For a worldly creative director of a budding fashion brand, Joyce Azria thinks of chickens and sharks a lot.
This story first appeared in the April 30, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Lest anyone assumes that the critters are the latest prints for a flirty dress or the charms on a must-have accessory from BCBGeneration, the latest addition to her father Max Azria’s clothing empire, they are actually the things that help Azria be herself and understand her young customers.
With the chicken, it’s part of her second job after she finishes at Generation: cooking dinner for her husband, jewelry designer Ilan Trojanowski, and three young sons. Served with potatoes, “it’s a people-pleaser,” said Azria, who also bakes her own bread every week and regularly whips up feasts for Friday Shabbat dinners.
The sharks are the entrepreneurs from the reality TV show “Shark Tank,” to whom she yells unsolicited advice through the screen.
“I love entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “It reminds me of my dad. I love it. I love giving my own thoughts and what I would have done.”
Being able to juggle different interests in her personal and professional life while keeping an eye on the newest trends has allowed Azria to cultivate Generation into a lifestyle brand for Millennials, the influential, multifaceted demographic that runs from 14-year-old high school freshmen to 33-year-old parents of young kids.
Together with Annette Schatz, executive vice president and general manager of Generation, and Bernd Kroeber, vice president of design, Azria aims to increase year-over-year sales by 25 to 35 percent over the next three years. The most recent estimates have pegged the Generation business at more than $100 million, although executives would not reveal the volume.
But the determination to hit a sales goal isn’t the sole requirement for being a successful creative director.
“I definitely set the tone,” Azria said.
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It’s no surprise, then, that her open, positive and laugh-out-loud personality pervades Generation. In a black-and-white video set to an upbeat French song by Yelle, she makes several wardrobe changes — leather leggings, coquettish minidress, cutoff jean shorts and tuxedo blazer — as she teeters around a tot’s toys parked haphazardly in front of a full-length mirror. On Instagram, she goes hashtag-happy with photos of her favorite peanut snack (#yum) or her beloved Hermès handbag (#bag #love #happy) to some 1,500 followers. In past interviews, she cited her mom, former dancer Kiki Azria, and Miss Piggy as style influences.
Decorating her office with scented candles and a heart-shaped sand sculpture made by a loyal employee for her birthday, she cheers when recent hires light candles at their desks because “it means they feel at home.” A lover of pasta, French fries and pizza, she’s also only half-kidding when she suggests printing a T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan despised by the fashion flock: “I do carbs.”
“Her customers look up to her style and aspire to live her lifestyle,” said Vince Camuto, chief executive officer of Camuto Group, who has watched Azria grow up and has been producing footwear for Generation.
Added Annemarie Jazic, director of contemporary sportswear at Dillard’s, which has carried Generation since the line’s inception: “Joyce’s personality is absolutely one of her many virtues.”
Jazic, a third-generation employee in her family’s Little Rock, Ark.-based department store business, has a good perspective on Azria’s position in the fashion industry.
“Growing up in Los Angeles and being part of the Azria family, Joyce has always been exposed to the elite in fashion tastemakers, from designers and magazine editors to movie stars and stylists,” Jazic said. “Joyce has a great eye for what can be commercial, something I think she learned from her father, Max, who has always had a knack for being able to capitalize on the right fashion trends.”
That je ne sais quoi benefits Generation.
“There’s a sensibility that can’t be replicated or replaced per se,” said Schatz.
Often, Schatz, Azria and other Generation employees describe that sensibility simply as “so Gen.” Schatz sits in a particular position to observe Azria at Generation, which employs about 400 people nationwide. She was part of the team that brainstormed on white boards and worked with think tanks to identify the Generation customer before the brand was launched in 2008. She worked at Generation before and after Azria was appointed creative director — and essentially the face and spirit of the brand — in June 2009. For Millennials who value authenticity, sniffing out anyone who isn’t being real, Azria is just like them, in terms of age and ethos.
“She’s authentic,” Schatz said. “She’s real.”
At 32, Azria is at the older end of the Millennial demographic, and like a big sister to her Generation customers.
Petite, graceful and poised as a result of years of dancing ballet, the Paris-born Azria resembles a softer version of the French actress Clémence Poésy. She also has the allure of a celebrity. Counting Nicole Richie and Zooey Deschanel as friends, she grew up in a creative world where she was encouraged to express herself freely. At age nine, a year after BCBG was founded, “I gave my dad an opinion on everything,” Azria said.
In high school, she worked in BCBG’s Southern California stores on Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard during summer vacations. At one point, she cried when a customer criticized a top. After an injury stopped her ballet training at 16, she opted to be homeschooled during her senior year of high school, working at BCBG in the afternoons. Her dad also suggested that she skip college, even though she wanted to go “to be a normal girl, doing normal things,” she said.
“He said that college is always going to be there but opportunities might not,” she recalled. “He’s like, ‘Here we are. The door is open. I have this huge business. I need you.’”
Two years before she was legally allowed to sip her first alcoholic cocktail, she launched and served as design director of BCBG Max Azria Swim.
“When I first met her over a decade ago, I was amazed at what she was accomplishing as the head designer for BCBG Swim at such a young age,” Jazic said. “She was running the entire team and was only in her early 20s.”
Simultaneously, Joyce Azria was offering support to her father.
“He also needed me to emotionally support the growth of the business,” she said. “You have your kids inside, you feel like you’re at home. When your kids are at work, you feel like you’re at home. I feel like I do that for my dad. He feels he’s at home.”
