YOU might not know Christian Audigier, but you've no doubt encountered his flashy handiwork gracing the heads and torsos of a certain age group and celebrity set.
As the head designer at Von Dutch from 2002 to 2004, he was a principal architect of the celebrity carpet-bombing strategy that pushed the trucker hat and flying eyeball logo into the zeitgeist and then past it to the brink of extinction. In 2004 he started Ed Hardy Tattoo Wear -- a label that did $36 million in wholesale business and opened 27 retail stores in 2006 alone. Along the way he managed to launch two additional clothing lines, the higher-end Christian Audigier and rock 'n' roll Smet, and colonize almost an entire block of Melrose Avenue with a troika of boutiques.
And this afternoon the 48-year-old wild man from Avignon, France, will plant his flag on L.A. Fashion Week with the first of two runway shows he hopes will give his own name the kind of cachet he's helped cultivate for car customizer Kenny "Von Dutch" Howard and tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy.
Six days ago as he entered final preparations for his debut, Audigier (pronounced "oh-duh-ZHEY") seemed more focused on his models' makeup than name recognition. Sitting in a leather director's chair at the head of a cartoonishly long conference table in his North Mansfield Avenue offices, he quickly flipped through a stack of test photos.
"I want to have more Twiggy. This is boring -- I want them to look more ... oily, you know? And this one looks too milky to me. Summer is coming, you know? I want more gold bling-bling -- and silver bling-bling too."
Audigier hands the photos back to his assistant, who scurries out of his office. It's a long scurry, the space feels as cavernous -- and as stocked -- as a Costco sales floor. A life-size Spider-Man figure stands in one corner of the room. ("For my son, when he comes to visit," Audigier says. "He's 4 years old.") A zebra-print ottoman (could that be real zebra skin?) is off to one side and several acres of leather couch fill the center. Customized motorcycles are propped in two other corners.
'Friends of the brand'
Two of the office walls stand as testament to the designer's proximity to the Hollywood hype machine -- blown-up photos of Hardy-wearing Madonna and Britney juxtaposed with autographed photos of the Rolling Stones and dozens of neatly framed thank-you notes from other appreciative A-listers. (The most recent one reads: "Dear Christian, Thank you so much for the lovely clothes, it was kind of you to think of Keith and me." It is signed Nicole Kidman.) Sweeping his arm at the wall full of star power behind him, Audigier says: "Now, they are no longer celebrities to me -- they are friends of the brand, no? This is normal for me."
Audigier's rapid ascent to the top of the designer trucker hat and T-shirt heap has a lot to do with an almost preternatural ability to leverage the world's fascination with the famous (and quasi-famous) into worldwide exposure for his stable of brands. "When I came here to L.A. to find my American dream, I found that here you cannot be a brand without being your own actor, you know?"
After a European career in the denim trade that began in his teens, Audigier came to the U.S. as a freelance designer eight years ago, working with labels like Levi's, Bisou Bisou, Guess and America Eagle Outfitters before joining Von Dutch. He says he met Britney Spears and, later, Justin Timberlake at the Von Dutch store. "I gave them caps and that's what started it. When I saw how easy that was, I continued."
"I believe celebrities are the best driver for trends," he said. "Because they are on stage more than me -- the more they wear my stuff, the more it is going to be seen by the people."
That's why, any minute, Audigier's "dear friend," reality show host and former model Janice Dickinson is going to burst into his office and start arguing with him. We know this will happen not because we are psychic but because a British reality TV camera crew has been preparing for the shoot for the last hour.
We also know what they will argue about (whether to include a model named Abbey Clancy in his Ed Hardy runway show) and how that argument will be resolved (Clancy is scheduled to make her U.S. runway debut tonight at Smashbox Studios). We know this because a day earlier Christian's assistant told this reporter this would happen. "Janice and Christian are going to argue about whether Abbey should be cast in the [runway] show," said Audigier's assistant Carol Leffler. "Janice will say no, but Christian will say yes."
The argument in the office -- and the runway show -- are textbook Audigier, cameos guaranteed to expose his brand to countless U.K. TV viewers across the pond when they appear in segments of a still-untitled U.K. reality show that airs there later this year.
As for what's appearing on the catwalk today at L.A. Fashion Week, an event that includes The Times among 15 corporate sponsors, Audigier says he plans to send out 45 Ed Hardy looks encompassing "men's, women's, kids', pets, accessories, shoes, everything." The Ed Hardy line, based on designs culled from the extensive flash art archive of legendary ink slinger Don Ed Hardy, is heavy on traditional tattoo motifs -- flower-adorned skulls, pierced hearts, growling tigers, flaming die and the occasional geisha girl or koi fish -- embroidered or printed on everything from trucker hats to pet carriers.
Tattoos and car culture
The higher-priced Christian Audigier line melds the tattoo-art influence with references to car culture (for those days you're aching to blow $143 on a T-shirt printed with a pair of crossed pistons), plus foil prints and the kind of all-over logo printing that's currently all the rage on the street wear scene. Audigier's monogram not so subtly telegraphs his ambition -- it consists of the designer's initials topped by a three-pointed crown.
That's the kind of thing you're likely to see on Wednesday when his namesake line makes its runway debut. Audigier has come up with just the right name for it: "sexpensive."
"Bling-bling and sexpensive," he said. "This collection will be sexy and expensive. It will be clothes for the street but with a touch of glamour and sexiness."
Make that strasse -- true to form he's taping the Christian Audigier show too -- to appear, he hopes, in an upcoming episode of "Germany's Next Top Model."