LOS ANGELES — It’s no surprise that Michael Ball is so widely reviled in the luxury denim business.
With all the aplomb and delusion of a despot, the Rock & Republic founder and CEO is as infamous for taking swipes at his rivals as he is for vaunting his runway shows as seminal milestones in contemporary fashion.
As he tells it, True Religion mastermind Jeffrey Lubell is an artless hack. The fit on a pair of 7 For All Mankind jeans is abominable. And don’t forget that R&R’s collection of Studio 54–inspired suits at New York Fashion Week last month beat the pants off critically touted shows, namely Marc Jacobs: “Without a doubt, we were the best. When we do a show, we go all-out. Nothing’s held back,” he says. “It’s about reiterating, frankly, how cool the brand is.” In a world where few designers function without finely tuned PR machines soft-pedaling every quip, his self-possessed candor is often as refreshing as it is offensive.
The brands he so frequently slights rarely return serve. “We would prefer not to comment specifically on Michael,” says Leilani Augustine, vice-president of marketing for 7. “What I will say is that our sales speak for themselves … We remain the leader by more than two times in the category and are very happy with the position we are in.”
That there is no love lost between Ball and many of L.A.’s denim power players seemed of little import as he spoke with DNR at his swank, high-ceilinged Culver City headquarters—a marked contrast to the gritty digs of other local labels like Monarchy and J Brand. Instead, the recent CFDA inductee, clad in a Rock & Republic jacket of his design, had empire-building on his mind. Like many premium denim kingpins attempting to transform their companies from jeans makers into lifestyle juggernauts, Ball sees salvation in direct retail. Lots of it.
“For the full range of this collection to be expressed and exposed, it’s critical,” he explains of his plans for branded stores. “For most denim companies in this world, absolutely it’s difficult. Neither True Religion, nor 7, nor Citizens [of Humanity] will be a lifestyle brand or a fashion house … but for Rock & Republic, it’s just a natural progression, right?”
Already carried by more than 500 stores worldwide, the five-year-old label is opening its first branded door early next year, located next to Spanish shoemaker Camper on L.A.’s Robertson Boulevard. Two others are slated to open next year, one in Soho, the other at the Wynn Las Vegas. (Ball said Wynn’s wife, Elaine, is a rabid R&R fan and was instrumental to bringing the label to the hotel’s high-end shops, which include Dior, Chanel and Manolo Blahnik.)
And then there’s his wish list. Among the stores he wants to open worldwide in the next two years are doors on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Post Street in San Francisco, Michigan Avenue in Chicago and yet-to-be-decided locations in Paris, Spain, Canada and Japan. Ball predicts 50 locations in two years, all of which will highlight Rock & Republic’s non-denim offerings, including slim-fit blazers, polos, leather shoes and studded belts. Men’s wear now accounts for 30 percent of Rock & Republic’s overall sales.
Consider Ball’s convictions, his celebrity connections and his robust sales, which he professes total in the “hundreds of millions,” and it’s hard to write off his ambition. Even the more fanciful goals in his long-term business plan—an airline and a hotel chain, for starters—have a faint ring of possibility when explained by a former commercial actor who claims to have had no fashion design experience prior to launching what is now a top-10 premium denim brand.
But 2007 hasn’t exactly been a year of smooth sailing for Ball or his company, and he has several pending lawsuits to show for it. Depending on whom you believe, he may or may not have thrown a full cocktail glass at former R&R designer Fred Naggar in a New York nightclub (Naggar is suing for breach of contract and assault, among other allegations). He may or may not have made repeated and unwanted advances at former assistant Nicole Baros, or blackmailed Markus Klinko with sexually explicit photos of the New York fashion photographer with Ball’s ex-fiance, model/actress Fernanda Romero.
The suits, however, seem about as worrying to Ball as a trio of flies. He lovingly refers to Klinko as “Klinko on the brinko”: “What do you say to a lunatic? How do you reason with somebody like that? If you see this guy’s rap sheet he’s a scary guy. For me, I say bring it on. But I also have my company and my employees to think about here.”
Klinko isn’t holding his tongue, either. “This will be known as the biggest scandal in American fashion. When you look at the people he’s comparing himself to, from Calvin Klein on, to have someone of his character in this industry is just a shame,” he says. “Everything that’s in this lawsuit is 100 percent true.”