Moss Appeal

updated 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

MINGLING WITH CINDY CRAWFORD and Antonio Banderas at the Fire and Ice Ball in Hollywood last winter was a breeze for Mossimo Gianulli. But when time came for the 32-year-old designer to meet the night's host, Italian couturier Giorgio Armani, Gianulli's cool evaporated. "Mossimo was nervous about even being in the same room with him," says actor Stephen Baldwin, a close friend. "I said, 'Come on, I'll introduce you,' and he was frozen to his seat." Explains Gianulli: "Mr. Armani is a celebrity, and I'm nowhere near that. But that's what I want to be when I wake up every day."

Gianulli can relax. Although he's not quite an institution like Giorgio, Calvin or Ralph, he is a sensation. A fave of trendy twentysomethings, who line up by the hundreds for his autograph at his appearances at his retail shops in Pasadena and Newport Beach, he presides over a thriving empire built around hip sportswear. Ranging in price from $70 jeans to $700 leather jackets, Gianulli's designs—emblazoned with his distinctive M logo or the name Mossimo—are sold in more than 2,500 stores nationwide and in 16 foreign countries. Fast-walking, faster-talking and movie-star handsome, he pals around with so many young stars that Entertainment Tonight covers his company Christmas party. As for cool customers, Heather Locklear, Luke Perry and Friends' David Schwimmer wear Gianulli when they want to look more beach party than black tie. "He is style without attitude," says Baldwin. "I love the whole upscale casual thing, and he's the best in that genre."

Janet Jackson, a pal (who hired him to play a hunk in last year's "You Want This?" video), owns his oversize plaid shirts, overalls and a shearling jacket. "I love baggy clothes, but they can make you look heavy," she says. "The way Moss's things are cut, they don't. There's a sexy or feminine side too."

The eldest of three children, Gianulli developed his eye for detail while growing up in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Encino. "He would go to someone's home and remember the way it was decorated, down to the doorknobs," recalls his mother, Nancy, a homemaker (father Gene is a landscape architect and golf-course designer). Even as a kid, he was determined to set himself apart. "I always painted my bike so it was different from everyone else's," says Mossimo. "My skateboard, or the way I cut my Little League socks, had to stand out."

Individuality paid off. After two years at Orange Coast Community College in Costa Mesa, Calif., he headed to the University of Southern California in 1984 to study architecture and business. But instead of doing homework, he began hawking T-shirts to fraternities and sororities. "I learned tons," he says, "just not in the classroom."

Sensing an opportunity in California's booming beach volleyball scene, Gianulli dropped out of school in 1987 to make neon volleyball shorts, sweatshirts and T-shirts. With an initial investment of $100,000 from his father, he grossed $1 million that first year, working out of his garage with girlfriend Chris Clausen, whom he married in 1988, and from whom he was divorced earlier this year. "He was always full of energy and ideas," says Chris, who is still friendly with Mossimo and a full-time mother to their son, Gianni, 3. "That's one of the things I loved about him." Now dating actress Lori Loughlin, star of ABC's Hudson Street, Gianulli sees Gianni three times a week. "For everyone else, I have to be the leader and be very strong," he says. "With him, all that stuff goes away."

Currently planning a line of men's underwear and a unisex fragrance, Gianulli projects sales of $125 million this year. Clearly savoring the spoils of success, he recently moved into a custom-designed estate in Laguna Beach, Calif., with his eight black cars, among them a Range Rover and a 1958 Mercedes. At night he often parties with some of his 255 staffers in a chauffeur-driven, stretch' Chevrolet Suburban with "Mossimo Lounge" painted on the side. Despite the big wheels—and bigger plans—Gianulli describes himself as genuinely humble. He'd even discourage fans from dressing only in his clothes. "I don't necessarily prefer a kid in Moss shoes, Moss shirt, Moss hat," he says. "If someone's real self is coming through, I think that's cool."

CAROLYN RAMSAY in Los Angeles

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