The global economy is down and the stock markets have cratered, but step for a moment into a parallel universe where the very wealthy continue to cavort as if the bubble hadn't burst. This is where Bijan lives. For nearly 30 years, Bijan Pakzad, better known by his first name, or, as he prefers to be called, Mr. Bijan, has sold what he proudly describes as "the most expensive menswear in the world" from his lavish Beverly Hills shop.
His face is familiar from billboards advertising his fragrances. His hair is now gray and he has aged a bit, but Bijan is a topsy-turvy Dorian Gray. Almost everything in his closet, and in his world, has stayed gloriously stuck in the '80s, or the '90s, or whenever it was when over the top wasn't quite high enough. And his business model is inside-out and upside-down too. Most fashion advertising is aimed at an aspirational dreamer eager to own a branded status symbol like a Fendi handbag or an Hermes belt. Except with his fragrances, Bijan has never courted that consumer. He gets no thrill selling a pricey tie to a guy in an off-the-rack Calvin Klein suit. He'd rather romance the pampered frequent spender who forgets which of his homes he left his $19,000 Bijan-designed ostrich vest in.
At a cocktail party in Bel-Air, a woman swathed in several thousand dollars of St. Laurent black velvet is asked, Do you know anyone who shops at Bijan? "I don't know anyone who wears his clothes," she says, in the snotty tone of a high school prom queen who's chummy with everyone who matters. "Is he still in business? Who are his customers, anyway?"
It is unlikely she would know about Bijan's mega-bucks fragrance deal with the sultan of Brunei, but obviously, she hasn't been paying attention. Bijan is so in business that sales of his clothes and custom jewelry total more than $20 million a year, according to Dar Mahboubi, who manages the finances of the privately held company they jointly founded, and Bijan's four fragrance lines bring in another $50 million annually. He's only a small player in the $2-billion a year perfume industry, and isn't in the same league with a fashion powerhouse like Gucci, which has stores all over the world and sales of $2.26 billion. But with several partners he also owns tasty chunks of prime Beverly Hills commercial real estate. He has a villa outside Florence, an apartment in New York and last year he settled into a princely estate hard by Holmby Hills. When he leaves it, he can ride in one of his six cars, including three Bentleys, or, for longer trips, fuel up his Gulfstream IV.
Curiosity about his customers can be satisfied at 420 N. Rodeo Drive, where columns of clients' names are stenciled along the bottom of the shop's windows. The eclectic and very international list includes HRH Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, Michael Eisner, His Majesty King Juan Carlos, Julio Iglesias, Robert Halmi, Kirk Kerkorian, Prince Rainier, Steve Wynn, Gianni Agnelli, Aaron Spelling, Won Suk Choi, Ronald O. Perelman, Richard Branson, Ahmet Ertegun, Massimo Ferragamo. The names change occasionally, but the qualifications of the men Bijan designs for don't. "I don't mean to sound snobby, but today my clients have to have a minimum of $1 million in earnings, after taxes, a month. I have a client who is $1 billion in trouble," says Bijan, chuckling at the new millennium's definition of deep pockets.
This is one of those stories people will write letters about. Antipathy to elitism is as American as the Dixie Chicks, so the usual complaint is: Why glorify spoiled rich people? Well, even though the atmosphere lately has been thick with a hate-the-fat-cats smog, the privileged class hasn't disappeared. Besides, every subject is bound to offend someone. Puritans need read no further.
By appointment only
Bijan is a handsome man in his late 50s, with a small nose, a smooth, lightly tanned complexion, a generous smile and courtly manners. He seems to give as much thought to delivering gentle flattery as he does to styling an elegant still life for a window display. No one would ever call Bijan careless. He was born in Iran, and although he has been in this country since 1971, his accent is pronounced. Perhaps because he knows he can be difficult to understand, he speaks slowly. When he is excited, and he is often excited, the words come more quickly.
"From Day 1, I had 'By Appointment Only' on the door. That's a tough statement. A very unique statement. Nobody else does that. I am not a mass designer. What was important to me was not to have 2 million clients, like Versace, but to have 20,000 clients. They all have one thing in common. They appreciate quality, exclusivity and service. My clientele is very difficult and demanding. I work so hard, and so many hours. Last night, I was on the phone for almost two hours with Italy, trying to explain what has to be done for an order. I try to make what I do so perfect that the people who come to me get things that are incredible. Journalists don't understand, because what I do is outrageous. They wonder, who can pay so much money for clothes? They think my customers must be Mafioso or something. Most people would not believe the way my clients live. I've seen 40 people working for one person in a house. I can show you invoices for $700- or $800,000 that one person spent in one visit to my store."
