The Evolution of Chrome Hearts

From Lil Uzi Vert to Kylie Jenner, Chrome Hearts is a brand that everyone is wearing in the year 2020. Here is the complete evolution of the brand.

Virgil Abloh Chrome Hearts

Image via Getty/Matthew Sperzel

Virgil Abloh Chrome Hearts

Chrome Hearts is a brand that seems to be everywhere in 2020, whether as the title of a standout track from Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake, in Gunna and The Weeknd’s lyrics, or on Kylie Jenner’s Instagram. But the Los Angeles luxury label is far from a newcomer or simply the “in” brand of the moment. Chrome Hearts has been around since the ‘80s, cultivating an entire biker-inspired lifestyle with premium quality leather, sunglasses, jewelry, and home goods for over three decades. 

Chrome Hearts was originally founded in 1988 by Richard Stark and leather manufacturer John Bowman in a Los Angeles garage. Stark and Bowman couldn’t find leather jackets on the market that they wanted to wear, so they started to make their own. Sterling silver jeweler Leonard Kamhout joined the operation shortly after. The first big exposure for the brand came from legendary punk rock band, the Sex Pistols. The then-girlfriend of lead guitarist Steve Jones was starring a low-budget horror comedy from 1989 titled Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and Chrome Hearts designed some costumes for the movie. Jones took a liking to the brand and began wearing it on stage. From there, other big bands like Motley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses started wearing the Chrome Hearts' leather pieces and accessories as well, which began to establish the brand as an essential part of the rockstar uniform at the time. 

By the early ‘90s, the fashion world started paying attention to Chrome Hearts too, but Stark has never been interested in being pigeonholed as fashion brand despite its ties to the industry. Chrome Hearts received a CFDA Accessory Designer of the Year award in 1992, which cemented its reputation and increased brand awareness. Cher, another musical icon who fancied the brand, even presented Stark with the award in a full Chrome Hearts fit. He apparently almost didn’t accept the prestigious honor at the time because he wasn’t familiar with the CFDA. A 1999 article in the Japan Times even referred to Stark as “the antidesigner.” In the interview, the founder goes on to say how his favorite perk of success is the “radical seats at most concerts.”

“There’s no game being played for the fashion world. To me Chrome Hearts has got nothing to do with the fashion world,” Stark told the Japan Times. “We don’t have any seasons. I make things when I wanna make them, because I wanna make them.”

Comme des Garçon’s Rei Kawakubo was responsible for Chrome Hearts’ introduction into the Japanese market around the same time. She showcased the brand’s goods for a season in CDG’s Aoyama flagship back in the ‘90s. The two parties would eventually collaborate officially in 2007 for a series of silver pendants and apparel.

The trio of founders would eventually split in 1994 and Stark and his wife Laurie Lynn would maintain control of the brand. Two years later, the brand’s first flagship opened in New York City. It has grown into a 28-store operation since with locations in places like Los Angeeles, Miami, and Las Vegas. Each offers its own unique look and products. The “fuck you” carved into the floorboards is a store signature. Besides flagships, the brand has been stocked at a limited number of luxury stores like Maxfield, Bergdorf Goodman, Selfridges, and Dover Street Market. There is no e-commerce presence (unless you opt to browse the secondary market). Its limited nature adds even more to the brand’s allure. Already established as a staple in rocker's wardrobes, the rap world would eventually take a liking to the brand as well. In the Aughts, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Lil Wayne frequently wore Chrome Hearts apparel and accessories like its leather belts donning silver hardware. More recently, it’s been championed by names like Lil Uzi Vert, Kanye West, and Travis Scott.

Chrome Hearts Stark Family

The Stark children, Jesse Jo and twins Frankie Belle and Kristian have used their LA connections to push the brand into the spotlight for a whole new generation. One of the biggest projects in recent years was a full collaborative collection with Bella Hadid, a close friend of the family, that debuted exclusively at Selfridges in 2017. The partnership has gone on to feature multiple capsules since. Other collaborators have included legendary rock group The Rolling Stones, Bape, Rick Owens, and Comme des Garçons. Their silver dagger hardware has donned custom Air Jordan Is and Rolex watches. The brand’s assortment of goods is vast to say the least, but two of its most widely recognizable items these days are probably its trucker hats emblazoned with gothic fonts and $1,750 denim adorned with leather crosses that has become ubiquitous with big name rappers like Drake and Offset. The trend has become so popular that MNML Los Angeles, a fast fashion brand known for making cheaper alternatives to expensive trends, began to produce its own cross-covered denim resulting in an ongoing legal battle that began in April 2020.

Virgil Abloh, who has called Chrome Hearts one of his favorite brands, also collaborates with the company frequently. Abloh’s Off-White worked with the brand in 2015 on a capsule of T-shirts and trucker hats. A follow-up capsule would debut the year after. They worked together again in 2018 on a bright orange co-branded hoodie and a collection of pieces for Art Basel Miami the same year. The duo most recently worked together in 2019 when Chrome Hearts’ New York flagship hosted Abloh’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection with Louis Vuitton. The space included a split wooden bench designed in partnership by Abloh and Stark. 

“What I appreciate about [Chrome Hearts] the most is that it’s a brand that is about craftsmanship, a new form of luxury—but there’s a barrier to entry,” Abloh told Architectural Digest in 2019. “A lot of brands outwardly try to get everyone, and for me Chrome Hearts is a brand that you have to stare at to see the detail. I’ve always appreciated that, especially in this new fashion landscape where there’s a million things all over the place.”

It isn’t just about the clothing either. Over the years, Chrome Hearts has also been a purveyor of everything from leather and wooden furniture to $6,000 toilet plungers and even truffle shavers. Think of it as an edgy Ralph Lauren. If you want to live the full Chrome Hearts lifestyle (and have the budget required to do so), then you can. While it began in an LA garage, the brand now occupies three blocks in Hollywood, a 250,000 square foot campus that includes 13 buildings and eight factories. It could easily scale, expand its stockists, and make itself more accessible to make a killing right now, it isn’t what they are interested in doing.

"I mean, you could grow the T-shirts and have everyone in the world wearing them, but we want to control what we make,” Laurie Lynn told WWD in 2019. “Our sku rationalization is less stuff and more focus.”

Despite its massive popularity and positioning among some of the biggest fashion designers on the planet, the rebellious nature of Chrome Hearts is something that Richard still maintains to this day. It might seem like a luxury fashion brand to everyone, but not him. 

“They are trendy when they’re trendy but they’re overalls,” he told WWD. “That’s the fashion industry, that’s what Chrome Hearts isn’t in. Chrome Hearts is in the Chrome Hearts business.”

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