In the past 20 years, the landscape of fashion has gone from the haves and the have nots to a democracy that has opened its doors to all. BCBG MAX AZRIA and its Chief Creative Officer, LUBOV AZRIA, were on the forefront of that movement and along the way changed the face of retail, the way people shop, and design for all. We spoke to Lubov Azria about paving the way, the delivering cycle, what’s next and jogging forward.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Lubov, lovely to find a minute and talk shop. We’ve never dived into how you and fashion found each other. How did you get your start?
The story really starts for me when I discovered my first passion, ballet. I started dancing when I was six years old in Ukraine. That’s when I realized that I truly loved the way the body moves. I loved the theatrics and I loved the costumes. Now that I think about it, I spent more time with the seamstresses than actually performing. I felt so much excitement being around materials and textures, and creating something from scratch.
When we moved to America, my second passion was art. I wanted to be an art historian and fell in love with art history, painting and drawing. When you are into art, a natural harmony to fashion occurs, at least it did for me.
When I was 18 years old, we ended up moving to Los Angeles. In our second week, I remember wanting to explore the city and decided to visit Beverly Hills. As I was walking along Wilshire Blvd., I came across a picturesque window display, showcasing the most beautiful gown I had ever seen. It was love at first sight! I couldn’t help myself, I just had to try it on.
This was my first experience in an upscale department store. There was a trunk show going on, which was why the dress was being featured. As I went upstairs, I recall the sales people being very nice and offering me to try the dress on. I put the dress on and realized it was the most beautiful gown I had ever worn; the fit, the feel, everything about it was a dream. I was transformed and felt beautiful, elegant and confident. Then I looked at the price tag and was taken back – the dress was $3,000. It was 1986 and my car was $1,500, so obviously the dress was out of my price range.
At that moment, as I was looking at myself in the mirror, this pain hit me. My emotions were racing, I was caught up in the feeling that I was not good enough. And people like me couldn’t wear clothes like this, and what am I doing here? In an instant, I pulled myself together and made a promise – that if I ever become a designer, I will not make clothes that would make anyone feel this way. So I took off the dress, put it back, thanked the sales associate and left. When I made that promise to myself that day, my whole life changed, because now I found my purpose. My intention is, and always has been, to create something that’s unique and beautiful, and inspire other women to be inspirational. And that was the start of my path into the fashion industry.
You were right in the heart of Los Angeles in the ’80s, during that whole big hair band phase, The Viper Room, and that whole thing. Did you partake in any of that goodness?
I definitely tried. I just didn’t blend in very well. I came from Texas, so I used to curl my hair and wear oversized statement sweaters. I loved the scene! I remember people-watching for hours on Melrose. This was when Melrose was the pinnacle of West Coast cool, attracting musicians, artists, tourists, and teenagers looking for the next big thing. It was such a world of innovation with people taking so many chances. You couldn’t go out without being seen.
Those days really built the designer market. You started your career in fashion at BCBGMAXAZRIA. What were those early years like?
While I was still attending school, I wanted to gain real work experience and BCBGMAXAZRIA was one of the few fashion companies in LA at that time. I met Max on my job interview and shortly after, was offered a position.
At that time, Max been successful with selling key items – stirrup pants or pleated skirts, baby doll dresses. When I met Max, I didn’t understand the item business the way he did. I viewed an assortment of products as a collection and understood the importance of conveying a story. I had been working at BCBGMAXAZRIA for about a month when I asked Max to go on a shopping trip. My goal was to point out what the competitors were and, more importantly, weren’t doing.
Back then, there were two completely different fashion scenes – the Donna, Calvin and Ralph, who were at a high-end designer price point, and the Contempo-Casual & Judy’s, who were at the junior price point; there was nothing in-between. Back then, Loehmann’s was one of my favorite places to shop because of their price points. You could purchase an off-price Donna Karan jacket for $100 or $200, versus $800. Max and I started realizing that there is a huge void in the market. We decided that our approach is to make designer clothes available to a large audience by keeping prices reasonable. We didn’t realize we were defining contemporary, but we felt we had a niche; so we jumped into that category and the customers embraced us.
Did the buyers know where to put the brand at the beginning?
The buyers were excited about the price point, but there was no space on the floor for contemporary. It was common practice for department stores to group clothing lines by price. Designer clothes were displayed in one area and more moderately-priced brands were confined to their own space. They would mix us into the junior/moderate space, where we didn’t have much success, but we were successful in our own stores. After some time, Bloomingdales started giving us the real estate by creating a section of ‘contemporary designers.’ What shook the industry was when we showcased our first runway show in New York. That’s when the whole buzz started.