Female clotheshorses of means race through $50,000-a-month wardrobe allowances, or spend that much on a single garment from the Paris couture. But until Bijan opened on Rodeo Drive in 1976, it was difficult for an expensively dressed male clothes collector to achieve parity with his wife. He could have suits, shirts and shoes custom-made -- on Savile Row, at Turnbull & Asser or John Lobb -- but what about ties, or an array of suede jackets to wear on the weekend? Bijan offered one-stop shopping, all in styles he was happy to dictate.
The designer doesn't like the description of his niche as one that gave men a chance to be served as well as their couture-clad wives. "You can't compare what I do with couturiers in Paris or Rome for ladies," he says. "Even Mr. Valentino doesn't produce the quality that we do. He's a very talented man, but he doesn't offer exclusivity. I create one jacket that is like no other."
A Bijan branch on New York's Fifth Avenue operating since 1983 closed three years ago, when the Coca-Cola and Warner Bros. Studios stores replaced its more elegant neighbors, and business hasn't yet resumed at the Madison Avenue townhouse the designer recently bought and remodeled. Since Sept. 11, more than half of Bijan's international clients have become squeamish about traveling, so he makes house calls in his jet. Yet the Beverly Hills shop, and its owner, are always dressed to receive a dauphin, or at least shopping royalty. This afternoon, Bijan's outfit is a composition of black, white and yellow -- a smartly tailored dark pinstriped suit, white shirt, and tie and pocket square in the intense yellow that is his signature hue. The orange crocodile band of his self-designed platinum and diamond watch seasons the mix.
Bijan is obsessive about the store's decor, both inside and out. Voluptuous red geraniums in pots cascade from the roof's edge onto the ochre stucco of the Tuscan-esque storefront. Dozens of rough Moroccan urns, stacked in layers, fill a niche cut into the concrete to the left of the gigantic etched glass front door. (Repetition is a favorite visual motif: Bijan's gated stone mansion is encircled by more than 300 pots of red bougainvillea.)
In one window, a cashmere coat with a brown chinchilla collar is draped over a chair fit for a conquistador. Another window features a cluster of yellow rosebuds in a silver vase and a bedspread of yellow mink lined in a silk sword print Bijan designed after he acquired a saber once owned by Napoleon.
The interior of the boutique is decorated in a style best described as surpassing opulence. Bijan, who has a flair for hyperbole, says a renovation completed two years ago cost $12 million. The two-story room is dominated by a sweeping marble staircase and a chandelier fashioned of more than 1,000 Bijan perfume bottles, pretty crystal doughnuts filled with amber liquid.
Free-standing racks of clothes would be too pedestrian for the designer. A jacket of kangaroo hide is stuffed into an enameled ladder. Piles of artfully dishabille ties nestled in matching signed and numbered silk-lined boxes sit on a gleaming mahogany table. Behind a towering African palm tree, what appears to be an 18th century bleached wood armoire is actually the door to a dressing room. "I bleached it to make a primitive, chic statement," Bijan explains. Another simple touch is a weathered wooden canoe, a gift from a Brazilian politician, which is mounted high on a wall, suspended over shelves of brilliantly colored cashmere sweaters.
More perfume bottles function as doorknobs on six closets that hold prototype wardrobes. "There is real perfume inside," Bijan says, flinging open a door. "I can't stand if things are phony." In one closet, jackets and suits and compartments displaying ties, shirts, sweaters, belts and shoes offer a study in shades of yellow and gray. The palette in another is orange, gold, black and brown, strong colors most American men wouldn't wear off the golf course. "These aren't for a doctor or an attorney," Bijan says. "Three-quarters of my clients are American, and I sell more of the conservative style. But I love the beauty of the bright colors. If you know when to wear flamboyant things, they can be beautiful."
