November 22, 1999 12:00 PM

When Max Azria named his fashion company BCBG 10 years ago, the acronym for bon chic, bon genre (good style, good attitude) embraced little more than a Gallic version of the well-worn preppy look. But these days around the world, Azria’s label translates into European chic—with some American cheek thrown in. “Classic but hip, nothing too crazy,” says the 50-year-old Tunisian-born businessman and designer. “I refuse to transform women ridiculously just to make money.”

What a concept! It has hooked masses of women—from twentysomething trendies to such stars as Sharon Stone, Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek—who fill their closets with BCBG Max Azria sportswear, evening dresses, shoes and handbags. “Everything I put on just works,” raves 3rd Rock from the Sun star Kristen Johnston, who bypassed the usual Prada and Versace choices for a dark-pink silk shantung BCBG gown at the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me premiere in June. “The great thing is you don’t end up doing a lot of damage, because his clothes are very affordable.”

And therein lies the secret of Azria’s success. While BCBG’s prices—from $32 for a camisole to $1,094 for a shearling coat—don’t exactly rival Old Navy’s, they are significantly lower than those of the line’s high-fashion competitors. Yet Azria’s mass-produced duds, say fans, deliver style that’s just as sublime. “To be a big designer, your product has to please a global population,” says Azria of the growth of his company, which employs 2,000 people worldwide, produces some 4,000 styles annually and is expected to rake in $250 million this year, up from $180 million a year ago. “If you don’t know how to do that, you are not a designer of the year 2000,” he continues. “You are just a tailor of the 1900s.”

But the high-fashion world values exclusivity over volume. So when Azria, whose jolly Roberto Benigni-esque demeanor belies a dogged determination, launched his first catwalk show in Manhattan in 1996, some critics howled. The New York Times labeled his 1970s-inspired togs “as bland and as irritating as elevator music.” Still others have accused him of ripping off other designers’ ideas. “A trend is a trend,” Azria says, shrugging. “It’s all about how you carry off the trend.”

Indeed, trendspotting has been Azria’s forte since he was a teen. The youngest of seven children of olive oil company magnate Bob, who died in 1983, and home-maker Rachelle, 78, he moved from Tunisia to Paris at 13 to study acting. Five years later, about the time he was abandoning dreams of becoming a leading man, he noticed that Parisian clothing boutiques didn’t sell accessories. So he bought $5,000 worth of jewelry, scarves and handbags from wholesalers and persuaded shops to carry them. In 1969 he hatched another idea: Buy jeans from the U.S., give them a French cut and sell them back to American stores. The Daniel Laurent line, which he expanded throughout Europe, “was a crazy success,” he boasts. “I was a millionaire by 20 years old.”

In 1981, Azria decided to relaunch himself in America—not in the fashion capital of New York City, but in Los Angeles. “The people are a little bit more crazy here,” he chuckles. “I created my business exactly like you would write a movie: There’s an act one, two, three.”

Act two was a bummer: A dozen juniors’ sportswear stores Azria opened in California in 1988 proved unsuccessful. Undaunted, the erstwhile retailer—who lacks any formal design training (“I can sew, and I can make a pattern with my eyes closed,” he insists)—decided to create and manufacture his own line of reasonably priced women’s casual wear and sell it in his own boutiques. The first BCBG Max Azria shop opened in L.A.’s tony Brentwood section in 1992. Shoppers soon snapped up his trendy baby-doll dresses and cashmere sweater sets. “His interpretation of what women want is always on the money,” says Elle fashion director Marin Hopper.

Ever the businessman, Azria continues to expand his empire. He now has 104 freestanding BCBG stores around the world (his designs are also available at department stores); two lower-priced labels called To the Max and Parallel; a men’s line; and a new plus-size line. His biggest coup: last year’s purchase of French couture house Hervé Léger, famous for its sexy “bandage” dresses. “It’s about creating a global synergy,” says Azria.

Domestic synergy comes from the six females with whom he shares his four-bedroom Beverly Hills home: his Ukrainian-born wife, Lubov, 32, BCBG’s creative director; their three girls (Chloe, 6, Anais, 3, and Agnes, 2); and Joyce, 18, and Marine, 15, Azria’s daughters from a first marriage that ended in divorce. (Son Michael, 24, is an aspiring actor in L.A.) “When I see something I don’t like, I tell him,” says Joyce, a part-time student at UCLA who is part of BCBG’s creative staff. “And I see changes the next day.”

Acting fast has long been an Azria hallmark. But now even the admitted workaholic (“he sleeps only four hours a night,” says his wife) is thinking about slowing down a bit. “I want to work not too much but do a lot,” Azria says. Pause. “I mean, I’m not crazy.”

Julie K.L. Dam and Samantha Miller

Steven Cojocaru in Los Angeles

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