From the November 2002 issue of Startups

Countless designers worldwide sell clothing for men, women and children, filling the media and pop culture worlds with their trademarks and frills. For any fashion design company, particularly a fledging one, standing out from the crowd requires a gimmick, and it better be a good one.

How about stripping the conceit, decadence and self-promotion out of fashion? How about designing clothes that make a statement, that stand for a cause? That's the mission of Charizmatik, a 6-year-old Los Angeles clothing company that features inspirational messages on the drop tags attached to its line of dress shirts, T-shirts, jackets, blazers and sweatshirts. Inspired by movies, Eastern philosophy and more, the uplifting messages are also hidden inside each article of clothing, often surprising wearers when they first do the laundry.

Charizmatik is the creation of Zen Nishimura, 27, and Fred Friedler, 32, former business students at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), also in Los Angeles. Both wanted to start clothing lines and were introduced to each other by a professor. They started talking, and within months the like-minded designers produced their first shirts in Nishimura's apartment.

It took a year for the Charizmatik idea to come together, and it wasn't until 1997 that the company made its first shipments. To grab the attention of buyers, the company developed a unique promotion. "There were some books that really inspired us, and one was The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. We sent the book to 40 stores, hand-wrapped them and [wrote] a note. Then, two weeks later, we sent our T-shirts," says Friedler, who serves as president and CEO.

The strategy got the company noticed--and before long, Charizmatik's relatively high-priced clothing could be found in influential boutiques like Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Union in New York City. According to Friedler, "In fashion, a lot of times if you get it to the right people and they're people that are known and connected, word spreads fast, and that's what started happening with us."

The line even found its way into boutiques in Japan and was featured in a variety of magazines. As excitement for the label grew, Charizmatik opened its first boutique, designed to resemble a tree house, on Melrose in Los Angeles in 2001. "With our clothing and how unique it is, we know best [how] to display it and show people what we're all about," says Ricardo Santos, another LMU alum and Charizmatik's vice president of sales and marketing. "I think what we've built--a tree house--is the perfect house for our clothing."

Today, Nishimura no longer makes shirts in his apartment; Charizmatik now contracts out to manufacturers throughout Los Angeles. And in an effort to reach a wider audience, Charizmatik recently launched a second line called Truth Seeker, a lower-priced collection that's sold in stores like Urban Outfitters as well as their own boutiques. By early 2003, both collections will be sold via the company's Web site, and Charizmatik hopes to add additional store locations both nationwide and worldwide.

As the company grows, the founders behind Charizmatik see more opportunities to share positive messages. "There's way too much negativity in the world," Friedler says. "[Charizmatik] offers people on a daily basis something positive, and that in itself to me is a wonderful idea."