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A dream realized: making high fashion more accessible; Max Azria is driven to make designer clothing available to more people, and he defies the rules to do it.

LOS ANGELES - Like so many great notions, the idea that made Max Azria one of the biggest apparel barons in the world is deceptively simple. He decided to make designer clothes available to a large audience by keeping prices reasonable. If charging less than four figures for a designer dress wasn't radical enough, then his contention that a global fashion empire could be commandeered by Los Angeles bordered on the lunatic.

"When I said I would build a house of fashion in L.A., people thought I was crazy," Azria says. "If you want to create a house of fashion, everyone told me, you go to New York. But for five years I've been saying that American designers would be the No. 1 designers in the world. Today, that has come true. You see Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford at Gucci and other Americans driving big, international companies.

"It means that crazy Max wasn't so wrong," he says. "I also said California would become the capital of the world of fashion, and everyone laughed. But today, people look at Los Angeles completely differently than they used to. They see that there is real creativity in this city."

To be precise, there is creativity evident in nearby Vernon, headquarters of BCBG, the $300 million clothing and accessory company that Azria founded nine years ago.

In a spare, white office, the 49-year-old owner and head designer sits in a white-slipcovered chair, lights a Marlboro, sips a Classic Coke from the can and discusses his goals, his history and the art and business of fashion.

He speaks English without hesitation in a husky French accent. A high school dropout born in Tunisia and raised in Paris, Azria has much in common with the first generation of Hollywood moguls, brash immigrants who wrote their own rule books by following their instincts. They made fortunes putting fantasies on film. He crafted his dreams with fabric.

As smack-your-head obvious as Azria's concept of democratizing high style might seem, the way women's clothes have traditionally been sold worked against it.

Department stores group clothing lines by price, a system that only makes sense some of the time. Expensive designer clothes are displayed in one area, less costly "contemporary" lines are confined to their own ghettos. Even if a contemporary manufacturer presents a hand-embroidered silk skirt for $200, there's no chance it could move up.

Azria sidestepped this segregation by operating his own stores. Like the Hollywood studios in their formative years, he gained creative muscle by controlling the channel of distribution. Aside from the financial benefit of eliminating the middleman, having BCBG stores allowed complete power over the company's image as well as direct communication with customers.

With a team of BCBG architectural designers and visual display experts, Azria could create an atmosphere in his stores to rival the elegance of designer boutiques.

So why was Max Azria able to open 61 BCBG stores in North America, eight more in Asia and South America, absorb the three divisions acquired when a competitor was purchased in 1996, establish units for shoes, handbags, swimwear and men's clothes and, two months ago, buy the French fashion house of Herve Leger?

"Most people think fashion is a risky business, but I don't believe that," he says. "Sometimes it's riskier not to take a risk. "

Three years ago, Azria's wife, Lubov, tacked small drawings of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" to the door of Max's suite of offices. Azria doesn't look beastly, more closely resembling a dynamic Cheshire cat, but considering his wife's Ingrid Bergmanesque beauty, the characterization of the couple as Belle and her tender monster is understandable.

"Lubov" (pronounced LOO-bah) means love in Russian. Eighteen years younger than her husband, Lubov came to America with her parents from Ukraine when she was 12. Her title is design director. To the extent that BCBG is a mom-and-pop shop grown large, she fills the role of the company's adored mother.

Max's family had also left their home country, when he was 12, moving to Paris, where his father was in the olive oil business. Max's interest in fashion surfaced when he was 16. He sold accessories to boutiques, then began importing from Hong Kong and eventually designed and manufactured his own line. In the early '70s, he bought denim from America, made jeans in France, then sold them back to the States just as the market for European and designer jeans was taking off.

He was drawn to Los Angeles and came here in 1983.

BCBG stands for bon chic, bon genre, a French expression meaning good style, good attitude. Founding the company in 1989 gave Azria the opportunity to synthesize everything he'd learned.

Although Azria's plan was to make BCBG a fashion powerhouse, he knew that he'd have to start slowly. He created items that would sell. The first was a baby-doll dress. The profits from that were reinvested in the company, and the next cash magnet took the form of stirrup pants. They were made in 32 colors, and customers snapped up 100,000 pairs. After two years in business, Max had amassed enough capital to launch a collection.

As if on cue, Lubov arrived, when Azria hired his future wife as a designer.

A year later, they were married. Max's children from his first marriage, then 18, 11 and 8, lived with them. Lubov gave birth to three daughters, now ages 5, 2 and 1. Every Friday night, the family gathers at home for Shabbat dinner.

"Max and Lubov really compliment each other," says Karine Siccardi, BCBG executive vice president.

"He's the one to decide where the brand is going, which image to project, where we should be opening stores next. She's the one to make sure that every design is perfect and the clothes fit."

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