It’s hard to go anywhere in Los Angeles these days without running into Christian Audigier. Drive to the Farmer’s Market or Hollywood & Highland and you’re bound to see him on a towering billboard, acting out his version of the American Dream. He’s posing next to a vintage Porsche convertible, top down, parked on the shoulder of a high desert road. Audigier gazes at a stretch of empty pavement, thumbs hooked into the pockets of paint-splattered jeans. This is the picture of success, and he demands that you take notice. Even if at first glance it appears he’s waiting for someone to drive by and give his roadster a jump.
To his fans — and there are many — Audigier is the marketing wizard who turned the work of an obscure tattoo artist into Ed Hardy, the ubiquitous apparel brand that celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Audigier’s company, Nervous Tattoo Inc., realized a reported $250 million in 2008 for its stable of brands, more than double the previous year’s revenue. That’s not even including his licensees: Devotees can now wake up in Ed Hardy pajamas, splash Ed Hardy cologne across their shaved chests, rehydrate midday with Ed Hardy “structured” water and wrap themselves in $269, 300-thread-count Ed Hardy sheets at night as the Ambien kicks in.
But to those who wince at his cacophonous fashion, his celebrity line spin-offs or his habit of strutting down confetti-strewn runways at Los Angeles Fashion Week to a live band performing “Simply the Best,” Audigier is the egomaniac who brings New York’s loathing for West Coast style into singular focus. The tattoo art, the gold-foil monograms on lines like Christian Audigier and Smet—these are textbook L.A. fads. And “Le Vif,” or “The Fast One,” as Audigier likes to call himself, is the huckster who has wrought them.
“People get jealous and upset some of the time,” Audigier says in a heavy French accent that can be magnetic at one moment, incomprehensible the next. “I get criticized. And I don’t look at anybody else; I never talk about any other [brand]. When they say, ‘It’s the end of the Audigier reign,’ I think, ‘Really? Am I a king?’ I am not arrogant. I am just an autodidact businessman. I know how to sew, how to wash, how to design, how to sell, how to market, how to merchandise. I am complete.”
Audigier is sitting on an overstuffed Ralph Lauren sofa in his new brand management office — an elegant, two-story brick building that looks like it belongs on the Upper West Side rather than a block away from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Inside is a pad destined for an episode of MTV’s Cribs. There are motorcycles with impeccably polished chrome, fur throws tossed on leather ottomans and enormous celebrity portraits, including a signed, framed photograph of Madonna the size of a coffee-table that reads “Christian, without your clothes, I would be naked.”
For an Audigier interview, this is a quiet affair. Usually there are at least eight people in the room, encircled by a small, reality-TV-style camera crew. Audigier’s fondness for self-documentation began in his days as a designer for Von Dutch Originals. Some contend the cameras weren’t actually shooting fi lm back then, though he insists he has a roomful of archival footage. Today there is no crew, just Audigier and Nicole Irving, his director of marketing. In the hallway outside is Audigier’s bodyguard, who once nearly knocked this reporter off his chair while dancing in the adjacent seat during an Ed Hardy runway show. The business appears to have matured.
Audigier is charming as usual, though he appears a little exhausted. He just returned a few days ago from When I Move You Move, his high-octane Las Vegas trade show, launched last year after a very public split with Advanstar Communication’s Project Las Vegas. Or perhaps he’s just not interested in performing. He doesn’t want to talk about celebrities today, but casually mentions a few in the course of a two-hour conversation. Madonna was just in the office for a possible three-tier apparel collaboration (“Material Girl,” “Erotica” and “Ambition”). Michael Jackson, who proclaimed Audigier “The King of Fashion” during the designer’s 50th birthday party last year, is stopping by to approve merchandise for his upcoming concerts in London’s O2 Arena this summer. The two are having dinner tonight at Jackson’s 17,171-square-foot house in Holmby Hills, which, according to the celebrity news site TMZ, he is renting from a trust managed by Hubert Guez, the new ceo of Audigier’s company. (Audigier’s spokeswoman denies the report.) “Michael is simple, very simple,” Audigier says when asked about their working relationship. “For me to have the chance to meet these people is just something a bit weird and amazing. But it’s also normal what I do. I don’t go out; I’m a family man. I arrive here the first one, and I leave here the last one. I shut off the lights.”
The lack of acknowledgement by fashion editors and the apparel industry’s powers-that-be makes those who work with Audigier bristle. He is no imposter, they say: A native of Avignon, France, he moved to the U.S. as a teenager and paid his dues while designing for labels like American Eagle and Guess. With more than 500 employees, his company is no joke.
“Listen, it’s not a fluke. If it were, it would have lasted six months.” That’s Albert Dahan, founder of Stitch’s Jeans and the licensee for Christian Audigier women’s denim. Once a skeptic of the brand, Dahan declined to work with Audigier when he was fi rst approached during Ed Hardy’s early days. “Now, it’s growing tremendously, and everybody’s bitching all the way to the bank—including the department stores that thought they were too good for this kind of look. What this guy has built may look like a three-ring circus, but it’s a very methodical company that ships millions of dollars of goods every day.”
