“I’m ready to launch the piece,” said heavy hitter Max Azria, stepping onto the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium on a recent Saturday. That’s fashion speak for throwing out the first pitch, which he was invited to do to mark the 25th anniversary of his fashion business BCBG Max Azria Group.
The ball bounced just short of home plate and into the catcher’s mitt, but Azria still has momentum.
One of the key figures to emerge from the Los Angeles fashion scene in the last quarter century, Azria manages an international empire that consists of the brands BCBGMaxAzria, BCBGeneration, Max Azria Atelier and Herve Leger by Max Azria, with 500 stores in 47 countries and $1 billion in retail sales. The highest priced of these, Herve Leger, has dresses that can run more than $10,000, but the lowest priced, BCBGeneration, tops out at $168 and BCBGMaxAzria — the bread and butter of the brand — tops out at $900.
By selling most dresses and sportswear at prices closer to $500 than $1,000, he helped to democratize fashion long before “contemporary” and “fast fashion” were hot categories in retail, back when today’s star fashion players Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim were still in short pants. And, when he took his BCBGMaxAzria collection to New York Fashion Week in 1996, he helped democratize the runways too.
When it comes to celebrating the brand he built from the ground up, Azria, 65, known for his extravagant lifestyle, is keeping things low-key and close to home. He and wife Lubov, 46, who is creative director of Max Azria Group, have staged a retrospective exhibition of their work called “Living the Bon Chic Life” at company headquarters in Vernon. It is open to the public through May 18.
Born in Tunisia, Azria moved with his family to France when he was a teenager. He got his start selling jeans imported from America, then managed his parents’ apparel manufacturing business. He moved to Los Angeles in 1983 (“for lifestyle, weather and space”) and opened a chain of multi-brand retail stores called Jess, before creating BCBG, which stands for “bon chic, bon genre,” meaning “good style, good attitude,” in 1989.
Lubov, a Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising grad, joined the company in 1991. Daughter Joyce Azria, 35, heads up the BCBGeneration label, which targets younger clientele..
Now, after 25 years, dozens of runway shows, high-profile ad campaigns and red carpet coups, dressing everyone from Beyoncé to Viola Davis, Azria is at a crossroads. He should be on top of his game. But he’s facing the reality that he may have to hand over control of his company to the investors who own part of his debt.
I sat down with him recently to discuss his memories, his legacy and where he goes from here.
Has the definition of L.A. fashion changed since you started?
Yes. From the time we opened to where we are today, L.A. has become the No. 4 city in world in fashion behind New York, Paris and London. And I think we’re going fast to No. 3, 2, then 1. The beautiful thing about L.A is that you have 50 countries in one county. Diversity brings power and muscle.
What was your original vision for BCBGMaxAzria?
I was wondering why designers were selling products at $1,000 that we can make a good profit and good living by selling at $500. I wanted to give fashion to more people.
Over the years, the reviews haven’t always been so good. The most persistent criticism is that the clothes aren’t directional, that big manufacturers, especially ones from California, are trend followers, not trendsetters.
Well, when editors say [he makes a whiny voice] this and this, and they don’t even know anything about proper stitching, I have to laugh.
I found a quote from you from 1996, when you told the L.A. Times, “I don’t want to be part of the 2 or 3% that pretends to be artists. My biggest influence is the consumer. If she wants leather collars, that’s what she’ll get.” Do you still feel that way?
It’s a mixture of teaching the consumer a new way and what they want. Like this summer, all women want to be in shorts, even if they are a size 14. Shorts have become the new miniskirts. But you know what? They are right because they are comfortable. Fashion is about comfort and feeling good.
And since 1996, when you said that, fashion has turned upside down. The idea that a designer or an editor dictates is really not valid anymore.
Absolutely. For me, one of the biggest designers is Azzedine Alaia. Everything he is doing is fantastic. But it’s too much dictating. He has to be closer to the woman.
Over the years, you launched a lot of new business ventures, creating the brand Max Rave, and designed a collection with Miley Cyrus for Wal-Mart. You weren’t always successful, and some people say you expanded too rapidly. Do you have any regrets?
Even if a project becomes bad, you love a lot about it. So no, I don’t have regrets. When I was working with Miley Cyrus, I was working for the first time in my life in a very narrow niche market, so it was very creative. She’s great and it was exciting to learn you sold 50,000 pieces. That’s a lot.
When you started, there weren’t so many companies doing affordable fashion. Now there are a lot, from Helmut Lang and Theory to H&M. How do you compete?
By not looking at what they’re doing.
What are the challenges for the business going forward?
Life today is so fast. The challenge is to keep going and always be on top of this. It’s like today, I cannot give any age to my customer. They are 14, 20, 30, 40, 50, 70. So that is another revolution.
And the way people shop has changed.
Yes, e-commerce is a strange situation for an old guy like me. You can buy a TV online, OK, but to buy a dress or shoes? Ugh. The customer has to go back to the store and breathe and smell and have a good time. Because shopping is a good time — like going to a nice restaurant.
When you look back on 25 years, what do you see?
Of course the beauty, but also the work, the thousands of hours and days.
If you are forced to leave your company and turn over control to your investors, what will you do?
I would travel a lot like everybody does.
But you don’t want to leave.
It’s not about what I want or don’t want. It’s that I feel I didn’t finish my job. I need another one to three years. People they are going to put in place, I have to be behind. And I have to exercise every day because if in six months they call me because someone did a big boo-boo and we have to repair it, I will there because I love BCBGMax Azria.
BCBGMaxAzria “Living the Bon Chic Life”
What: A retrospective exhibition commemorating the brand’s 25th anniversary, with a pop-up store selling archival designs at up to 70 percent off the original price.
Where: BCBGMaxAzria headquarters, 2761 Fruitland Ave., Vernon
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 18.