveniste, chief executive officer of the line. "Using lots of graphics can end up taking the place of actual design."

By spring, the collection will double to 12 pieces in fleece and French terry fabrics including nautical pants, long-sleeve fleece hoodies and sleeveless hoodies to accommodate differing coastal temperatures. Giving retailers extra fashion options (including Bermuda shorts styles for conservative shoppers) and exclusives on colors has helped the line to a strong launch in about 70 specialty doors, including Blue Bee in Santa Barbara, Calif., Intermix in New York and Moody Blue's in Chandler, Ariz. Wholesale prices range from $42 to $75.

But the partners, including Zy Owens, the company's chief operating officer, and Mark Steinman, aren't in a hurry to ratchet up Kritik's $2 million in sales. Perhaps it's a lesson learned from Benveniste's former days running Eisbar, a graphically driven sportswear line that shipped its final order in fall 2006, along with his time spent as a member of the erstwhile trade organization the Coalition of Los Angeles Designers, which formed in 1998 to put local designers on the fashion cognoscenti's radar.
"Rather than present huge collections, we want to focus on what we do best," said Benveniste, a former attorney. "[Eisbar] was my fashion school. I now really know what to do with design, production, shipping and how to deal with factors. I know how to protect the company now."

The partners also bring an element of the unconventional to their fashion enterprise. Cheban, the company's vice president and creative director who ran a T-shirt line called Clarendon for three years, operates out of New York and Benveniste from Los Angeles. The two, who originally met through a mutual friend, travel back and forth to work on the line.

In terms of marketing, they're borrowing a page from Grubman's flashy publicity manual. Kritik's actual big kick-off took place in Miami (where none of the partners is based) in December 2006, about four months prior to its first shipping date. The bash drew more than 700 people ­— including Jessica Alba, Matt Damon and Hilary Duff — to the chichi Casa Casuarina, Versace's former manse now turned into a members-only club.

"There's a lot of competition out there, so we wanted to get our name out there early and in a place where we could stand out," said Cheban, who's still in touch with Grubman. "And during the holidays, celebrities are looking for big events to attend so all the stars were in alignment."

Both Cheban and Benveniste are hopeful the kismet will continue.

"Levi's introduced the jean and now you have companies like Seven [For All Mankind], J Brand and Hudson taking the concept and modernizing it," Benveniste said. "And we're taking the Juicy concept and making it our own."