NOVA USA, stylist-turned-designer Tony Melillo's fledgling menswear label, has a lot in common with its intergalactic namesake.
You know, the white-hot, super one.

Less than a year after starting the line, the 33 year-old Melillo can barely keep up with demand for his less clean-cut, more sexed-up version of the Gap. And his brand of insouciant chic is coming soon to a Lower East Side location near you. The company just leased a tiny spot at the corner of Stanton and Ludlow which, besides providing a wholesale headquarters, is sure to become a hang-out for the same kind of young style-seekers who made NOVA USA's Miami store a sort of salon for surfers.

The collection is a lesson in point-of-view and ruthless editing. Limited to 15 basic silhouettes and a handful of quiet colors, the line uses edgy cutting and simple but luxurious fabrics to lift it above the classics clones. "It's kind of like Garranimals. Everything goes together. The best compliment I get is when someone tells me they wear my clothes all the time because they don't have to think."

If you're going to let someone else do your sartorial thinking for you, there are few people as qualified as Melillo, who is the former style director of both Esquire and Smart Magazine. He cut his teeth at age 19 in Milan at a magazine called Vanity. His knack for "getting it" and getting it first is widely acknowledged by his peers. In 1989, Melillo singlehandedly started the real-people-as-models revolution - a pretty big one for the resume. While an editor, Melillo styled and befriended the likes of Madonna, Ellen Barkin and Farrah Fawcett, while styling himself as cleverly as his subjects including succinct looks ranging from an English dandy to an Armani-pinstripe-gangster (with a long-playing Riviera playboy period). Somehow, on Melillo, it always worked.

Melillo left the magazine world two years ago to write a screenplay about the young and the aimless in South Beach called "Beauties." He threw away all his clothes, put away all his possessions, and settled into an expense account-free existence. The resulting script was good enough to get him signed with mega-agent CAA, but hasn't made the giant leap to anything resembling a development deal.

It dawned on Melillo that one should stick with what one is good at and decided to design the beauties some clothes. He called a 26-year-old friend, Greg Frehling, who had started a small line called Nova for the beautiful people in Los Angeles a few years ago.

Frehling was excited about Melillo's plan to turn Nova into a menswear label with a Miami store that would become more lifestyle lounge than run-of-the-mill retail outlet.

They became partners, set up shop in a coral building on East Ninth Street, and filled it with comfortable furniture, great music and beautiful surfer boys who looked right at home wearing the clothes, lolling around the garden. NOVA USA quickly became a scene, amassing high-profile fans such as Leonardo DiCaprio (who gobbled up the entire first collection), Stephen Dorff, Matt Dillon and Barry Diller. As usual, where the boys are, the girls soon follow: Helena Christiansen, Cameron Diaz, Linda Evangelista, Kelly Klein and Kylie Minogue are all said to be addicted to Melillo's signature low-slung judo pants and equally low-riding, surfer-style, patch-pocket, dress-pants. And the laws of retail dictate that when you collect customers like these, stores will want to collect you.

Melillo is grateful for the reaction the clothes have received from trend-spotting temples such as Ron Herman/Fred Segal Melrose in Los Angeles, Browns in London and Colette in Paris but nonetheless spends sleepless nights plotting out the growth of his business, which he says needs to triple by 1999. So far, so good. Big spenders such as Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman Men, Wilkes-Bashford, Louis, Boston and Barneys New York have all made appointments during market week, and the guest list for his presentation of Spring '99 reads like a Who's Who of the cool and influential.

The only problem with all of this sudden success is time, Melillo's time to be precise. For example, most designers don't list more food, more time at the gym and a better suntan as crucial pre-show requisites. But most designers don't double as their favorite house models either. "I'm the best model for my clothes because each item is fitted on me. I wear it to death and correct any flaws before production. I make it easy for you to buy that piece of clothing because I know that you are going to feel ultra-comfortable in it."

Melillo sells the line like a kind of traveling salesman. He carries a sack from store to store and tries on the pieces for prospective buyers. It helps that he's super handsome, and as Nina Garduno, a vice president of Ron Herman/Fred Segal Melrose puts it - is the most charismatic person she's ever met. This sort of personal touch is what sets NOVA USA apart from its designer competition. The buyer steps into Tony's World.
"A lot of it comes from my style, how I want to wear my T-shirt this season. Since I'm the fit model, it ends up being about how I want things to look and feel on my body. And that inspires me. I'll cut them to look cool on me and the way I look is the right way to look." He says this matter-of-factly, without a trace of boastfulness. Melillo takes the company's image very seriously, something that probably comes from a decade spent creating influential editorial and advertising images. "NOVA USA is a simple, cool uniform, but a uniform nonetheless."

The testing ground of mellow Miami is about to evolve into the proving ground of mean Manhattan, but Melillo is confidant his label will thrive. In fact, he envisions NOVA USA outposts all over the place eventually. "It's that type of clothing," he says. "It's not elitist, for only the trendiest people or people with a lot of money. It's not about being 20 or being 50. It's easy, flattering and still cool. And these days, everyone wants to be cool."

He is over the moon about the new wholesale/retail location at 100 Stanton Street, which will open in August. He describes the vibe of the neighborhood as happy, friendly and new. "I walked over to the space at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon and immediately knew there was something going on. By 4:00 I was ready to sign the lease. You get the feeling Melillo is talking about more than a new lease on commercial real estate. "It's really amazing, the feeling of having something of your own, something you love, something that comes so easily to you. I was bored with working on magazines and I thought I had to leave fashion, but I didn't. "It was right here all along."

NOVA USA, 100 Stanton Street