After two years supervising the swim business, Azria ventured outside of her family’s domain to open a women’s fashion company, Joyaan, with then-husband Bob Nassir, in 2004. Joyaan landed in 300 doors, including Henri Bendel, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman. At the peak of the premium denim boom in 2005, Azria introduced jeans adorned with half-carat diamond buttons under the Aristocrat Denim label as part of Joyaan. In 2007, she closed Joyaan and Aristocrat, and took a two-year break from fashion to take care of her first son, Noah.
In the meantime, Max Azria, ceo of BCBG Max Azria Group, was in the process of merging BCBG Girls and To The Max into a new brand called BCBGeneration. A young contemporary prelude to the flagship label, Generation arrived in stores with apparel and shoes in fall 2008. He was also scheming to lure the eldest of his five daughters back to the company.
“He told me he wanted advice on the line,” Joyce Azria relayed of her visit to the company’s headquarters in Vernon, Calif., in June 2009. “I came in to see it, and that’s when he announced to people that I would become the creative director.”
Little did she know that another, more senior, creative director had been hired to start a week after she did. She served as an apprentice, organizing color cards and handling menial tasks. Assisting the other creative director actually gave her time to re-adjust to the family business.
“It had been a while since I had not worked for my parents,” Azria said. After a month, the other creative director left and Azria took control of her own fashion fiefdom in the Azria empire. In the five years since, she’s extended the Generation brand into jewelry, denim, swim, outerwear, hats, scarves, intimates and cold-weather accessories, either produced by a licensee or in-house. She also gave birth to two more sons along the way, Yosef, now 2, and Levi, 1. In a way, the brand has grown up with her.
“I would really use those words for me: growing up,” she said. “You get to separate yourself from the product and be more objective and train your eye to see what your customer wants and not always put in your taste. You know the brand DNA and you know what’s going to be good for the business. But at the same time, you have a level of separation from the product so you don’t get emotionally attached as much to each piece coming out of the design room.”
Joyce Azria is the only one of Max’s six children currently working in the family business. Her brother, Michael, is a film and television producer. One sister, Marine, opened her own gifting company, called The Piece Collective, with a shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach, after working as a stylist at Generation. Her three younger half-sisters, born to her stepmother, Lubov, are pursuing varied interests, ranging from politics and the United Nations to anime and singing.
When Azria comes to the office in the morning, she hears the same greeting from Max: “You are the future! You are the future!”
Funny thing is, she said, her father doesn’t clarify whether he intends for her to be the future owner of the company or future creative director of another division. He has raised the idea of her taking over the group on several occasions. She is open to the prospect.
“It would be a tremendous honor; it would be a tremendous responsibility, and I think I could do it justice if I had to,” she said. Turning to a fashion analogy, she said, “It feels like the shoes might be big, but they’ll fit. Every shoe fits when a girl likes them.”
As for her sons, Noah, 7, once asked his grandfather how much his company’s payroll was. When he heard the number, he was floored. “Mom, if he’s paying millions, it means he’s a millionaire!” the boy later told her.
Another time, Azria took Noah to the roof of her office building. In a scene simulated from his favorite cartoon, “The Lion King,” she told him, “You see where the sun is shining? You see all these buildings? One day, they will all be yours.”
“I wish he’s interested in the business,” Azria said of her eldest. “I wish we can continue to hold the business as a family business for generation to generation.”
Meanwhile, at BCBG, Azria still has much to learn from her parents. While her father is the big thinker with, in her words, “an insane intuition,” her stepmother, the group’s chief creative officer, teaches her to stick to pragmatic details like overseeing fittings along with her designers. “You’re walking into the dressing room with your customer, in essence, when you’re in a fitting,” she learned from Lubov Azria last year. “What [Lubov’s] saying to me is: “Touch your customer, get back into it from the product, because at the end of the day, it’s all about the product. That’s what people love your brand for.’”
Regarding Max and Lubov Azria’s contrasting approaches to the business, Joyce said, “I don’t think you can have one without the other.”
The muses for Generation also come from different fields. Pop star Rihanna carries the brand’s makeup pouch and wears its jeans and denim rompers around town. At the same time, Azria cites Arianna Huffington, cofounder of The Huffington Post, as an inspiration to her customer.
“As much as she loves fashion and as much as she’s true to her beauty and all of that, she’s a girl with a brain and she’s a girl with a sense of humor,” Azria said of the Gen girl. “She also loves the iconic people who set her in the way of her dreams, set her in the way of her goals. I call her a ‘goal digger.’ She’s somebody who’s looking to create her future.”
As for her own future, she said she would like to delve into high-end fashion one day. “I aspire to something a little more pricy in terms of product, so hopefully I could do that in my career,” she said.
Don’t count on Azria taking her idea to “Shark Tank,” however. “No, I’d talk to my dad,” she said.
But for the time being, Azria is mindful of the attributes of Generation’s brand DNA: feminine, spirited, energetic, positive, blessed, appreciative, humble, charitable. She adds that the Gen girl is a “Daddy’s girl,” forgetting for just a moment that two likenesses of her father — one poster-size and one a doll-size version — are propped behind her desk so when she sits down, his smiling mug peers over each shoulder. “I’m a daddy’s girl. Obviously!”
RECIPE: JOYCE AZRIA’S “SO GEN” BREAD
For the bread:
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups bread flour
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
For the topping:
Fresh garlic, minced
Special equipment: Bread machine
For the bread: Put all of the ingredients into a bread maker in the order recommended by the manufacturer (Azria prefers Oster). Program the machine for basic white bread; press Start.
For the topping: Combine the ingredients to taste. Brush over the baked bread. Bake in 350° F oven until golden brown.