The Sun King

He’s responsible for the Von Dutch fad and the Ed Hardy craze. How long can fashion designer Christian Audigier reign?
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The fashion designer Christian Audigier is watching videos of himself on a five-foot-wide plasma screen. It’s an evening habit. Four friends from France are gathered in his dimly lit Hancock Park living room. As jumbled, handheld footage plays, Audigier’s girlfriend, Ira Barbieri, takes a seat on a French provincial chair re-covered in purple velvet. She lights a cigarette with a lighter attached to a ten-inch gazelle horn, one of many animal artifacts in the seven-bedroom house. Their three young children tumble through the room. Even when they are all on the gray, U-shaped couch with the others, there’s space to spare. Audigier, who commands any room he is in, sits in the middle, in a T-shirt and jeans, his bare feet splayed like a dancer’s. Behind him, his business logo is affixed to a window overlooking the backyard: CHRISTIAN AUDIGIER/LOS ANGELES/ESTABLISHED 1958. His voice is high and quiet, but it gets everyone’s attention when he asks for silence. “Here it is,” he says in French. On the screen, images show Audigier five years ago. He is in an elevator, agitated. “Look at that,” he narrates from the couch. “I’m white with rage. I was in such a terrible state.”

Actually, on the screen and in life, Audigier is deeply bronzed, thanks to a tanning bed, and has a Y-shaped physique, built by daily workouts. His thick salt-and-pepper hair is whorled like a hurricane in an aerial shot. He has perfect bleached teeth, a strong cleft chin, and cat-like lines on his nose that point to his brown eyes. Audigier has the sort of handsomeness that, if you squint, also makes him look thuggish. A new video begins. Now he is in an office on the phone. “I am leaving!” he says in accented English. Audigier turns to his friends in the living room and says with a smile, “I didn’t know the word for ‘quit.’ ” That is what he had done in the summer of 2004. More than $1 million a year in salary and commissions as vice president and head designer of Von Dutch Originals didn’t seem worth the headaches the owners were giving him. The clothing line was built around the legacy of Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard, the late Southern California bohemian who had elevated car pinstriping to a fine art and become an icon of the auto-customizing culture. Before Audigier was hired in 2002, the Von Dutch label had barely registered in the crowded T-shirt market. In less than a year he transformed it into a phenomenon on par with other iconic Southern California style exports, like Juicy Couture and Vans. He added color and garish logos to Von Dutch trucker caps, turning the company’s novelty idea—the hats are a staple of long haulers—into a popular accessory for cosmopolitan clubbing. They weren’t anything Von Dutch himself ever wore, but they were a fitting accoutrement for the white-trash aesthetic that was taking hold in pop culture, along with distressed jeans and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

To publicize his creations, Audigier chased down Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and placed the caps on their heads. Soon Von Dutch outpaced thousands of brands vying for real estate on pop star bodies and for dollars from people who ape celebrity style. Along the way, Audigier became known himself, posing in photos with celebrities he showered with freebies. He may not have become a rock star—his original goal in life—but he was dressing them and basking in fame by association, all the while getting rich. A year into the job, though, he was feeling stifled by the company’s owners, who felt he was showboating.

Audigier gets up, and the group follows him into the dining room, passing the kitchen, where a framed three-foot picture of Madonna in riding gear hangs on the wall. Audigier sits at the head of a long, rough-hewn wooden table. Staffers bring out plates of a green bean appetizer and put them on feather place mats. The chef appears, in whites, to say, “Bon appétit.” Audigier picks up his story, recounting the days after he had resigned. “I waited for my phone to ring,” he says. “I thought all the big labels would call me because of the phenomenon that I’d created. But no one called.” Four days passed. Five days. On the sixth day he awoke with his arms crossed rigidly across his chest. “I went to the bathroom and took a vial of medicine for heartburn. It only burned me more. I really couldn’t open my arms. I woke up Ira, who took me to the emergency room. They put me in a room to do some tests. They shouted, ‘Code Blue!’ I was freaked out because I had heard that term in movies. It means you’re about to die.” He’d suffered a heart attack.

Cameras weren’t permitted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, so Thierry Guetta, one of the videographers who have documented the designer’s activities almost daily since 2000, concealed one in a bag. Footage from the hospital becomes the after-dinner entertainment. “Ça va, le Vif?” Guetta says in the video clip, calling Audigier by his nickname, which means “the quick one.” Audigier, his tan contrasting with the white sheets and his hospital gown, sits up in bed. The heart attack hasn’t sapped his energy. He babbles excitedly about his plan for a fashion rebound. The line will be called ODG, which, when said in French, approximates the pronunciation of his name: “O-duh-ZHAY.”

