Christian Audigier, who died of cancer last week at age 57, never took a low-key approach to his personal life or business affairs.
The French entrepreneur, who jolted the U.S. fashion industry with his showmanship as much as his trendy Ed Hardy T-shirts and Von Dutch trucker hats, was described by those who knew him as sweet as well as a show-off.
After working on denim lines for American Eagle and Bisou Bisou and crowning Von Dutch trucker hats on everyone from Justin Timberlake to Paris Hilton, he launched the tattoo-inspired brand Ed Hardy in 2004. Three years later, he staged a fashion show at The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles with the Crenshaw High School band playing marching tunes while donning Ed Hardy trucker hats. A year after that, following a public split with the organizers of the Project trade show in Las Vegas, Audigier launched his own expo, titled When I Move You Move, in Sin City.
In 2008, he reported that Ed Hardy’s annual sales had climbed to $250 million. When the momentum for his business began to wane, he sought buyers for his company that by that time encompassed 10 brands, including his namesake label and Ed Hardy, at a price tag of more than $700 million. In 2011, Iconix acquired the worldwide master license for the Ed Hardy brand for $55 million, plus a $7 million earn-out, following its 2009 purchase of half of the company that owned the Ed Hardy trademarks for $17 million.
“He gets credit for giving our industry a real kick in the ass when we needed it,” said Fred Levine, co-owner of the nine-door specialty chain M. Fredric. “With Von Dutch and Ed Hardy, he shook things up. He came with something out of the box, that was completely fresh, new and different. He created excitement. That is what we’re lacking today.”
Unabashed in his love of Hollywood and the rock-’n’-roll lifestyle, Audigier openly befriended celebrities. Michael Jackson proclaimed that Audigier was “The King of Fashion” during the designer’s 50th birthday party. On a coffee table-sized framed photograph of herself, Madonna inscribed: “Christian, without your clothes, I would be naked.”
Niels Juul, a former vice president at Von Dutch, once recounted to WWD about his ex-boss’ steely determination to disturb Naomi Campbell during her dinner with friends at Chez André in Paris and snap a photo of the mercurial model in a Von Dutch hat.
“I said, ‘Christian, for God sakes, you can’t disturb her here. It’s Naomi Campbell,’” Juul said. “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.”
On Friday, upon hearing the news of Audigier’s death, French rocker Johnny Hallyday mourned on Twitter: “RIP #ChristianAudigier my friend always. I will miss you terribly. I love you. Johnny.”
In addition to famous friends, Audigier earned the respect of fellow fashion designers. Michele and Marc Bohbot, founders of Bisou Bisou and XOXO, met him 22 years ago when they hired him to start the Bisou jeans line. “The biggest man,” Michele Bohbot said of Audigier, “whom I admired for his actions and his love for life. He was the true example of the most committed and generous father ever. So passionate about life and people. I will miss him dearly for all my life.”
Audigier’s passion for the apparel business is something American Apparel founder Dov Charney remembers about him. “He embodied the ‘can-do spirit’ that makes the Los Angeles apparel industry so vibrant and exciting. He was the kind of person that made things happen,” Charney said. “He was funny, charming and entertaining and one of the most talented apparel men the city has seen in decades.”
Indeed, Audigier had an incomparable zest for life. His catchphrase was “vif,” which is translated as quick, lively and vivacious from French. Danny Guez, who met Audigier some 20 years ago when he worked on a private label business for American Eagle with Guez’s father, Paul, recalled that Audigier threw out the word anytime he did something good.
In the last few years, Audigier bought a boat, traveled the world and enjoyed life with his family, including a daughter and two sons, Guez said.
“He was loved by a lot of people,” he said. “Even though Ed Hardy was considered cheesy or whatever, he wasn’t. Everybody respected him.”
To be sure, Audigier had his share of detractors, not to mention lawsuits. Over the years, he scuffled in court with Marc Jacobs, Von Dutch and Don Ed Hardy, the tattoo artist who created the artistic foundation for the company bearing his name.
“There were always issues around Christian,” Levine said. “He was very impulsive. He created it. But deep down inside he had a heart of gold.”
Levine noted that Audigier’s knack for business helped transport the graphic T-shirt from souvenir stores to boutiques. The arty but pricey tops also coincided with the rise of the premium denim industry. Levine estimated the number of Audigier-made items that he sold in his shops ran “in the thousands.”
“I don’t think those blemishes compare to all the positive elements that [Audigier] gave to the whole industry,” he said. “He was an amazing marketer. He loved Hollywood. He loved the celebs, Southern California, motorcycle riding. He was the right person to put a spark in the industry.”