In those early years, BCBGMAXAZRIA coming to New York to do a runway show was kind of brave.
Taking a stake within the fashion arena was not the easiest. Our first runway show was in New York for Spring 1996. Our show was slotted in November after all the runway shows in Europe. From LA to NY, we weren’t in the comfort of our backyard. Everything was foreign and at moments daunting, but we saw it through. But just as we felt foreign to NY, the fashion community was speechless. I remember the fashion editors didn’t know what to do with us, except a few innovators like Fern Mallis. Fern has made such a huge difference in this industry by really going with her gut and not being a traditional sort of fashion insider.
When did you know that what you were doing was really working for you?
Very soon, because we had a huge expansion of stores around 1998. We realized that the customer was reacting very strongly, and couldn’t even keep up with the demand.
You also did something new in terms of timing of deliveries. How often did you deliver and how did that evolve over time?
The reality is that you have to give a very good reason for the customers to shop. There’s a bigger responsibility to offer more creativity, innovation, quality, fit and consistency to much wider and diverse consumers worldwide.
One of the great things about contemporary is that it was truly designed for the customer. And when you design… obviously, designers are not great editors, right, Kenneth?
It’s hard to edit your own work.
We love it all.
So, I think that you need to understand sales per square feet. You need to design a certain amount of styles to deliver the sales per square feet and that’s why contemporary houses have always designed much more than designer houses.
Makes sense. Do you know of another designer who designs as much as you do?
[Laughs] I don’t think so. We do about 120 new apparel styles every month!
You have a big circle of control via your own retail. Are there things that you’re doing now to address those needs?
Well, it would seem like we have a lot of control but really, we’re part of bigger retail industry. In order for real change, the whole industry has to shift before we really make a difference.
I do think the industry is heading towards personalization. I want a unique experience and that’s what we’re trying to create in our stores. Technology is helping, but it’s very fragile out there. To me, it’s being customer-centric that’s so important. And what I’m seeing as a woman who shops, who loves fashion, who loves going out and inspiring others and really living my life to the fullest, I’m still limited by just getting out. That’s why I shop online most of the time, but it’s not a choice.
For me, I enjoy the shopping experience. I love communicating with somebody. I love connecting with people. I love being seen, it’s fun. All of that is part of an experience and I feel like I miss that when I shop online. It’s an easy, quick checkout, but it’s not the same. It’s like dressing up. Sometimes, you have more fun getting ready versus going out. I feel we’re missing that romance.
I think that anybody who wants to do something different and is not ready for negative reactions shouldn’t be trying to do something new. It’s important to get people to not like something that you do. Because then, you also get the opposite.
You mentioned a little bit about communication and technology, and also shopping online. Tell us a little bit about BCBGMAXAZRIA’s move digitally; you were an early adapter.
I think that fashion and technology have a codependent relationship that welcomes creativity and pushes one another for innovation. We were there 20 years ago when we launched our branded website. It was driven out of pure curiosity. Even early on, we understood the fundamental role that technology would have to better connect with our customer.
So what are you learning today?
The whole industry and the way you apply technology has made things so different. You can’t assume anything. Everything is analytics. It’s fascinating to learn from reports. Just one email, if personalized, can trigger more response than others. The whole idea of what we innately feel is what the customer responds to. There’s so much intelligence out there. We’re learning from e-commerce and our social sites minute by minute. We are doing things that feel right, not what the industry expects, like online trunk shows and more videos.
You’ve taken up jogging recently; have you done some marathons?
I run about 40 miles a week. That’s one of the greatest things about living on the beach now – I just step out of my house and I’m right there on the sand and I run. I fell in love with running because we were going through so many changes and I had to find a healthy outlet to relieve some stress. My goal was to run the LA Marathon, and I did. From then on, I was hooked, and it’s been one of my greatest personal accomplishments. I love the stamina it creates and I love the connections that you make with people because people who run, they really run for a greater purpose than themselves. In my first marathon, I was running beside an 82-year-old woman, who quickly surpassed me…totally inspiring & amazing!
What are you looking forward to over the course of the next year, personally?
Fashion, to me, is about evolution and change, and I’m looking forward to growing and learning. There are so many things going on, it’s exciting. In fact, raising my family and seeing everything through the eyes of my younger daughters. It’s exciting to be where we are now. I’m going to be 50 pretty soon and I like that. I like looking back, but I really love looking forward.
Lubov. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Kenneth.