Rebels with elite flair

Times Staff Writer

Let’s say you’re the 18-year-old son of a head-banging, bat-eating rocker, and you’ve become the star of a reality show on cable TV. Your lifestyle is a seamless melding of luxury and profanity. Where, exactly, would you go to find a $385 plush terry bathrobe with a two-word obscenity embroidered on the sleeve?

Chrome Hearts, naturally, a business that shuns publicity the way some of its famous customers crave it.

There isn’t a sign or a doorknob outside the company headquarters on leafy Mansfield Avenue in Hollywood. Founder Richard Stark likes it that way; he says he doesn’t want anyone to know the company is there. This attitude has resulted in the kind of image -- part nose-thumbing, part exclusivity -- that has helped make Chrome Hearts the rock ‘n’ roll luxe lifestyle purveyor for rebel yellers such as Cher, Steven Tyler and Elton John for the past 14 years.

The company produces cashmere sweaters, Egyptian cotton bedsheets, crystal vases, chunky platinum necklaces, sterling-silver ice cream scoops and custom leather car interiors, all emblazoned with Gothic crosses, daggers and fleur-de-lis symbols. Prices range from $50 for a T-shirt to $695 for sunglasses; $3,300 for stretch leather pants to $160,000 for a handmade ebony dining table.

“The idea was to be like Hermes or Brooks Brothers -- a classic, lifestyle company for the 21st century and beyond,” says Stark, 42, who is slouched on a curvaceous black leather couch embellished with the same cross-shaped appliques he sports on his leather pants. A red “Merle Haggard” baseball cap covers his long, curly brown hair and shades his face, which has sideburns snaking down either side. Stark oozes the kind of aloof cool of a kid who cuts classes and doesn’t care what the principal thinks.


He and his wife, Laurie Stark, 39, who is also his business partner, are the first to admit they don’t engage in the kind of behavior that is reflexive for most designers. They rarely advertise or talk to the media. They don’t have a press kit. And they can be prickly and secretive, reluctant even to mention where they live (Malibu) or how many people they employ (around 200).

But after inking a licensing deal with the Rolling Stones earlier this month to produce jewelry inspired by the band’s Andy Warhol-designed tongue-and-lips logo, the Starks agreed to be interviewed in the airy upstairs room of their offices. Dressed in creased blue jeans and a filmy black blouse with a camisole underneath, Laurie drapes her legs over the arm of a chair. White rays filter through the skylights and land on a plump leather chair and a hefty ebony dining table. Like nearly all Chrome Hearts wares, the furniture is handcrafted in a factory at the rear of the block-long complex. Above the table hangs a large, somewhat disturbing photo by a childhood friend of Richard Stark’s of what appears to be a pile of body parts.

Chrome Hearts was conceived (“one sedated eve,” as Stark is fond of saying) as a leather apparel company in 1988 by Stark and his housemates Leonard Kamhout, a silversmith, and John Bowman, who manufactured and sold belts. At the time, Stark was representing tanneries and selling hides to manufacturers. He also has a background in carpentry.

At first, the trio made leather pieces for Harley-riding friends. They got their break when they were asked by a producer pal to make leather outfits for “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown” (1989), a B-grade comedy horror flick (and one of Billy Bob Thornton’s first films) about eight biker babes who save a town from zombies. One of the actors in the film knew Sex Pistols lead guitarist Steve Jones and introduced the band members to the guys at Chrome Hearts. “Steve Jones introduced us to the Cult, the Cult introduced us to Heart, Heart introduced us to Aerosmith and on and on,” says Stark, who grew up in Utica, N.Y., where, he says, perhaps for effect, he liked to spend his time riding his motorcycle through cemeteries.

But it was Tommy Perse, owner of the influential Maxfield boutique, who gave Chrome Hearts a meaningful retail boost. In 1991, Stark took a motorcycle jacket and a pair of leather chaps to Perse, who introduced the Prada and Yohji Yamamoto to L.A., among others. He bought the leather goods with baroque silver buttons on the spot. Soon, Bergdorf Goodman and Browns London opened in-store boutiques, and Vogue ran a spread of supermodels in couture gowns and Chrome Hearts motorcycle jackets.

“Things rapidly progressed and his name got out there very quickly,” Perse says. “It was good exposure for him and the perfect product for Maxfield because it was a blend of quality and edgy rock n’ roll, which was pretty new at the time.” In 1992, Chrome Hearts was named Accessory Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Stark and his partners were such unlikely designers that they didn’t even know what the council was and mistook several calls from the organization for telemarketing calls.

Shortly after accepting the award in New York City, the partners had a falling out. Stark bought out Kamhout and Bowman, and continued to expand the Chrome Hearts label.

Chrome Hearts clothing is a favorite of MTV’s Osbournes and is worn by Eddie Murphy in the film “I Spy.” Cher, a friend of the Starks, is rarely seen in public without a piece by Chrome Hearts--a jacket, maybe, or a piece of jewelry -- and supermodels Gisele and Travis are pictured on the cover of the October issue of W magazine wearing armloads of the label’s chunky jewelry.

The Starks design the line together. Laurie is a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising who in the 1980s designed the swimwear line Beten Gav, which was carried by Fred Segal. The two met at a fish market in Malibu. They have been together 14 years and have an 11-year-old daughter whom Richard Stark calls “his most perfect design.”

“She’s made us grow up,” Laurie Stark says, although Richard has been known to fetch the child from school on a motorcycle and have her change into her leathers for the ride home.

Two years ago, Maxfield’s Perse opened a Chrome Hearts boutique in a converted ironworks shop just across from his store on Robertson Boulevard so he could showcase more of the merchandise, he says. Like the factory, the store has no sign but is recognizable by its imposing black iron gates. Inside, the cabinetry, designed by Stark, is ebony with sterling silver hardware. There are also Chrome Hearts stores in New York, Osaka and Tokyo, all owned by the Starks.

Chrome Hearts has been popular in Japan since Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo showcased pieces in the windows of her store in Tokyo’s Aoyama shopping district in the early 1990s. Last year, the Starks launched a quarterly Chrome Hearts magazine there. Much of the photography in the magazine is done by Laurie, who is also working on a book called “White Wall” that’s a compilation of photographs of folks who visit the Chrome Hearts offices.

Chrome Hearts continues to meet demands for custom objects: It recently made a leather remote-control holder, a leather magazine rack and a sterling silver stethoscope, and the Starks were recently approached to design the interior of a Gulfstream plane.

Now that the label has been around for 14 years, it appeals to more than just a rocker crowd, Perse says. “The product really suits a broad spectrum of people. We’re selling to rock ‘n’ roll stars sure, but also to lawyers, accountants and housewives.”

Not that the Starks haven’t got plenty of rock ‘n’ roll left in them. Earlier this month, they partied with the Stones at Trader Vic’s, where the Chrome Hearts for the Rolling Stones jewelry line debuted. The next night, the Starks took in the Stones concert at the Wiltern.

Let’s face it, said Richard Stark, “the best part of the job is great concert tickets.”