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YellowMan turns ridicule on head

Born in 1950s Oklahoma, Peter Mui says he never felt proud of his ancestry. Afraid of ridicule, his Chinese immigrant father would ask Mui's mother not to speak mandarin in public so the family wouldn't stand out.

But Mui has turned those childhood memories of prejudice into a $12 million clothing company. With his YellowMan brand, Mui has taken a slur and turned it on its head.

YellowMan, worn by entertainment industry elites and hipsters with lots of disposable cash, is probably the only high-end clothing brand that employs Buddhist monks, Japanese Yakuza groupies and Maori tribesmen to design "wearable" tattoos rich with symbols and ethnic pride.

The designs on the form-fitting shirts, printed on breathable polyester spandex that absorbs body moisture, always have a symbolic component. One of Mui's favorites illustrates an ancient Japanese parable of a fish swimming upstream that overcomes adversity to become a dragon.

"I like the whole story about the life struggles of a boy becoming a man — I'm still a boy growing up," said Mui, 54. "This is one way to learn art and about culture and history. Each piece has a significance of meaning."

As an adult, Mui spent years traveling through China and Malaysia, getting to know the cultures he once repudiated. The idea for YellowMan came to him after he had co-founded a successful clothing manufacturing company in Hong Kong.

"I wanted to do something meaningful. This brand is a battle cry," Mui said. "My father wanted us to be American and he was made fun of for having an accent. I want my children to learn to be proud of who they are."

Mui, the youngest of three children, admits he has never fully fit in anywhere.

The first time Mui set foot in mainland China in the 1970s, he kissed the ground. It felt good to taste the land of his ancestors even if his father, an economics professor at Oklahoma City University, never talked to his children about their heritage.

"His father had three wives and was a laundryman," Mui said. "There was nothing to be proud of in my father's mind."

At 6 feet tall, Mui towered above most native Chinese. After wandering aimlessly through China, he borrowed money from his maternal grandfather and got into the jewelry and furniture import/export business. Along the way, he met and married Teresa Carpio, an Asian singing star.

In Hong Kong he befriended Benson Tung, his tailor at famous high-end custom shirt-maker Ascot Chang. In 1986, Tung, Mui and other associates founded Tungtex Holdings Co., which employs about 10,000 people and makes clothing for such retailers as Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Talbots, Coldwater Creek and Garnet Hill. Although Mui still serves as president of Yellow River Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of Tungtex, he found the cutthroat world of garment manufacturing too brutal. He wasn't inspired by the clothing, mainly durable skirts and blouses made of cotton and silk.

So in 2005 he took out mortgages on his three homes and launched YellowMan with the idea of combining wearable art with Asian empowerment.

"I literally bet my house on it," he said.

He traveled around the world and found the best tattoo artists to make the designs. The first was Filip Leu from Switzerland known for his detailed and colorful eastern dragons. Mui also hired Horitoyo, a Japanese who designed a special Yakuza shirt that details the Japanese myth of Kintaro, a boy who was abandoned by his parents and was raised by bears in the forest.

Even though he and his company are based in Manhattan, Mui opened his only store in a trendy section of Los Angeles, across the street from the Ivy, the eatery to the stars. Understanding the power of celebrity, Mui also took YellowMan to the Sundance Film Festival to promote the line.

"I don't wear tattoos on my body but I liked the shirts ... it's wearable art," said John Paul de Joria, co-founder of John Paul Mitchell beauty products, who met Mui at the festival. "I'm a biker and if you want to be a little edgy and funky you wear it when you want to go out."

The price of shirts, targeted at the upper-end shopper, average $218.

Disney Co. executives contacted Mui to make YellowMan limited edition "Pirates of the Caribbean" shirts, including one for Johnny Depp, who starred in the movie.

After the YellowMan line, Mui launched three others: Misplaced Cowboy, designer jeans with stitched tattoo art; Mui Mui, a Hawaiian-inspired shirt line; and Samurai Surfer, a casual shirt line. Items from those labels range from $28 to $2,500 for limited edition jeans.

Mui's marriage to Carpio didn't last and he now lives in Manhattan with his second wife and their four children, Tigre, T Rex, Mikael and Ethan Axel Thor. His 25-year-old daughter from his first marriage, T.V. Carpio, recently starred in Julie Taymor's musical "Across the Universe."

"There is a reason to be proud to be Asian," he said. "That is my whole thing with YellowMan, embodying that spirit."

Peter Mui stands with his children, right to left, T Rex, Tiger and Mikael Mui. They are in kabuki paint as an expression of their racial pride. Peter Mui started the concept of YellowMan under the premise that skin color should never be a barrier against social status. - YellowMan