"In one of my first jobs, I was told that I had no talent and would not amount to anything," Lubov Azria recalls, perched on her desk at BCBG Max Azria's Los Angeles headquarters, where rooms of patternmakers, sewers, fitters and fabric archives occupy the better half of a city block.
Since joining the company as a design assistant in 1991 (and later marrying its founder, designer and CEO, Max Azria), Lubov has worked her way up to chief creative officer and also serves as an unofficial muse. Under her influence, the fashion group has evolved from an unknown line into a contemporary powerhouse of global megabrands – BCBG Max Azria, Hervé Léger by Max Azria and BCBGeneration. BCBG alone has 530 boutiques worldwide, stocking 150 new pieces each month.
Despite the sheer size and scope of everything, Lubov, who was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2010, strives to maintain a close kinship with her customers. She insists on fitting every piece herself, for example. “I never wanted to be the best designer. My whole goal in life was always, "How do I make a woman look and feel beautiful? That’s it,” she says. It’s precisely this simple philosophy to which she attributes BCBG’s success, not to mention her own.
We sat down with Lubov on the heels of Spring 2014 New York Fashion Week to discuss her humble beginnings (as a child, dirt was considered an exciting toy) and where she'd like to see the company go (let's just say she's a huge fan of what's happening over at Michael Kors).
How did you start in fashion?
Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, I was a dancer [Lubov trained with the renowned Bolshoi Ballet]. At some point, I realized that instead of the dancing, I really enjoyed the costume part much more. So I spent a lot of time in the back rooms with the sewers and the costumers. When I moved to the U.S., I actually thought I wanted to become an art history professor. But one thing led to another and I found myself studying design [at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in California], and I really enjoyed the process –- the creativity, the freedom.
Tell us about your first job.
I started as a patternmaker. I learned how to cut and drape, how fabrics behave, and about proportion. It was for a very missy line, a lot of elastic pants.
That must be very different from your day-to-day now as chief creative officer of BCBG Max Azria.
I still work directly with patternmakers and go to the sewing room. So in my mind, it’s not that different.
What does it mean to be CCO?
I create the vision from beginning to end. I make sure we have the right influence, the right pieces and the right attitude. To me, clothing is about style and attitude. It begins with design and production, and carries through to everything from branding, marketing, social media and retail.
What's a typical day like for you?
My design meetings don’t start until 5 p.m. Prior to that, I have marketing appointments, brand meetings, team calls.... Today I have a photo shoot, a meeting with our president of sales, prints to do, product recaps, fittings, a recruitment update, and reviews of collections. But when I sit down with our designers at the end of the day, it’s our time to create. It’s a time when you let go of all your control and really start dreaming.
You’re tasked with creating monthly shipments across four brands. What is that design process like?
The first thing I do is sit down with my design director and think about color. Color often dictates fabrication, and it is the No. 1 thing the customer is attracted to in a garment. We start by pulling tears and bringing in vintage garments. Then we bring in our designers and talk them through the concepts we have. After that, it’s on to sketching, patternmaking, draping and multiple rounds of fittings. From start to finish, it’s a six- to nine-month process and I’ll see each garment in different iterations about 10 times. I want to make sure the customer gets the best of the best. That’s part of BCBG’s success -- our fit and consistency and quality of the product.
Take us through your current inspiration.
Next year is BCBG’s 25th anniversary, so for Spring 2014 we were really inspired by our archives. You’ll see a play on proportions and tailoring, and a juxtaposition of the old with the new. For Hervé Léger, we were really inspired by global influences and functional modernism. We’ve introduced easy layering separates and new dimensions of stitching and patterns.
So how did you start at BCBG? I met Max through a chance introduction. It wasn’t love at first sight, rather it was respect at first sight. We started working together and began to develop trust, kinship and connection through design. The rest came later.
BCBG is a brand that's often credited with carving out the contemporary category. Was that a conscious move?
Prior to the mid-90s, there was really only missy and [high-end] designer, with nothing in between. For me, it’s always been about making the most beautiful clothes at the most affordable prices. That idea came from my own personal experience, of falling in love with a dress in a store window and realizing I could never afford it. This particular dress was twice as much as my car, and what I remember feeling was that I wasn’t good enough, that people like me don’t wear clothes like that. When I became a designer I told myself I would make clothes for every woman, and I fight for every single garment to be that.
But making beautiful clothes at an affordable price point isn’t easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it, right?
Not really. People have different ideas of what being a designer is. Many labels could make beautiful, high-quality clothes that are much more affordable. They just don’t. It’s a conscious choice in how to market their company.
What’s your involvement like on the business side?
I review all the numbers and am involved in putting together strategies to drive the business. At the end of the day, it can’t just be making beautiful things -- you also have to make a profit.
How do you view BCBG’s success so far?
I still don’t know if people know about BCBG [laughs]. I am constantly humbled. I came from very humble beginnings. At a team-building event, we were all asked to share what we played with as a child. My response: “Dirt.” We didn’t have Barbies or things like that. Happiness is not money or people, it’s about doing what you love. I just want to do what I love and hopefully inspire other people to do the same.
What advice would you give to someone starting in the field?
You need to start from scratch. The people I like to hire are the ones who write in their resumes, “I’ll do the floors, the windows and bring you coffee.” I like that kind of drive because that’s the way I was. It can feel like the younger generation just assumes they will be CEOs once they graduate. In one of my first jobs, I was actually told that I had no talent and would not amount to anything. That just made me work harder. You don’t just find yourself, you have to create yourself. So create the future that you want.
What future are you creating for yourself now?
Making this company as successful as possible. I do want to be a part of something greater. I think what the investors have done with Michael Kors is fantastic. He has been designing for 30 years and now he’s experiencing this major expansion.
If BCBG did go the way of Michael Kors, would you be able to step back like he has?
Yes. The most important this is to always be moving forward.