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Ed Hardy wines? Christian Audigier's branding machine grinds on

At first glance, it seems like an unlikely marriage of skate punk and refined elegance, but the wine isn't half-bad.

April 28, 2009|DAN NEIL

There are no rules in branding, save for the law of the jungle. We live in a world where it's possible to buy Nascar brand meat snacks, Burger King-themed underwear, Harley-Davidson cake-decorating kits. Money is no respecter of decency and logic. Personally, I love beer-flavored frosting.

But perhaps no brand hookup makes less sense to me than Ed Hardy -- a tattoo-themed street wear imprint of fashion megalomaniac Christian Audigier -- and wine. Yet there it was at my local Whole Foods, stacked in orderly end-cap pyramids.

(The notoriously man-tanned Audigier will be signing wine bottles at the Whole Foods in Venice on Saturday).

Wine is a cultivated taste of a delicately cultivated product, a source of savored satisfaction and nuance, a living liquid that rewards reflection and restraint. The haute-trash Ed Hardy brand -- as near as I can parse it -- represents getting wasted in Las Vegas and leaving your $50 trucker hat in the cab on the way to the airport.

And yet, of course, I am wrong. The Audigier empire is pillared on a single brilliant concept, which is the ecumenical emptiness of branding itself.

A little background: Audigier, who is from Avignon, France, but lives in Los Angeles, began his career as a designer of pret-a-porte jeans and other clothing. He made his branding bones as the tastemaker behind Von Dutch, based on the graphical work of L.A. pin-striping artist Kenny Howard. Audigier is, in fact, the fashion criminal behind the Von Dutch trucker hat (worn by the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Madonna and a billion loutish wannabes).

In 2004, Audigier scored a licensing agreement with tattoo and graphics artist Don Ed Hardy, a Bay Area legend in ink, and soon Ed Hardy graphic designs began appearing on, well, everything: T-shirts, hoodies, purses and perfume, socks and sunglasses, barware and bedding, swimwear and underwear. The brand has pretty much exploded.

Audigier's conglomerate now comprises eight global brands -- including the modestly titled Christian Audigier imprint -- and more than 75 licensees. Las Vegas nightclub, Beverly Hills boutique . . . you feel me, dog? There is, apparently, no shark Audigier dare not jump. In March, Audigier announced a licensing agreement with Beverly Hills "celebrity" dentist Eric Fugier to create a line of Ed Hardy branded toothbrushes, dental floss and mouthwash. Ay ay ay.

To be honest, I wouldn't be caught dead in Ed Hardy. For one thing, there is a huge metaphorical hole in this brand, which trades on the committed authenticity and street-level edginess of Don Ed Hardy's skin art to sell overpriced T-shirts to kids at the mall. Hermes it's not.

Audigier has saturated the market to the extent that now Ed Hardy stands for trend slavery at its most vacant-eyed and autonomic. As a brand, Ed Hardy is even more promiscuous than Juicy Couture.

Of course, I'm twice the target demo and my late-night partying involves seven to nine hours of deep, restful sleep. The truth is I admire Audigier's audacity in challenging the wisdom that a brand image must convey some kind of verity about the product, however slight. I mean, Cabernet Sauvignon at Whole Foods? How skate punk is that?

Although he's not the first to invoke the phrase "lifestyle brand," Audigier is well on his way to giving it the force of literalism. Consider the range of Ed Hardy-branded beverages: vodka, beer, energy drinks, coffee, tea, whiskey, tequila, energy "shots," something called "structured water." And, of course, wine. It is now possible to go from cradle to rehab drinking only Ed Hardy-branded fluids.

Audigier is building, slowly and frighteningly, a 360-degree brand bubble for his clientele, an immersive ecology of labeled merchandise, an off-the-rack psyche. And in an age where a cool, ephemeral brand means everything and nothing, that's brilliant.

As for the wine, it's really not half bad. It's bottled in France by the Castel Group and imported by Nicolas Wines in Connecticut. The Ed Hardy label goes for $10, and the Christian Audigier label goes for $20 at Costco.

The Ed Hardy label helps address a specific problem in the wine business, according to Nicolas Vice President Gene Schaeffer.

"There's nothing really new and exciting in the wine business," Schaeffer says. "When this idea came along I thought we could develop new wine drinkers."

Claude Ruau-Choate, the wine buyer for Whole Foods in California, says the same. "In the long term, we're trying to build an audience," Ruau-Choate says. "This is the perfect introduction. It's fun. Wine doesn't have to be difficult."

I'll have a glass of the flaming skull, please.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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