Like many Audigier undertakings, though, this one did not turn out the way he had planned. Instructed by doctors to take it easy, he dropped ODG. He quit smoking for three months and went shopping for clothes to replace his Von Dutch gear. “I am a—how do you say?—a shopping alcoholic.” At Ku Ambiance, a shop just off Melrose, he bought a T-shirt with a tiger print on it. It was a souvenir from an art show by Don Ed Hardy, one of the world’s most famous tattoo artists. Audigier wore it that evening to Koi, the West Hollywood celebrity hangout that was also his canteen. The manager inquired whether the tiger shirt was part of a new clothing line. “Four people asked me if this was my new brand,” says Audigier. “So I thought, I’ll go back to that store because something’s happening here. It was warm out. Everyone was in short sleeves. The whole tattoo thing was taking off.” A week after buying the T-shirt, he signed a license with Don Ed Hardy to use almost 2,000 of his tattoo designs.

In fashion it’s rare to create a hit as big as Von Dutch. To repeat that success with a new venture is harder still. Audigier, however, introduced a style signature that became immediately recognizable: a tattoo print overlaid with metallic foil, lettering, and rhinestones. Using the shortened label name Ed Hardy, which he launched in fall 2004, he sold even more T-shirts and trucker caps than he had at Von Dutch. Every year since then, Audigier has added new labels, all built around loud T-shirts. Progressing from dressing personalities to being in business with them, he is discussing possible deals with Michael Jackson and Madonna. Meanwhile, Von Dutch has foundered, discounting its trucker caps from $95 to $17. Audigier gloats. “All my life I have wanted to come to America and be the king of fashion,” he says, pouring digestifs from a $2,700 bottle of cognac into etched crystal glasses. “I am the king of marketing. I am the king of licensing,” he likes to say. “When I go somewhere, anywhere in the world, people know Christian Audigier is there. And if Ralph Lauren walked in no one would know him. Or Marc Jacobs.” Even critics of his gaudy creations admit that Audigier, who grew up poor in the south of France, never mastered English, and has been in trouble with the law, has joined the fashion pantheon—sitting not in Calvin Klein’s corner but instead alongside Pierre Cardin, who licensed his name into ridicule.

Though the fashion empire he began in 2004 looks solid, so did the ones he had built in Bali and in France, both of which crumbled under scandalous circumstances. Now 50 years old, he believes that this time will be different. Others aren’t so sure. Ed Hardy clothing, which has started showing up at discount outlets, can’t stay of-the-moment forever. “He’s probably the worst designer to have the most luck,” says Philippe Naouri, an acquaintance from France who started Antik Denim in L.A. Will the luck run out? The younger clientele Audigier is courting can be merciless in its rejection of yesterday’s trends. On top of that, the economic downturn has led customers to view a $100 T-shirt less as a must-have and more like a “What was I thinking?”

 

Audigier's logo is everywhere
Audigier’s logo is everywhere

Photograph by Marla Rutherford

Christian Audigier doesn’t attend fabric fairs to choose textiles. He is not known for sketching ideas, or making “mood boards” of inspirational images, or fitting clothing on models. He has graduated from all that. What he does is less technical and harder to describe. He imbues a $6 T-shirt with $98 worth of desire.

He does it through marketing, with an approach that is almost always mixed. He says he “directs the media message” about himself, yet he must be shushed by staff when trashing a rival or bragging about deals yet to be signed. He believes magazines are “in the toilet,” but he has published vanity publications. (From an “exclusive interview” with him in issue 2 of his own Bigger than Life: “Q: What do you like about watches? A: They are simply the best way to find out what time it exactly is.”) He hires people minutes after meeting them and makes instant decisions on important matters, yet he never seems to be in a hurry.

The fashion world is similarly conflicted in its response to him. Celebrities love the look-at-me Ed Hardy gear, while the style cognoscenti abhor it. The New York Times, despite its increased coverage of L.A. fashion, didn’t deign to mention Audigier’s name until this year, and that was in a pan of Ed Hardy fragrances on a blog. His enemies are as fervent as his friends. Johnny Tattoo, an East Coast company, sued him for appropriating tattoo images; the lawsuit was settled out of court. Von Dutch sued Audigier, accusing him of running a $3 million kickback scheme with vendors. Audigier countersued for $2.5 million in unpaid commissions; both suits were settled out of court. “He’s the king of ripping people off,” says Michael Cassel, who hired Audigier at Von Dutch and says the designer took credit for his ideas. Don Ed Hardy himself has called Audigier “ground zero of everything that’s wrong with contemporary civilization.”

