As BCBG turns 25, Max Azria reflects on his legacy

May 27, 2014

When it came to celebrating the brand he built from the ground up, Max Azria, 65, of BCBG, known for his extravagant lifestyle, kept things low-key and close to home. He and wife Lubov, who is the creative director of Max Azria Group, staged a retrospective exhibition of their work.

LOS ANGELES ó "Iím ready to launch the piece," said heavy hitter Max Azria, stepping onto the pitcherís mound at Dodger Stadium on a recent Saturday. Thatís 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 soared but bounced just short of home plate and into the catcherís mitt, showing 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 ó the bread and butter of the brand ó 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 todayís 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, staged a recent retrospective exhibition of their work called "Living the Bon Chic Life" at company headquarters in Vernon, Calif.

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 parentsí 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 Beyonce to Viola Davis, Azria is at a crossroads. He should be on top of his game. But heís 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.

Q: Has the definition of L.A. fashion changed since you started?

A: 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 weíre 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.

Q: What was your original vision for BCBGMaxAzria?

A: 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.

Q: Over the years, the reviews havenít always been so good. The most persistent criticism is that the clothes arenít directional, that big manufacturers, especially ones from California, are trend followers, not trendsetters.

A: Well, when editors say (he makes a whiny voice) this and this, and they donít even know anything about proper stitching, I have to laugh.

Q: I found a quote from you from 1996, when you told the L.A. Times, "I donít want to be part of the 2 or 3 percent that pretends to be artists. My biggest influence is the consumer. If she wants leather collars, thatís what sheíll get." Do you still feel that way?

A: Itís 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.

Q: 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.

A: Absolutely. For me, one of the biggest designers is Azzedine Alaia. Everything he is doing is fantastic. But itís too much dictating. He has to be closer to the woman.

Q: 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 werenít always successful, and some people say you expanded too rapidly. Do you have any regrets?

A: Even if a project becomes bad, you love a lot about it. So no, I donít 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. Sheís great and it was exciting to learn you sold 50,000 pieces. Thatís a lot.

Q: When you started, there werenít so many companies doing affordable fashion. Now there are a lot, from Helmut Lang and Theory to H&M. How do you compete?

A: By not looking at what theyíre doing.

Q: What are the challenges for the business going forward?

A: Life today is so fast. The challenge is to keep going and always be on top of this. Itís like today, I cannot give any age to my customer. They are 14, 20, 30, 40, 50, 70. So that is another revolution.

Q: And the way people shop has changed.

A: 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 ó like going to a nice restaurant.

Q: When you look back on 25 years, what do you see?

A: Of course the beauty, but also the work, the thousands of hours and days.

Q: If you are forced to leave your company and turn over control to your investors, what will you do?

A: I would travel a lot like everybody does.

Q: But you donít want to leave.

A: Itís not about what I want or donít want. Itís that I feel I didnít 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.



Key moments in the history of BCBG Max Azria Group.

1989 Max Azria launches BCBGMaxAzria and opens first headquarters on 9th street in downtown Los Angeles

1990 The brandís first catalog is distributed.

1991 Lubov Azria joins the company.

1992 The first BCBGMaxAzria store opens in Brentwood

1995 First international boutique opens in Montreal; footwear launches; Azria is awarded California Designer of the Year; Charlize Theron models in first ad campaign.

1996 BCBGMaxAzria debuts at New York Fashion Week

1997 launches

1998 Acquisition of Herve Leger

1999 Opening of Paris flagship with Max Cafe restaurant.

2001 BCBG Girls launches

2004 Max Azria Atelier line of gowns is introduced

2006 Sharon Stone wears Max Azria Atelier to the Cannes Film Festival

2008 More youthful BCBGeneration launches

2009 Azria collaborates with Miley Cyrus on line for WalMart called Miley & Max; Viola Davis wears Max Azria Atelier to Golden Globes; first BCBGMax Azria fragrance is introduced.

2010 Launch of bridal collection

2012 Madonna wears Herve Leger on her MDNA World Tour

2013 Herve Leger partners with Mattel on a Barbie

2014 BCBGMax Azria celebrates 25 years with retrospecive exhibition.



Associated Press