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Max's Maxims

Designer Clothing Mogul Max Azria Has Always Played by the Rules--His Own

November 06, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Like so many great notions, the idea that made Max Azria one of the biggest apparel barons in the world is deceptively simple. He decided to make designer clothes available to a large audience by keeping prices reasonable. If charging less than four figures for a designer dress wasn't radical enough, then his contention that a global fashion empire could be commandeered by Los Angeles bordered on the lunatic.

"When I said I would build a house of fashion in L.A., people thought I was crazy," Azria says. "If you want to create a house of fashion, everyone told me, you go to New York. But for five years I've been saying that American designers would be the No. 1 designers in the world. Today, that has come true. You see Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford at Gucci and other Americans driving big, international companies.

"It means that crazy Max wasn't so wrong," he says. "I also said California would become the capital of the world of fashion, and everyone laughed. But today, people look at Los Angeles completely differently than they used to. They see that there is real creativity in this city."

To be precise, there is creativity evident in Vernon, headquarters of BCBG, the $300-million clothing and accessory company that Azria founded nine years ago. Expansion has been so rapid that interior decoration hasn't been a priority at the sterile, sprawling building where 450 of BCBG's 1,200 employees work.

In a spare, white office where the only frills are an espresso maker and some family photographs, the 49-year-old owner and head designer sits in a white-slipcovered chair, lights a Marlboro, sips a Classic Coke from the can and discusses his goals, his history and the art and business of fashion.

He speaks English without hesitation in a husky French accent. A high school dropout born in Tunisia and raised in Paris, Azria has much in common with the first generation of Hollywood moguls, brash immigrants who wrote their own rule books by following their instincts. They made fortunes putting fantasies on film. He crafted his dreams with fabric.

Breaking the Mold

of Department Stores

*

As smack-your-head obvious as Azria's concept of democratizing high style might seem, the way women's clothes have traditionally been sold worked against it. Department stores group clothing lines by price, a system that only makes sense some of the time. Expensive designer clothes are displayed in one area, less costly "contemporary" lines--as they're designated in the industry--are confined to their own ghettos. Even if a contemporary manufacturer presents an intricately cut, hand-embroidered silk skirt for $200, there's no chance it could move up into the designer neighborhood (which might well be offering $400 white cotton T-shirts and $800 plain black slacks).

Azria sidestepped this segregation by operating his own stores. Like the Hollywood studios in their formative years, he gained creative muscle by controlling the channel of distribution. Aside from the financial benefit of eliminating the middleman, having BCBG stores allowed complete power over the company's image as well as direct communication with customers.

With a team of BCBG architectural designers and visual display experts, Azria could create an atmosphere in his stores to rival the elegance of designer boutiques. He didn't have to hope that a department store buyer would like the more adventurous styles in his line; BCBG stores stocked the show-stoppers of every collection. Salespeople could be schooled in fashionese, trained to explain the proper fit of slouchy trousers or to clue a shopper in on how supermodel Bridget Hall put a certain suit together in BCBG's runway show earlier this week.

So why was Max Azria able to open 61 BCBG stores in North America, eight more in Asia and South America, absorb the three divisions acquired when a competitor was purchased in 1996, establish units for shoes, handbags, swimwear and men's clothes and, two months ago, buy the French fashion house of Herve Leger? Because he's the smartest man in fashion? Probably not. But he might be the most stubborn. An "if we build it, they will come" determination steadily guided this pilgrim's progress.

"Most people think fashion is a risky business, but I don't believe that," he says. 'Sometimes it's riskier not to take a risk. If you don't take a position and stand up for what you believe in, you will fail. If you take an idea and make it happen, then you will be successful."

Discovering a Wife

and Business Partner

*

Three years ago, Azria's wife, Lubov, tacked small drawings of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" to the door of Max's suite of offices. Azria doesn't look beastly, more closely resembling a dynamic Cheshire cat, but considering her Ingrid Bergmanesque beauty, the characterization of the couple as Belle and her tender monster is understandable.

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