The niche that Audigier’s clothing falls into is a paradox as well. Ed Hardy, Christian Audigier (more upscale), Crystal Rock (for girls and young women), Paco Chicano (Latino oriented), Smet (in a collaboration with Johnny Hallyday, France’s answer to Elvis), C-Bar-A (bohemian influenced), Vif Speed Shop (vintage car culture), and Rock Fabulous (with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics) are categorized as “premium contemporary.” Their prices are close to the cost of some designer apparel, even though the goods are mass manufactured. A head-to-toe look put together from Audigier’s brands could cost $1,000 but would get you turned away from Foxtail, the West Hollywood nightclub. Several other upscale L.A. clubs also have dress codes barring the labels. “It’s too bridge-and-tunnel,” one promoter says. Audigier himself seems allergic to the lines that bear his name. He wears suits or Ralph Lauren jeans and monochromatic leather jackets. “Christian has way too much taste to ever wear the clothing he makes,” says a former member of his entourage who has watched the designer put on Ed Hardy gear for photographs and then change out of it. Says Cassel, “At Von Dutch he told me we shouldn’t make the clothing too classic looking because Americans like tacky stuff.”

Walk into any mall and you will see one key to Audigier’s success. Women burst out of jeans; men swim in oversize T-shirts. Vogue-reading fashionistas are not Audigier’s clientele. He targets the hoi polloi. In a glutted fashion world, people find safety in styles that a celebrity has worn. Enticing stars to wear his clothing is the main thrust of Audigier’s promotions. Making himself a star is an even bigger goal.

Just after Valentine’s Day in a Caesars Palace ballroom in Las Vegas, Audigier’s marketing prowess is on full display. A runway is lined with wooden fences and life-size metal saguaros. Surrounding the catwalk are dark leather couches draped with Native American blankets. Stripper poles bookend the walkway. The lights dim, and hip-hop music grows louder. Male and female models form a line backstage, dressed in miniskirts, hoodies, jeans, suits, shoes, and sunglasses. Almost everything shouts. Audigier stands at a monitor. “Color is my signature,” he says. “Color, images, and bling.” Dancers file out, writhing around the poles. The models follow. For most designers, this is a nerve-racking moment. Their creations are exposed for the first time to the jaded eyes of buyers and press. Anything can go wrong: A model might trip. The DJ might miscue the music. A dresser could pair the wrong jacket and blouse. Audigier is calm. There’s no hint of worry on his face, lit by a member of his attendant camera crew. After a few minutes he ignores the show and flips open his cell phone. Finally he returns his gaze to the monitor, points to the screen, and says, “See? I do everything that a couturier does. See? Shoes, handbags, everything.”

The runway presentations are part of a trade show he created last year to run concurrently with Las Vegas’s larger, more-established sportswear conventions. He calls the event “When I Move You Move,” from the chorus of a 2003 Ludacris song. Encircling the stage are more than 100 booths. Over three days, store buyers from around the world visit the booths, inspect sample merchandise, and place wholesale orders. Every product is licensed by Audigier Brand Management. In the Ed Hardy category alone, separate licensees run booths for woven shirts, lingerie, watches, denim, kids, bags, jewelry, dresses, polo shirts, neckwear, loungewear, leather, fragrances, and Smart cars. A trade show centered on a single parent company? “Ça n’existait pas!” Audigier says. It didn’t exist before. To buy a license, a company pays about a half million dollars, submits its designs for approval, and gives close to 10 percent of its gross sales to Audigier. The company took in $265 million this way last year, most of it from the Ed Hardy brand.

“He has made a lot of people millionaires,” says Richard Luna, who works for the California Bag, which owns the Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier purse licenses. Luna’s booth did more business on the first day of the trade show than it did on any other day in the company’s history. He attributes that to Audigier’s decision to open 24 hours before the other trade shows in Las Vegas, luring store buyers eager to start spending. They bought thousands of canvas and leather handbags with an embroidered tattoo print that includes a skull, a dagger through a heart, roses, and the words LOVE KILLS SLOWLY. “It’s the number one tattoo image,” Luna says. “No matter what product it’s on.”

