The early aughts were an absolutely weird time for culture. Technology-wise, Mark Zuckerberg was launching beta versions of Facebook across college campuses, and the iPhone was but a fledgling concept, an errant neuron waiting to flash inside Steve Jobs' superior temporal gyrus. Looking back now, it's clear that we were in a transition period between the baggy fits and megabrands of the '90s and the eclectic mash-up of styles that are prevalent today. And one of the most memorable trends of the early aughts was undoubtedly the mesh trucker hat.
Christian Audigier was born in Avignon, France in 1958. From an early age he fell hard for rock-and-roll, and at 14 years old, he was already working in the fashion industry. His first denim collection was heavily inspired by The Rolling Stones, and eventually he was recruited by execs at a denim brand called MacKeen Jeans, which began his ascent from young designer to fashion hotshot, the kind of go-getter who was talented and charismatic enough to climb the corporate ladder so fast that you could practically see a blue flame coming out of his rear end. The MacKeen job gave him the opportunity to travel the world, build his personal brand before the term "personal brand" even existed, and he soon moved to New York, working with other denim-centric brands like Diesel, Levi's, and Guess before moving to Los Angeles, where his star would rise even further.
Audigier's first claim to fame came in the form of Von Dutch, a brand that takes its name from Kenny Howard, a motorcycle mechanic and artist whose primary canvas was a variety of hot rods with serious horsepower. After Howard's death in 1992, his daughters sold his name to Michael Cassel and Robert Vaughn, who enlisted Audigier's help in boosting brand awareness. Audigier's marketing method was simple: Manufacture demand by getting celebrities to wear the brand and opening up stand-alone stores in high-profile shopping areas.
The clothes and products mined Von Dutch's name and consisted mainly of T-shirts and trucker hats emblazoned with the Von Dutch symbol, which had the blue collar appeal of an automotive logo like Ford or Chevy. It's ironic that before his death in 1992, Kenny Howard himself pretty much gave permission for his visual legacy to be mined any which way.
Before Instagram #influencers and bloggers helped democratize how we learned about style and redefined #outfitgoals for the rest of us, celebrities were it. If Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, and Pharrell were rocking mesh trucker hats, we all wanted to rock mesh trucker hats. And if said hats had a "Von Dutch" logo on it, you bet your ass we wanted a "Von Dutch" logo on ours, too.
Audigier left Von Dutch in 2004 and went onto Ed Hardy, which arguably became a larger success. Like Von Dutch, Ed Hardy's brand value came from a real person: Don Ed Hardy, a prolific tattoo artist who is credited with bringing the art of Japanese tattooing to the West Coast in the '80s. Around the time Audigier started licensing Hardy's art for a clothing brand, tattoos themselves were becoming less taboo, getting even more removed from their roots in American outlaw culture, and accepted as a rebellious form of self-expression for dad-hating teenage daughters with prime real estate on their lower backs, overeager sports fans, and recent divorcées alike.
"I fit in the context of fashion," said Audigier in an early-2000s interview with Apparel Search. "To place a tattoo design on a shirt certainly does not nearly hurt as much as on skin."
Ed Hardy, the brand, ballooned in popularity and in revenue. By 2009, sales were reported around $700 million. It was impossible to not go to clubs and see enzyme-washed T-shirts and bedazzled hoodies with all manner of Japanese-inspired koi fish, tigers, and dragons that looked like they materialized out of a crystal meth-induced vision quest. Rappers like Lil' Jon, Fabolous, and even Lil Wayne rocked it, and it slowly became synonymous with the hyper-masculine swoll douchebags that would be embodied in the cast of Jersey Shore and parodied in characters like Nick Kroll's hilarious Bobby Bottleservice.
As the modern era approached, trends changed, and Ed Hardy became the distressed, overdyed snake tattoo T-shirt that ate itself. In 2011, Audigier sold Ed Hardy to Iconix Brand Group for an estimated $62 million (and in the interest of disclosure, that same group did give Complex Media $25 million in 2013).
In 2013, Don Ed Hardy wrote a book about his experience, Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, in which he doesn't mince words about Christian Audigier and how he feels about the way the clothing brand depicted his art.
"Morons dehumanized it," says Hardy in an earlier interview, referring to how celebrities like John Gosselin began to be associated with the brand. "People began globally to know my images, my name and my signature, but they didn't know there was a real person behind it."
Christian Audigier's fall from favor was cushioned by millions of dollars made through his celebrity-driven business model, but it also was victim to a consumer base that was smartening up, searching for brands with more authenticity and a certain realness in their value proposition. Audigier's mining of Von Dutch's name and Ed Hardy's art and flipping it for a quick buck is the same kind of inauthentic brand cachet that sees companies like Abercrombie failing today. For the record, Audigier did try to ride the wave of minimal, logo-less clothes, launching the plain T-shirt line "the same guy" in 2010.
Now, stylish consumers no longer need to be spoon-fed the latest brands or hottest trends from Hollywood. They can now be found on the Internet—usually from even more relatable sources or people. Audigier's success and descent are intrinsically tied to the decline of celebrity style influence. And while his passing at 57 is untimely, his unexpected fashion legacy speaks for itself.