Byooteefool! With a new order of clothes, Bijan's best clients receive leather-bound albums with their names engraved in gold on the cover. Inside are color photographs of what he's made for them, presented as outfits with legends explaining which ties work best with the lavender shirt and charcoal cashmere jacket, or that the indigo linen jacket should be worn with a pale pink T-shirt in the south of France. Those in the inner circle get two albums a year.
"Service is the most important thing in any people business," says Gale Hayman, whose Giorgio boutique and fragrance were one of Rodeo Drive's earliest successes, attracting well-dressed men before Bijan opened. "American women and men really want to be shown what to wear with what. The fact that Bijan takes it one step further is a brilliant idea. It's time-consuming and expensive, but the concept is great. He's very clever."
And deliberate. Each fussed-over detail enhances the image of Bijan as the place to find all the luxury money can buy. "I spent $100 million on me," he says, "on my ads in print and television. I don't look like Tom Cruise, but that wasn't the point. Introducing myself is marketing. Then, later, if I help a customer, he thinks, 'It's him!' And he knows that Bijan, himself, is doing all those special things for him."
In his book "Brand Slam -- The Ultimate Hit in the Game of Marketing" (Lebhar-Friedman, 2001), Frank Delano examines marketing campaigns he judges particularly effective. Some people looked at Bijan larger than life-size on billboards and noted his signature scrawled across the silk lining of jackets and on boxes of perfume and saw a raging ego. Delano, a brand specialist, sees strategy. "Bijan is the artist and thinker behind his brand," Delano writes. "His appearance in magazine ads reminds his customers that they're getting a signed Bijan, not a product from his studio."
Besides, to Bijan ego isn't a bad thing. Before anyone can criticize the size of his, he brings it up. "When I am appreciated, that feeds my ego," he says. "It's magnificent to get a phone call from someone who says, 'The king of Morocco needs some of those cashmere jogging suits you designed. Can you send 15 of them, in colors that you like?' My American men appreciate what I do for them, and I adore them. With my ego, I would have been successful anyplace, but America gave me the opportunity to show my taste."
Dar Mahboubi has cornered most of the modesty in the partnership. "If I hadn't gone into business with Bijan, many other businessmen would have, and he would have been just as successful because of his personality and his talent," he says. "This is the only business I've been involved in where the perfectionism drives profit rather than profits being a victim of it. I do not second-guess anything that Bijan does or any decision he makes in the area of design, because he backs everything up with performance."
His home, his castle
At first glance, Bijan's home, surrounded by lush gardens, looks like a standard ready-for-Architectural Digest, $2-million-a-room arriviste crib. But on closer inspection, it is distinguished by the designer's personal and often idiosyncratic taste. In fact, Bijan is no parvenu, having been born into a well-to-do family in Tehran and educated at the exclusive Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland. A number of the beautiful and very valuable Persian rugs in the house are heirlooms. The artwork ranges from a large, colorful abstract canvas by a Mexican artist to a pentad of naive drawings salvaged from an Apache tepee that languished in a Santa Fe gallery until Bijan had the idea to frame them as a group. A perfectly lighted, nearly life-size portrait of a nun by Fernando Botero dominates a downstairs hallway. It is one of five Boteros Bijan owns, including the painting of an overstuffed couple called "The Rich" that's on view at the store.
In the obligatory Bijan yellow room just beyond the entrance, there's a chandelier of 700 cologne bottles filled with the neon yellow men's scent. But he spends the most time in the subtle green-painted study off his bedroom, where the tops of trees that shelter the pool and guest house below provide a verdant backdrop through banks of windows. He goes into the green room at night to think about a new cufflink design or a theme for an upcoming perfume campaign. His partner Mahboubi says, "Every couple of weeks, I go to his house and half of it looks different. He's constantly moving and changing things, not because he's bored, but because something has inspired him. He works all the time. If he isn't actually doing the work, he's thinking about it."
The house is maintained by a staff of seven. When Bijan introduces people he employs both at home and at work, he cites their length of service, evidently proud to have loyal retainers. "I am not 100% lovable with my employees. They think I am difficult because I ask for very much. But I must, in order to do what I need to for my clients, who expect the best." When a maid serves drinks to a visitor, Bijan says, "This is Hilvia. She's been with me for 12 years. She's the only thing I got in my divorce."