Luna leaves his booth when a commotion breaks out. Opposite the runway, Audigier, in a cowboy hat, jeans, and a red scarf, is mounting a mechanical bull. Licensees, buyers, and off-duty models go wild when the leather stump cranks to life. The designer hunkers down and rides out the spins and jerks, his left hand high in the air and an openmouthed smile on his face. Finally the bull tosses him on the inflated floor of the arena. It is a classic Audigier moment. “If he wasn’t out there moving and shaking,” Luna says, “we wouldn’t be getting rich.”

 

*****

Fascinated with '50s Americana, Audigier was photographed at 25 in a white T-shirt and Brand-esque leather jacket in Place de l'Horloge, in Avignon
Fascinated with ’50s Americana, Audigier was photographed at 25 in a white T-shirt and Brand-esque leather jacket in Place de l’Horloge, in Avignon

Photograph courtesy Christian Audigier

Audigier was born in Gap, a small town in southeastern France. His parents were bakers. His father left the family for his mistress when Christian was four. His mother took her three children to government-subsidized housing on the outskirts of Avignon. She got a job in a pharmacy. It was Provence, but not Peter Mayle’s. Being a child of divorce in a predominantly Catholic nation stigmatized Christian. He was forced to sit at the back of his grade-school classroom with Gypsies. His favorite form of escape was to cut up magazines and catalogs, adding “color and extravagance” to the models’ outfits.

As a teenager he applied his talent for decoupage on a real model—himself. “I created an image for myself,” he says. “If you wanted a rock star look, you had to buy American vintage. I wore bowling shirts, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy boots.” He had plenty to choose from. France was taking in bales of secondhand American jeans, military garb, and out-of-style attire. “Marseilles and Avignon had important vintage clothing stores in the ’70s,” says Philippe Naouri, who had seen Audigier in the shops. “Everyone wanted to look like an American. It represented a dream and became a culture for us.”

Inspired by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Johnny Hallyday, Audigier started dressing “more for night than day.” He restyled his friends, too, giving them flashy makeovers and a place to show themselves off: dances that he organized (and charged admission to) at a church recreation room. “Christian wanted to be a rock star, but he was tone-deaf and couldn’t play guitar,” says Gilles Lhote, a longtime Parisian friend who oversees Audigier’s European press. Bored in class and compelled to help his mother financially, he quit school when he was 14 and got a job at a clothing store. “I started with the vacuum cleaner,” he says. He worked his way up to salesman and then moved to other boutiques. At a shop called Jean Machine, he oriented the merchandise to the look of the American West. A spare, mythic world of macho outsiders, it would become his lifelong touchstone. “I was already a marketer by then, going out every night with a band of friends,” he says. Jean Machine sold so much of a French brand called Mac Keen that the label’s owners made a trip to Avignon to see how Audigier did it. Creative styling, window displays, and off-hours promotion were some of his ways. In a word: magnetism. “Fashion is about energy,” he says. Mac Keen’s owner offered Audigier a job. A 15-year-old fashion designer: Ça n’existait pas.

Using visual references of American vintage, he thought up ideas for new garments or embellishments. “I can’t sew, but I can put something together on a sewing machine, you understand?” he says. “I would bring two vintage pieces, cut them up, and make one.” He also designed hang tags and other packaging to go with the clothing. Weekdays, he commuted three hours round-trip by train from Avignon to Mac Keen’s Marseilles office. He started earning more money than his mother.

In France, denim entered the market as fashion, not work wear. Jeans were held in higher regard and cost more. That is a reason why Europe, and particularly Italy and southern France, emerged as the innovator of stylish denim variations. The United States had its share of trendy jean brands, but Seventh Avenue wasn’t as gaga for vintage details. “There were 14-year-old boys whose lives revolved around old Levi’s,” says Naouri. “That’s not something you’d find in the States.” In 1974, Mac Keen went on the road to sell its tricked-out denim to foreign stores intrigued by the trend. Audigier, who had to get a note from his mother to leave the country, observed two business strategies abroad that would make him rich. He noticed one during a visit to Nudie’s Western Tailor, the San Fernando Valley designer to country and western stars. “He invented celebrity wear,” Audigier says in his autobiography Le Vif, to be published this year in France. Nudie, a Russian-born designer, not only had the counterintuitive idea of blinging out cowboy gear but made sure that photos of his clients, plastered all over his boutique, included himself. “That,” Audigier says, “made him a star.” The other strategy did not occur to him in a eureka moment. It sank in as Audigier and the Mac Keen group visited New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. He saw how many millions of customers a company could reach with licenses.

