Lubov Azria grew up on San Antonio, so she is used to Texas women with big hair. But during a recent visit to Houston to showcase the BCBG Max Azria and Hervé Léger collections, she was surprised to find that Houston women defy that old stereotype.
"I kind of expected them to have bigger hair. In LA, sometimes we have bigger hair," she said with a laugh. "When I grew up, there was so much hairspray. It's so funny, the makeup artist was doing my hair today and he sprayed (it). And I'm like, oh my god, I feel like I'm back in high school."
As chief creative director of the BCBGMaxAzria Group, a global fashion house with a host of brands, Azria exemplifies the spirit of the company. Clad in a dark blazer pushed up at the sleeves over a simple off-white dress and gold chain with locket, she's gorgeous yet approachable, with an effortless sophistication.
"It's so funny, the makeup artist was doing my hair today and he sprayed (it). And I'm like, oh my god, I feel like I'm back in high school."
But she didn't always feel that way. Her family immigrated to Texas from Kiev, Ukraine when she was 12; as a teenager she attended Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio. When the Texas economy headed south in the mid-80s due to the oil bust, the family moved to Los Angeles, where she finished high school, with dreams of becoming a fashion designer.
Walking down Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills one day, she looked in the window of Neiman Marcus and saw a stunning dress. Although she didn't have any money and had never been in the store, she walked in and summoned up the courage to try it on.
"I remember standing in the fitting room in front of the mirror and thinking the dress was absolutely breathtaking," she recalled.
But she looked at the price tag. It was $3,000 — double the cost of the car she was driving. She burst into tears, thinking that she would never be able to afford something so beautiful and not feeling worthy even if she did. At that point, she promised herself that if she ever became a designer, she would aim to champion a collection that was stylish but affordable.
"In an interesting way, it created the DNA for BCBG," she said. "I could definitely mark up the clothes to be more expensive but I don't because I still think of the woman who is working hard and wants to look beautiful every single day."
A few years later, she graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, and in 1991 met designer Max Azria. On their first date, he asked her to marry him.
Their personal and professional relationship has been productive. Max Azria started BCBG, named for the French phrase, "bon chic, bon genre" (good style, good attitude) in 1989 and became known for offering designer fashion at affordable prices and has since added a string of high fashion brands. In addition to becoming his muse, Lubov realized that the couple worked well together in the business.
"When I met Max on the job interview, he asked me only one question: 'Are you global or are you detail-oriented?' I said, 'I'm very detail-oriented.' He said, 'Great, because I'm global.' Max sets up the road and I'm very detailed so I run and make it happen. It's a good balance."
With three major brands — BCBG, Max Azria Runway Collection and Hervé Léger — does she have a favorite? "No, it's like picking a favorite child," she said. "They're all so different and they're so exciting. I love the process. I love coming up with ideas and then to see them come true is quite incredible."
"(In the clothing line), Hervé Léger is the stepmother. This woman needs to look good. She works out. She throws parties. And she has a very social life."
But she concedes there is a different customer for all three brands.
"I think of them as a family. The BCBG woman is working, she has a family. Or maybe she's single or maybe she's dating. She definitely has a full time job and she's on the go. She needs to look good all the time.
"Then she has a sister who's young and cool and edgy. She doesn't have a job — she only dances or dines. She goes to Coachella and she's cool. She wears the Runway line.
"And Hervé Léger is their stepmother. This woman needs to look good. She needs to make sure that her husband is interested. She works out. She throws parties. And she has a very social life."
"(The clothing lines) are separate but they all work in the family. To tell you the truth there are actually families like this. My own is pretty much. I'm a stepmom," she said, with a big laugh.
(The Azrias have three adult children from his previous marriage and three daughters, ages 18, 16 and 14 together.)
The advantage of a bandage
The day after presenting the BCBG collection to a select group of Houstonians at the home of Lucinda Loya, Azria was at the Neiman Marcus Galleria store to present the super-sexy Hervé Léger line. Originally created in 1985 by a French designer with body-hugging materials traditionally associated with foundation garments, the line was acquired by the Azrias, who debuted their version in 2008 at New York fashion week.
The form-fitting dresses would seem to be unforgiving, but Azria insists that you don't have to have a perfect body to wear them. "One of my best customers is a size 16 and she's amazing," says Azria, noting the customer owns more than 90 different styles.
The form-fitting dresses would seem to be unforgiving, but Azria insists that you don't have to have a perfect body to wear them. "One of my best customers is a size 16 and she's amazing."
"The base yarn is rayon and it actually molds to your body to kind of suck you in and holds your shape. There are no wrinkles in a Hervé Léger dress. This is a knit; knits are much more comfortable to wear. You don't need to be stuck in a corset to give you that shape. You can wear Hervé Léger."
The fall 2012 collection has an equestrian theme, with leather harnesses attached to many of the dresses, and the Azrias have also incorporated fur into some of the designs. "But we don't want to get away from the bandage," she said.
The looks she showed in Houston featured graffiti-patterned dresses based on a show put together by Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch as well as some runway looks and several styles exclusive to Neiman Marcus. Many of the looks have cutouts that showcase the back.
"I often think the back is more important than the front," Azria said. "When you walk towards someone they try to look at your face because they don't want to stare at you, but when you turn around and walk away, especially the men, they're looking. So I want to make sure they definitely notice."
Escape from work
A workaholic, Azria usually spends 14 hours a day on the job. She traces her strong work ethic to the discipline she learned as a ballet dancer (in Russia, she trained with Bolshoi Ballet youth division). "I love creating things and the joy and the excitement and endorphins you get when you are solving things. It's such an exciting stage."
Her escape? Reading on the airplane "when I don't have anything else to do." She just finished The Hunger Games and has also recently read Tina Fey's Bossypants ("It's hilarious.") and Shantaram. The story of an Australian convict who escapes into the underworld of Bombay is "one of my favorite books," she said.
Family is also important to the 44-year-old mother. "But I don't advise my kids on fashion because for them it's intimidating. They want to prove their own style because they come from us."
She comes up with ideas for the collections from watching how they dress — one daughter is super-casual, which is reflected in some sweatshirt dresses in the BCBG line; another loves jackets, so Azria created some jackets with an edge for the collection.
Will they join her in the business? "Absolutely not. They have their own path. It's a journey for them."