What keeps it on track, he insists, is Guez, who took the reigns of the company in October. Guez is no newcomer to the apparel scene—his former L.A.-based manufacturing company, Azteca Production Intl., supplied denim for retailers like Target, Kmart and American Eagle, where he originally met Audigier. “Christian is the rocket, and Hubert is the wings,” Dahan says. “He’s a businessman, he’s a Wall Street guy and he’s got balls of iron. Nobody crosses him.”
Compared with Audigier’s Beverly Hills digs, Guez’s spacious office at the company’s Culver City location five miles south is decidedly less flashy. Wearing a navy suit and blue-striped tie during a recent visit, Guez describes a bullish outlook for the company, even if he and Audigier don’t always agree on revenue estimates. (Audigier claims his brands will do a total of $600 million this year; Guez says not so fast.) “The numbers are very good,” Guez says. “You have people wondering, ‘When is this going to collapse?’ But they’re waiting for something that’s not happening.”
If some in the industry are waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s not just about the gloomy retail landscape. The story of Von Dutch Originals, once vaunted as the industry’s next Diesel, is a cautionary tale. Based on the work of hot-rod pin-striper Kenny Howard, who epitomized the custom car culture of Los Angeles in the Fifties, Von Dutch spawned the trucker hat craze, one of the decade’s defi nitive fads and a case study on the power of celebrity placement. Audigier, who began working for Von Dutch in 2002, was the charming face of the brand whenever Paris or Britney or Ashton dropped by for armfuls of free merchandise.
“The phenomenon of Von Dutch couldn’t have happened without Christian,” says American Rebel PR co-founder Chris Detert, Von Dutch’s former vice president of marketing and public relations. “Celebrities would show up, and he’d whirl them around the store at 300 miles an hour, make sure they were accommodated with food and drink. He’s such a character, and his accent was so endearing that they always remembered the experience.”
As the brand grew quickly, executives worried about overexposure. “We have to do our ventures right,” Von Dutch president Tonny Sorensen told WWD in 2003. “We don’t want to saturate the market.” But it did. And in a subsequent 2005 lawsuit, the company blamed Audigier. By then he had left, taking with him the star power he had cultivated, and the camera crew that was or wasn’t filming it all. Von Dutch accused Audigier and his nephew of ordering massive amounts of product without purchase orders and extorting millions of dollars from suppliers through kickbacks that would become the seed money for Audigier’s new business. Audigier countersued, claming Sorensen had withheld his rightful share of the brand’s gross profits.
The suits settled in 2007, though litigation continues elsewhere. Don Ed Hardy himself is among the plaintiffs. The San Francisco-based tattoo artist, whose work Audigier licenses, claims the company has altered his designs and produces multiple categories of licensed goods without his approval. “I made him, and he thinks it’s the reverse,” Audigier says. “But no one knew Don Ed Hardy before.” (Through his attorney, Hardy declined comment.)
At times, Audigier’s fearlessness is inspiring. Niels Juul, ceo of Hot Tuna USA and a former vice president at Von Dutch, recalls such a moment in Paris when the brand was just launching in Europe. The two were dining at Chez André when Naomi Campbell entered, entourage in tow. Audigier wasn’t about to miss the opportunity. “He looked at her and said, ‘Niels, I’m going to put a Von Dutch hat on her and take her picture,’ And I said, ‘Christian, for godsakes you can’t disturb her here. It’s Naomi Campbell.” Juul says the notorious supermodel’s name with a you’re-asking-for-it inflection.
“But he calls this kid with a scooter, who drives to the showroom and brings back five hats. Then he takes a big puff on a cigarette. Fffffffff. Walks over, and two seconds later you see him sitting with Naomi Campbell. With the hat on, picture taken. His energy is just contagious. And you get smitten by it.”
Some former colleagues at Ed Hardy are immune to the charm. “He wears that fake grin like everything is perfect, but when the doors are closed, you can be sure he’s ripping someone a new one,” says one ex-associate. “He also likes to surround himself with fresh young talent who are Yespeople. So when he asks for something insane in a meeting, like, ‘I want monkeys, make it happen.’ Everyone around him says, ‘I can do that! I can get monkeys! I have a connection with monkeys! It’s so Stepford Wives; I’ve never dealt with that kind of crazy in my life.’”
But Audigier insists there’s no shortage of morale at the company — or prospective talent dying to work there. “They’re just happy to be here. I don’t see people complaining, except when I’m firing them, you know?” he says with a smile. “But sometimes I take them back.”
In any event, the business is moving too fast to worry about hard feelings. As he gave a tour of his new headquarters, Carol Leffler, Audigier’s cheerful assistant, cornered him on a curved staircase for pressing, post-trade-show matters. Among them: “What are we doing for L.A. Fashion Week?”
“It’s happening?” Audigier asks.
Leffler replies that it is, if on a smaller scale this season.
Audigier pauses. With a smile of a mischievous kid he says, “The Kodak.”
“I’ll give them a call.”
On a rational level, the request was preposterous: Rent a 3,401-person Hollywood theatre, home to the Academy Awards, for a runway show during a fashion week that starts in 10 days.
Then again, Le Vif doesn’t operate on “rational.” That would hardly be worth filming.