Soon after Audigier returned to France, Elio Fiorucci, whose sportswear brand was injecting crayon colors and a sexy playfulness into fashion, asked him to come to Milan for a meeting. “I made samples to bring them,” Audigier recounts. “A jean in black denim. That didn’t exist at the time.” Actually, it did. Lee had been doing them since the 1950s. “Roller skates were a big trend, so I did wing accessories that attached to the ankle. I did a shirt in orange-and-red plaid with a T-shirt attached underneath.” He even bought some Fiorucci garments so he could cut up the hang tags and restyle them. “Elio freaked out. They were in the middle of designing a collection, and here were two pieces that nailed it.” Fiorucci offered him a freelance contract for 40 million lire a year (about $260,000). Audigier was 16 years old.

He opened an office in downtown Avignon for freelance clothing and packaging design, with Mac Keen and Fiorucci as his first clients. Over the next two decades, Top Sider, and later Christian Audigier and His Gang, as the company was called, worked for some 100 labels worldwide, including Diesel, Levi’s, and Lee. “He was very energetic, showing up to every party,” says a colleague from the 1980s. “He was a self-promoter, always bragging and taking credit for things he didn’t deserve to. Little did we know that in fashion, promotion would become more important than the product.”

To call Audigier French is not fact so much as understatement. Cigarettes, espresso, three-course lunches. His track record with women: Think Pepé Le Pew. In 1990, at the age of 32, he married a French fashion model three months into their acquaintance. After an argument on their Hawaiian honeymoon, he ditched her, flew to L.A., checked into the Chateau Marmont, and invited another model to Yamashiro for dinner. “She said, ‘Take me back to the hotel,’ ” Audigier recalls. Soon she was pregnant with his first child.

France’s infamous bureaucracy was anathema to le Vif’s lightning speed. He let administrative chores slide, and accounting got overlooked. The government came knocking for back taxes in the early 1990s—a time when “la Crise” in the French economy was withering business. In a split-second decision, Audigier gave up his firm. He dropped off the keys to his headquarters and his house with officials and flew to Bali.

His ex-girlfriend had moved there with their daughter, Crystal, and he wanted custody. He won it and stayed on to freelance for a line of children’s clothing. But he missed being the boss. “Being on time, making reports—I was not made for that,” Audigier says. So he opened two clothing stores, a restaurant, and a bar on the island, paying bribes whenever he needed a permit or an official signature. As his fortune grew, so did his value as a source of payoffs. Between his parties and thriving enterprises, he was once again a VIP. After a few years, though, he grew restless. He turned over the management of his businesses to a friend and moved to Los Angeles.

 

*****

Audigier spoke little English, but L.A. didn’t feel foreign. The Marciano brothers, from Marseilles, were on fire with Guess. The Bohbots, from Morocco and Paris, launched Bisou-Bisou. The Dahans, from Paris, were laying the groundwork for Stitch’s and Joe’s Jeans. Two Franco-Tunisian families, the Azrias and the Guezes, were running cheap-chic enterprises, producing, among other lines, BCBG and American Eagle Outfitters. All but Audigier were Sephardic Jews. Many were rough-and-tumble businessmen, big spenders, known for ostentation. They possessed the French savoir faire with clothing, even cheap stuff. Also, they were multilingual world travelers, giving them an understanding of a global market. Some had gone from success to failure and back more than once. Today apparel made by these families is sold in every major retail strip in the United States. Their brands are not just moneymakers; they also have changed fashion itself. Guess’s suggestive ad campaigns have run for eight consecutive pages in magazines, making stars of Anna Nicole Smith and Claudia Schiffer. Max Azria’s BCBG has gone from a down-market brand to a respected artistic label; Azria puts on more shows during New York fashion week than any other designer. The Guez family, after introducing Sassoon Jeans in the 1970s, evolved the modern incarnation of premium denim, launching everything from William Rast to Taverniti So to Jessica Simpson Jeans.

