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Combat Rock

L.A.'s Michael Ball is brash, ambitious and sure his Rock & Republic brand will conquer the world.

September 16, 2007|Adam Tschorn | Times Staff Writer

It is Day 3 of the beach party marking the fifth anniversary of Rock & Republic denim, and Michael Ball doesn't seem to notice Scott Weiland singing the Beatles' "Birthday" from the stage, Brooke Shields raising a glass of Champagne in his honor or the table-size sheet cake being carted across the sand. No, as the sun starts to dip into the Pacific, Ball is worrying about the photo op.

"Where's my helicopter?" yells Ball, the company's chief executive and head designer. "Get that chopper in here!"

Walkie-talkies crackle to life, and moments later, a dark blue helicopter emblazoned with Rock & Republic's winged skull logo swoops into view, sweeps slowly over the crowd and disappears down the beach toward Santa Monica. Ball shakes his mane of dark hair, pulls a cork from a Champagne bottle with his perfectly straight teeth and throws a devil-horn salute to the sky.

And really, what else would he do? Ball is the 43-year-old swaggering, trash-talking architect of Rock & Republic's rock 'n' roll image, a man who, by his account, launched a multimillion-dollar denim empire because he didn't like the way his girlfriend's jeans failed to flatter her assets.

A onetime commercial actor from Van Nuys and a recent inductee into the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Ball counts among his outsized ambitions plans to bring the Rock & Republic label to boutique hotels, car interiors and eventually an airline. And he is not about to let three recent civil suits -- alleging blackmail, assault and sexual harassment -- get in his way.

"He's a showman," said Michael Paradise, a fellow denim impresario and co-owner of the Stronghold brand. Paradise was among the friends and well-wishers -- including Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Ryan Seacrest -- who flocked to Rock's mid-July Santa Monica blowout. "But to succeed you've got to have something to back it up. You've got to have a plan. And he's got a plan."

Five weeks later, kicking back on a couch in a West L.A. studio, Ball, dressed in a perfectly faded pair of his own jeans, a slim-fitting white T-shirt and a pair of black-and-red Adidas running shoes, is happy to share his plans.

"Within 10 years," he says breezily, "Rock & Republic will not be anything short of a complete, globally dominating lifestyle-product-driven company. Period."

If Ball's dreams of world domination seem grandiose, consider Rock's meteoric rise. In five years, the Culver City-based company has become one of the top 10 premium denim brands in the country. Its ultra-slim fitting jeans with the swooping back pocket "R" logo are a favorite among the pencil-thin rocker chicks with confidence to spare and money to burn on jeans that range from $198 to $370.

Charting Rock's success is easy: It fills a long-neglected niche that its competition hasn't touched. As Eric Beder, an industry analyst, explains, Seven for All Mankind made its mark as a basic premium brand. True Religion has a fashion edge. Rock & Republic is all about the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

It's a vibe that Ball is happy to cultivate whether he's tapping Chris Cornell or Velvet Revolver to play his beach bash, hiring the Pretenders for a presentation at L.A. Fashion Week or jacking one of his five iPods into the studio's sound system during a photo shoot so he can crank Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones as the shutters click away.

Three weeks later, at his New York Fashion Week presentation in a brick warehouse not far from Chelsea Piers, it's Bianca Jagger who's on the minds of the Rock crew. A new design features a blingy version of the back-pocket R -- encrusted in Swarovski crystals that evoke lines of cocaine. Ball has dubbed the insignia the "Bianca R" after the Studio 54 mainstay.

"It's about Studio 54," he said of the collection that included breast-baring disco dresses for women and tight, white "Staying Alive" suits for men, worn by models lounging vapidly in a VIP room right out of 1978.

"I'm not trying to emulate what they did in the '70s," he says, "but who would those characters be if it happened today?"

It was the first of three events that day for Ball. The second was a three-hour "pre-party" for Condé Nast's "Fashion Rocks" event, followed by an exclusive midnight-to-4 a.m. after-party headlined by the dance-punk-disco group LCD Soundsystem.

Not bad for a company that didn't exist until 2002. That was when Ball and and his partner Andrea Bernholtz decided to launch a denim line. The two met and dated briefly when they were cast as a young Latino couple for a Coors commercial. And Bernholtz, now president of the company, likens the Rock 'n' Republic experience to that of a garage band "that made it big."

"For the first million dollars of orders we did, I wrote every order, cut every sample and packed every box," she says. Today Bernholtz remains behind the scenes, and Ball plays the rock-god role. "It's kind of a left brain/right brain thing. We make a good team."

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