christopher-clayton_web.jpgArmed with a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University, Christopher Clayton knew a very special graduate program would be necessary for him to achieve the goals he’d established for himself.

So instead of applying to a traditional institution, he carved out a retail career that would provide him with the kind of experience a classroom could not.

He began by working at a very chic Coral Gables Italian men’s boutique that sold custom-made shirts for over $200, and ties that began at $95. There, Clayton, who is now the creative director and CEO of CHRiS CARDi, learned the ins and outs of crafting high-quality designs with impeccable attention to detail and a meticulous commitment to style.

His “graduate” training also included work at an upscale women’s boutique on South Beach that taught him the nuances of fitting a woman’s body just so. As a recruiter for Abercrombie and Fitch, Clayton, 31, said he’s learning brand development and management, another critical aspect of creating a successful fashion line, one he expects to become known for its “quality construction, great fit, and overall aesthetic.”

The CHRiS CARDi team, all graduates of FSU, includes Torian Bean, COO; Kevin Bellamy, director of logistics and marketing, and Andre Shannon, director of public relations, promotions and advertising.

“I knew that I was going to have to further my education with some real-world experience. I took it upon myself to seek out opportunities where I could work on the front lines of fashion, as well as behind the scenes,” said Clayton, whose CHRiS CARDi is reminiscent of stylish American designs such as Sean “Diddy” Combs’ hip, urban Sean John label, and the elegantly refined clothing of Ralph Lauren.

“I really wanted to create what we call a neo-luxury line. Luxury lifestyle has become a little more casual,” Clayton said of his label, which created a buzz and attracted a near cult following when it launched a line of limited edition, high-end men's jeans in 2003.

The launch was soon followed by the creation of high-end denim for women, and has expanded to include outerwear, tees, button-ups, vests, cords, slacks, knits and dresses, all of which are produced in exclusive, limited-edition quantities.

Being compared to the successful designers is a compliment that helps Clayton explain the motivation for his designs.

“To be mentioned in the same breath as Sean John or as a Ralph Lauren is a big deal, but what we do is still a lot different, we’re filling that void. We’re willing to take a chance, where a Ralph Lauren wouldn’t. We’re willing to be more classic and appeal to a more sophisticated sensibility, more so than a Sean John would,” Clayton shared.

Not convinced that he and his team were ready and that they had “jumped the gun a little” when they initially launched in 2003, Clayton said they decided to
pull back to rework the collection.

“We started to re-nurture the brand, and incubate it and really get a feel for what our line is, what our image is,” he said of the decision to slow things down.

“We realized that if we want to be around and be like some of those aforementioned labels, then it’s going to take time and we’re going to have to be smart about it.”

And while Clayton expects the line to be prosperous, he said the team is not “chasing a dollar. What we’re chasing is that neo-luxury lifestyle brand that’s going to be around for a while. If we stick to our guns, the dollars are going to follow.”

A few pieces from the CHRiS CARDi collection will be available online in October. And, he said, talks are underway to have the pieces sold in several boutiques this fall.

Clayton said the line, which also includes canvas and leather luggage, wallets, duffel and doctor-type bags, will be available in the Southeast from “Atlanta to South Beach and all points between.”

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Photo: Fashion designer Chris Clayton preps a model for a photo shoot.