Audigier had worked with several from these clans back in France. What better place to reconnect than L.A.? The sybaritic climate and terrain matched that of the Mediterranean. It didn’t feel as cramped and competitive as New York. There were celebrities on top of that. Soon Audigier had freelance gigs, a bachelor pad decorated à la cowboy, even a Playboy centerfold for a girlfriend. “I met Anna Nicole Smith at a party for Gerard Guez,” he says. “She was dressed up like Marilyn Monroe to wish him a happy birthday. She was pretty back then. I flirted with her, using my four words of Frenglish.” They dated for six months. He was starting to become a bit of a star himself. “He was the life of the party,” says Michele Bohbot, the Bisou-Bisou designer who hired Audigier to produce bar mitzvahs for her children. “He quickly became the boss of this band of artists, French guys who did window display around town.” In 1996, he married a Brazilian model in Las Vegas who, according to his autobiography, “cast a sexual spell” on him.

Some of Audigier’s first efforts went bust. “He tried a line called Crystal Jeans, named after his daughter,” says Bohbot. “Nobody would buy his jeans. So my husband hired him to expand our denim business. He designed one collection. It didn’t sell.” Audigier remembers it differently: He folded Crystal Jeans because of partner problems, and he left Bisou-Bisou because of differences with the Bohbots. After two years of marriage, his wife left him. He returned to Bali. “I was a prince in Avignon, less than nothing in L.A., and a lord in Bali,” he writes in Le Vif. Not for long.

There are two versions of the story of Audigier’s drug bust and imprisonment in Bali. Here’s the one he told me: “I was invited to a spaghetti party. I get there, sit down, take one bite, and all of a sudden the place was raided.” Marijuana was the only contraband on the premises, he says, and he hadn’t partaken in it. He and more than a dozen other Frenchmen were incarcerated for three and a half months. He coughed up a $25,000 bribe to get out. “I was released thanks to the corruption of the country.”

The version in the uncorrected proofs of his autobiography is juicier, although perhaps more romanticized: He had smoked ten marijuana-laced cigarettes and, with an Italian date, taken ecstasy pills en route to the party. He danced; he passed out. When a SWAT team in camouflage burst in with guns pulled, everyone emptied their pockets. “In two seconds, the floor is strewn with multicolored pills and sachets of acid, ecstasy, mushrooms, marijuana, coke.…” Audigier was beaten and subjected to a body-cavity search, which included being induced to vomit. The others, except for one, identified him as having organized the party and providing the drugs. Forced to sign their “confession,” he was taken to Kerobakan, a prison so notorious that it was a tourist destination. He was thrown into a cell. Terrorized by the sounds of men being raped, he had a nightmare that he was murdering people. The only suspect who hadn’t accused him was transferred to a hospital, leaving Audigier alone in his cell. He was furious with himself. There was no vif solution here. After all, signs in the airport had warned DRUGS=DEATH PENALTY.

His morale improved when he learned that Crystal, eight years old by then, was safe in the care of neighbors. Then someone gave him a book. Armed with an English dictionary, Audigier trekked through The Rise and Rise of David Geffen. He was inspired by the biography of a fellow dreamer who’d grown up poor. “The book saved my life,” he writes. Friends sneaked him cash, which he used as bribes for pot, better food, and a larger cell. He decorated it. “The walls are blue, the color of summer, the sky, the sea, of love and hope…of the big escape,” he continues. “The floor is white, like houses in the south of France.… Outside, a shower that Philippe Starck wouldn’t be ashamed of.” Before long he was hosting barbecues. On his wall he tacked up a Johnny Hallyday 45 record, a postcard of the Hollywood sign, and having no model of his own, a picture of Gisele Bündchen. Getting out would cost $50,000. He sold his businesses to pay it.

“Prison awakened my spirit,” he says. He had become a pothead in Bali, smoking joints all day, hitting on girls as they arrived on vacation. “I was not doing what I was meant for in life,” he says. “I decided when I get out I’m going back to Los Angeles. I’m going to build my career, and I’ll be the best in the world.”

 

*****

About three miles from the garden where Audigier met Anna Nicole Smith stands a two-story 1936 brick building in Beverly Hills. With trees peeking out above the terrace, a trimmed hedge, and stone planters flanking a carved door, it is a place where Ralph Lauren, Audigier’s idol, would feel at home. In January it became the office of Audigier Brand Management. Returning from an appearance at a Grammy gift suite in early February, Audigier sweeps into the lobby, where a fireplace, a stuffed white peacock, and a white motorcycle surround his logo, which is painted on the floor: his initials topped by a seven-point crown. In a navy blazer, a bunny-print tie, jeans, and suede desert boots, he walks up a curved staircase, telling members of his staff that he feels “very better” after dental surgery. He sits at the head of a dining room table where most days he eats a midday meal—china plates, crystal stemware—prepared by his kitchen staff. Pain in his jaw, for which he has been popping Tylenol, doesn’t slow his rapid-fire French. He speaks with a Southern twang (chose, which means “thing,” is “SHAW-zah” instead of the Parisian “shows”). A waiter arrives with a tureen of soup and a platter of chicken breasts. As usual, Audigier eats little and quickly. He calls for his toothpicks and cleans his teeth, using one hand to cover his mouth.

