Born: 1 January 1949, Sfax, Tunisia. Education: Dropped out of school to become a fashion entrepreneur. Career: Manufactured a variety of contemporary women's lines in Paris, 1970-81; founder/chief designer, Jess (U.S. retail stores carrying French-inspired women's ready-to-wear apparel), 1982-88; president/designer, and owner of BCBG Max Azria Group, including BCBG Max Azria (women's and men's designer label), Hervé Léger (French couture and deluxe ready-to-wear label), Parallel (contemporary label), and To The Max (young contemporary/better junior label), from 1989. Awards: California Designer of the Year, 1995; Atlanta Designer of the Year, 1996; Fashion Performance award, 1997; Seat on the Council of Fashion Designers of America, 1998; Divine Design's Women's Designer of the Year, 1998; Otis College of Art and Design's Fashion Achievement award, 2000; Top 50 Private Companies in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Business Journal, 2000. Website: www.BCBG.com .
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Longtime entrepreneur Max Azria began his career in his adopted hometown of Paris in 1970 by designing a line of women's wear. In 1981 Azria moved to the U.S. and in 1982 launched Jess, a series of new-concept retail boutiques whose goal was to introduce chic French fashion to American women. By the time he launched the design house BCBG Max Azria in 1989, Azria had gained expertise in all aspects of the fashion business, including retail operations, accounting and finance, production, sales, merchandising, and design.
BCBG Max Azria is the means through which Azria has fulfilled a revolutionary goal: bringing high-style, high-quality fashions to American women at a fraction of the typical four-figure price. Named for the French phrase bon chic, bon genre (Parisian slang meaning "good style, good attitude"), Azria's brashness in building a global fashion empire in Los Angeles instead of New York can be interpreted as distinctly American. Observers have long commented on Azria's seemingly uncanny ability to make major fashion ideas accessible to the general marketplace.
Azria claims not to have had a mentor within the industry; however, he does cite two major design influences. "Audrey Hepburn's chic, clean, sophisticated style has been a continuous inspiration for my collections," he says. "Los Angeles itself is also one of my biggest influences. The city is the center of so many industries—entertainment, music and technology—that there is always something new to inspire me. This inspiration could be literal, like a specific film, or more general, like the continuous sunshine."
In true entrepreneurial fashion, Azria launched BCBG Max Azria with a handful of clothing items. Early successes included novel cashmere sweater sets and baby-doll dresses. Since then, he has developed a diverse array of collections for women, including evening dresses, denim, footwear, eyewear, swimwear, intimates, handbags, and small leather goods. For men, Azria has created casual wear, suits, outerwear, and footwear. In 2001, Azria announced a partnership with global consumer-product manufacturer Unilever to introduce a collection of fragrance and beauty products under the BCBG Max Azria label.
Azria has also diversified his holdings via branding in an attempt to become a true life-cycle nameplate—his customers range in age from 15 to about 60. In 1996, he launched To The Max, a junior sportswear line, and relaunched Parallel, a contemporary line. With his 1998 acquisition of Hervé Léger—known for its beautiful, seductive couture and deluxe ready-to-wear—Azria became the first American designer to own a major French couturier. In 2000, he formed a strategic alliance with Procter & Gamble to revitalize Rodeo Drive's unofficial landmark, Giorgio Beverly Hills. Azria now controls the boutique's retail operations and has created a more focused merchandising concept for upscale retailer.
Azria has become something of a retail giant. As of 2001, the company operated more than 150 of its own retail outlets worldwide. BCBG Max Azria's collections are sold in specialty stores throughout North America, as well as in in-store shops in major department stores, including Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, and Macy's.
Although Azria has always been happy to rely on celebrity customers—and there are many—to further his wares, he has also mastered another important tool in today's self-promotion arsenal: product placement. The stars of television shows as Ally McBeal, Sex in the City, Friends, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are regularly seen sporting BCBG Max Azria apparel. Ironically, his core 25-to 40-year-old customers may tune out these television shows, but they're still buying Azria's designs. Azria singles out as his main competition some true fashion behemoths: Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Prada, LVMH, and the Gucci Group. These choices may evoke images of Azria playing David to the industry's Goliaths, but consider just how far BCBG Max Azria has come in little more than a decade. His rare combination of aggressive pricing, fresh interpretations of major trends, and effective self-promotion indicate that Azria will likely be able to go the distance with even his fiercest competitors.