Bijan and his second wife, model Tracy Hayakawa, divorced eight years ago after nine years of marriage. Their two children, a son, 11, and a daughter, 14, each have bedrooms in the house, where they spend most weekends. "I am very happy to be single," Bijan says. "I love my work, my home and my dogs. I adore my wonderful, beautiful children and I love to spend time with them."
When Bijan's first marriage to a Swiss-German woman he met while living in Europe in the '60s ended, their daughter was 17. Daniela Pakzad, now 40, is a talented graphic designer who oversees package design for the fragrance division. "I had a choice to stay with my mom or my dad," she says. "Since my dad was constantly working, he wasn't around that much when I was a child. We only vacationed as a family once. So I chose to stay with my dad. I got a chance to see how hard he works, and we became closer....
"My dad is at a point in his life when he could take it easy, but he still has that amazing drive. I'll be driving my son to school in the morning and he'll call and say, 'Last night I couldn't sleep. The colors for the new packaging are all wrong.' I'm in awe of his creativity. His eye is so exquisite, and the perfectionism doesn't go away when he comes home. The way he conducts his life isn't the norm. It isn't the way I live my life. He really lives the persona that people see."
In the late '90s, Daniela worked closely with her father on an extensive and lucrative project commissioned by the sultan of Brunei. Initially, the sultan asked Bijan to create two lines of women's and men's products for a resort he owned on a Pacific island. "It consumed us for a year," Daniela said. "Knowing what he has, what he's seen, we figured it had to be something incredible." He was so pleased with the result that he wanted signature fragrances for himself, his two sons and his daughter. Names, logos, package designs as well as scents were developed, just for the royal family's private use. Bijan collected a design fee of $20 million. The bill for the perfumes, body lotions and bath oils was $43 million.
"The buyer wanted to send his 747 to pick the products up," Mahboubi says. "We calculated it would take 3 1/2 trips back and forth to carry all the merchandise that would fit in the belly of that plane."
The corporate scandals uncovered since 2001 provided justification for anyone predisposed to distrust the rich, and fed the belief that all barons were robbers and success comes only from ill-gotten gains. While CEOs who operated on the wrong side of the law and their wretchedly excessive lifestyles were excoriated, it was temporarily forgotten that our system was designed to reward talent and hard work, that the whole idea of capitalism was for people of merit to make money, and then spend it in any way that pleased them.
Bijan hasn't abandoned that notion. He is the perfect embodiment of the American Dream. Sure, he has a private jet, jazzy motor pool, Beverly Hills palace and contact with the most successful and powerful men on the planet, but is he happy? Yes.
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How to look wealthy
Seven tips for men, from Bijan:
1. Wear a white linen suit without worrying about wrinkles.
2. Drink very good red wine at dinner and lots of water during the day.
3. Own a Bentley and a VW Beetle.
4. First you have to be in love.
5. Have your portrait painted by Fernando Botero.
6. Fly to your Manhattan office from Connecticut in your helicopter.
7. Be a corporate chairman and spend two hours a day gardening in your greenhouse.
Why pay less when you can pay more?
In the late 19th century, Sir Robert Giffen spoke to a session of the British Parliament, suggesting an exception to the laws of supply and demand. The orthodox economic view was that when the price of something goes up, the demand goes down. Not so with what have come to be known as Giffen goods, luxury items that people buy precisely because they cost more.
The idea, sometimes called the Giffen paradox, has been much debated, but it is one explanation for the peculiar psychology of overpaying. Why would someone want to spend $6,500 for a Bijan suit, when a Brioni, say, can be had for less than $4,000?
"People prize some goods because they're expensive," says John Nachbar, professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis. "One reason is they offer exclusivity. That's useful, because it sends a signal to other people that you can afford the goods, and you may be trying to match up with other people who can afford them. If poor people can buy goods that are almost identical, that pollutes the system. And it is important that the goods be sufficiently expensive. If the price of a Giffen good fell, there might be a drop in demand because the status value would be reduced."
During an economic downturn, it would be expected that luxury goods would suffer if price were the only factor driving sales. Porsche was only one Giffen good that defied last year's depressing financial trends. The company reported a pre-tax profit of $830 million on sales of $4.87 billion in fiscal 2002.
Says Bijan's partner Dar Mahboubi: "Economic downturns don't affect our business. Our customers ... might cut back on what they do for their businesses, but for themselves, they continue to spend."
-- Mimi Avins