“I was always the cook in the family,” he says. “It’s something I love doing. It relaxed me. But now I don’t have the time.” He smokes a Marlboro Light, then gets up to greet a doctor who has come to give what Audigier calls his antiaging shot. Three men from an advertising agency wait in another room to pitch a new Ed Hardy ad campaign. Another man has traveled from South Korea to inquire about licenses for velour tracksuits. Audigier is riding higher than ever. His companies employ a full-time staff of 500, along with contract workers at two dozen factories in California. A handful of executives have offices in Beverly Hills. Employees in sales, production, and marketing report to a cluster of four Culver City warehouses. One of the offices in that compound is an editing suite for the six people charged with videotaping his activities and turning them into a documentary. There are more than 25 Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier stores worldwide, with 18 more boutiques scheduled to open by year’s end.

Audigier keeps a regimented schedule. Up at five o’clock, he showers and drinks the first of the day’s ten decaf espressos, then calls Hubert Guez, his new CEO. He listens to phone messages from sales staff before dressing. His chauffeur-driven Maybach limousine pulls up at six thirty. He works out with a trainer in his gym at one of the Culver City warehouses. After a second shower, he meets with sales and production staff. At noon, the chauffeur drives him to his Beverly Hills office, where he finishes the day. “Five to seven every evening, hang out with my kids,” he says, “Eight o’clock, dinner, then a movie in bed.” He met his girlfriend, Ira Barbieri, another Brazilian model, at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where he was helping Jean-Claude Van Damme publicize a movie. Audigier was 43; she was 25. They spent five days together before she returned to São Paulo. “He called me and invited me to come to Los Angeles,” she says during dinner at their house. “I told him it was hard to get a visa.” Audigier finishes the story with a wave of his hand: “So I go to Brazil, sort out the visa, and bring her here.” They haven’t married but have lived together since. After dinner Audigier shows me his tattoos, which include the names of his four children, lettering that spells out VIF on the inside of one hand, and an homage on his right arm to his hero, Johnny Hallyday, with the star’s name and the words BORN ON THE STREET. Audigier’s first tat was a Native American, now faded, on his right shoulder. “On my back I have my logo,” he says. “That way Ira can find me on the beach if I get lost.” I turn to Barbieri and ask whether she has any body modifications. “I tried once, but it hurt,” she says, showing me a red star on the inside of her wrist. I turn back to Audigier, but he is gone. Although his hospitality reflects the ease and warmth of southern France, the instant the conversation turns to someone else, he either snatches the attention back or disappears.

The rag trade changes fast, but large companies usually don’t. One has to stay vif. Guez, who has run several multimillion-dollar apparel enterprises, is transforming nearly everything, including the firm’s financial setup, licensee relations, and design team. There’s competition: Gucci and Coach have come out with tattoo-laden handbags. Dozens of others have knocked off the Ed Hardy aesthetic. Counterfeit Ed Hardy goods show up in raids alongside fake Louis Vuittons. As a result of its popularity, the tattoo look has saturated fashion to the point where, as one observer put it, “it’s like a polka dot.”

If Ed Hardy were to fizzle like Von Dutch, Audigier could draw on other labels in his portfolio to help pay off his new Topanga ranch. To do so, though, the brands have to keep growing, and they have to start looking less like Ed Hardy. Managing the lines is not so different from the work at Christian Audigier and His Gang back in Avignon. Now, however, instead of servicing other labels, Audigier has the responsibility of owning them all.

There is also the public relations problem of Don Ed Hardy. The 64-year-old tattoo artist, who spends more time on prints and paintings for galleries than he does inking skin in his San Francisco parlor, enjoys seeing people wear his work. “Even if people don’t know they were originally tattoo designs on the glasses or T-shirts they buy, that doesn’t matter,” he says by telephone from Hawaii, where he has a home. “There’s a resonance to the design sense.” Nonetheless, he filed a $100 million lawsuit in February that says Audigier has used unapproved Hardy images and is confusing the public with the Christian Audigier label, which looks similar to the Ed Hardy line but doesn’t use the tattoo artist’s work. Hardy will not comment on pending litigation but has bought magazine ads that connect his name and face to the artwork. The misconception that Audigier designed the Ed Hardy tattoo prints “needs to be corrected,” Hardy says. For his part, Audigier points out that previous lawsuits Hardy has filed against his companies have been dismissed. “I made him very rich overnight,” Audigier says. “And what does he do? Everything to block me.”

The designer seems aware that it was a strategic error to produce several lines that look so similar. In addition to hiring Guez, he has brought in new design directors, Melinda Fletcher Sidikaro and Joe D’Aversa, to develop more-distinctive identities for his brands. D’Aversa, who is from Brooklyn, first worked for Audigier 20 years ago in Avignon. Unlike most of Audigier’s entourage, who tend to be good-time French guys, D’Aversa is short, pale, and the kind of admitted control freak more commonly seen in New York’s garment district. “He’s like a brother,” D’Aversa says. After three years in Avignon, D’Aversa went to work for other companies (“Two and a half years with Christian is like ten with a mere mortal,” says Audigier’s former CEO, Henry Mandell). Last year D’Aversa was 51 and semiretired when Audigier phoned him. “He needs structure,” D’Aversa says. “It’s disorganized.”

If D’Aversa has his way, the merchandise for Christian Audigier, Smet, Paco Chicano, Crystal Rock, and Ed Hardy will look less alike. “I don’t want the Christian Audigier line to have tattoos,” D’Aversa says. In March he went shopping in London, Paris, and Florence for inspiration. The sample garments are arranged on a board in the corner of his office. Set to debut this fall, the new direction indicates a radical departure for the Christian Audigier brand. The pieces are basics with clever twists: a black scarf with a print that looks like smoke, a skinny black tie with matte bronze sequins, a swatch of fabric with an antelope-skull silhouette. The effect is Georgia O’Keeffe filtered through punk. Wild West meets Goth. D’Aversa likes a challenge. He doesn’t consider it disastrous that Audigier has built a label around a lifestyle that looks nothing like his own. What is fashion, after all, but reinvention?

Even for Audigier, a partnership with Madonna would represent a major leap. Called e=MC2, the line is planned for the fall. Yet when Guez begins negotiating the deal with her lawyers, Audigier is absent. He is on the other end of the same Culver City complex, visiting the marketing department. Why isn’t he at the Madonna meeting? “I make the money come—that’s what I do,” he says. “I’m not interested in the other details.” Instead he counts pictures of the pop star, wearing his clothing, that are affixed to a wall. More than 150. He hands me an album of additional Madonna photos, some of which are over-enlarged and fuzzy. Still another stack of photos is on a desk: today’s crop of Madonna paparazzi shots.

“She’s got quite a thing for you,” I say.

“What else can it be?” he says. “She’s wearing my stuff every day. She’s Googling me. Now we’re making this deal.”

Actually, he’s Googling himself. “Look up my name,” he tells an employee at a computer. She comes up with 2.65 million search results. “OK, look up my name with Madonna.” There are 140,000 results. As Audigier throws out other names, the point becomes clear—there are more mentions of him than of many other L.A. designers. He flips through an oversize prospectus for the label. It begins with a quote from Guy Oseary, one of Madonna’s business partners, about how she and the designer will build “the next $1 billion deal.”

Lunchtime. Although the meeting with Madonna’s lawyers is still going on, Audigier slips into the back of his limousine to shuttle to his brand management office. He puts his feet up and tells me that May is an important month. He will turn 51. His autobiography will arrive in bookstores. His namesake perfume will launch. A fashion show in Cannes will unveil the upscale transformation of his Christian Audigier line. He will enter the movie business as both a producer and an actor. “I’m doing a film with 50 Cents,” he says, adding an s to the rapper’s name. “We’re filming a trailer. It’s going to be called—I can’t remember.”

On top of it all, he will debut an album that he hopes will make him the rock star he has always dreamed of being. The CD will have the same name as the subtitle of his book: My American Dream. “I cowrote the songs with Dave Stewart,” he says. “We’re shopping the CD to major labels, like Universal.” He reaches for his cigarettes. “Patrick!” he calls to the chauffeur. “Put on the song.”

I remind him that he has admitted he’s tone-deaf.

He pushes a button to roll down the window, leans forward, and spits out his gum. Settling back, he smiles and says, “I can sing now.”


This feature appears in the May 2009 issue of Los Angeles magazine

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