Art

There’s just no place like Chrome

by Michelle Dalton Tyree

Richard Stark is the antidesigner.

He started out making leather jackets, chaps and saddlebags for his Harley-riding friends. These days his company, Chrome Hearts, outfits the likes of Cher, Aerosmith and Motley Crue, among others, in leather and silver. He won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award (the Oscar of the fashion world) in 1992 for Accessory Designer of the Year (presented by Cher, who was wearing Chrome Hearts head to toe), but says he had absolutely no idea what the CFDA was.

He is telling the truth.

The first time a micromini-clad stylist from the U.K. magazine Face (at least he thinks it was Face) walked into his L.A. store and said she wanted to borrow stuff for a photo shoot, Stark thought, “Wonder if we’re ever getting that back?”

He gave her the items. She came back two days later to return them. The designs eventually appeared in the magazine. And the rest is Chrome Hearts’ history. After that incident, however, Stark became savvy to the press game and started calling up editors at Vogue, Elle and other big glossies, stopping by their offices when he was in town.

His approach?

Simple, he says: “I told them, ‘I make s**t, you guys should have it, so maybe you should send your people over or whatever.’ ”

And he received glowing coverage.

Stark’s handwritten bio (complete with doodles on the top of the page) includes everything from his distinguished nursery school career (1963-1965) and his daughter’s birth in 1991 to what he calls the “one sedated eve [when his] favorite design way [Chrome Hearts] was conceived” (1988).

His motto for success: “Chrome Hearts don’t get you home, but Chrome Hearts will get you somewhere that makes you feel like your home.”

Don’t get it? Doesn’t matter. For die-hard fans there’s no place like home. Three clicks of their Chrome Hearts motorcycle boots takes them to the latest flagship store in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, where biker chic is elevated to an entirely new level: Every cabinet, door and closet is pure ebony (imported from Africa) with sterling silver hinges, drawer pulls and other fittings. The dressing room curtain: leather with sterling silver curtain rings.

Customers can find everything from sensuous oversize leather furniture to leather biker jackets and custom-made leather pants — all made of exquisite top-quality leather and outfitted exclusively with sterling silver buttons to knit caps and their wildly popular silver jewelry.

With a mane of curly golden-brown hair that hangs about the shoulders of his signature leather jacket, the handsome and extremely affable 39-year-old Stark looks like a contented lion chilling out and enjoying his surroundings. In town recently for the opening of his first Tokyo store, Stark, still buzzing from a potent cappucino, sat down to talk about the success of Chrome Hearts.

What’s been the best thing about the success of CH?

“Really, really radical seats at most concerts. And that really doesn’t have anything to do with success, but it’s one of my favorite things that I got from this company. Like, we do a lot of work with rock ‘n’ roll and movie stars and stuff, and what’s great about that is to go see them perform — but with the radical seats, so you can see it, instead of waiting in line and getting a seat all the way in the back.

“To see the stuff [CH] on stage is cool, but I don’t really care if they have it on or not, I just wanna see the show because a lot of these people, somebody like Aerosmith or something . . . I was making out to their songs when I was 12 or 13 years old.”

Your first job started with the legendary movie “Chopper” Chicks in Zombie Town,” right?

“Well ‘Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town’ was a horror comedy, and my best friend in my whole life was one of the co-producers, and him and his wife actually, we did all their clothes. There’s eight girls called the Cycle Sluts and they save this town from the zombies. And we did the wardrobe.

“It wasn’t Chrome Hearts as it is today, it was CH doing a movie, a really, really low-budget, like no-budget low-budget . . . like you’d take old $99 leather jackets and you adorn them with all this cheap [stuff].

“And one of those girls was the girlfriend of one of the Sex Pistols, so that’s how we met the Sex Pistols.”

So what did you make for the Sex Pistols?

“We did jackets and pants and all kinds of stuff.”

What’s the ‘one sedated eve that your favorite design way was conceived?’ “

“Basically it was 24-hour sedation, that time of my life [laughs] . . . I didn’t really know how to explain how it was conceived, but it was a sedated eve.

“It wasn’t a planned thing. All I was doing as far as making things was making stuff for myself and friends and kind of fooling around and making stuff to ride motorcycles with. Also, I sold leather. I represented tanneries all over the world, sold skin to manufacturers. Then I started manufacturing for some of the manufacturers that I sold to that didn’t know how to use leather.”

Little did you know “Chopper Chicks” was in your future.

“I started with one employee then had 30. If their [the manufacturer] production was finished you’d have 30 guys sitting there because you didn’t get the shirts to put the leather on or something . . . and I’m not like this hard-core business man, where like most contractors would lay off their people then bring them back, lay ’em off, bring ’em back — I just paid ’em, because I wouldn’t do that to somebody.

“So once it turned into this real contracting business I really hated it. So I decided to rename the company, and it was going to become Enema Fashions, and the slogan was going to be ‘We take care of all your s**t.’ “

So you went from taking care of people’s crap to . . .

“When Chrome Hearts was conceived it was to make what I think are the best quality leathers in the world and also to make all the hardware for the leather — the snaps the buttons, the zipper pulls and all that kind of s**t.

“It was to do that first and from that came jewelry and . . . then it just kept growing. . . . Furniture was what I wanted to start with, but I knew I couldn’t sell it, because my background is woodworking.”

Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo actually gave CH its start in Japan when Kawakubo used to showcase people’s stuff at the Aoyama store for one season to help them get their foot in Japan. And you even modeled for her in Paris. How did your modeling debut go?

“Scary . . . When it was all over I bought one of her black cotton button-down shirts and I took all the buttons off it and put Chrome Hearts buttons on it . . . and I crossed out her label and put Chrome des Garcons on it and I gave it to her as a present.”

I’m sure she wears it all the time. Do you get tired of dealing with the fashion world?

“Everybody’s real [at CH]. There’s no game being played for the fashion world. To me CH has got nothing to do with the fashion world. We don’t have any seasons. I make things when I wanna make them, because I wanna make them.”

How about custom work you do for people, like celebritites?

“All the special custom stuff I enjoy when I enjoy the person and I don’t enjoy it when I don’t enjoy the person — and that’s pretty much how that works.”

Have you turned a lot of stars away?

“Not because we didn’t like them or anything, but because we couldn’t. A lot of times what happens with celebritites is that they need something and they need it tomorrow. . . . It’s like Christmas is coming and they didn’t know the whole year it was coming till the day before.”

What’s the strangest thing people have asked you to design?

“Probably the sex kind of stuff . . . like cock rings or, you know [blushes], toys.”

Uh, erm (blush).

“I’d say we’ve been asked to do things that aren’t very tasteful [in terms of style].”

So you draw the line not at sex toys, but bad design?

“Anybody comes in and wants me to make something that they’re gonna look stupid in, I’m gonna tell you. Because I don’t want you to look bad . . . not in my stuff anyways.”

What kind of guarantees do your customers get?

“Everything’s got a lifetime guarantee — unless you get fat. If you get fat, you’re on your own. We’ll fix it, but you pay.”

Do most customers go for the full-on leather look?

“I wear full leather, but most of customers don’t do that. They just have one piece on . . . like a necklace, period. There’s not a lot of people who have leather head to toe.

“A lot of our customers are international, so we have a lot of the same customers in all the stores. . . . Elton John buys CH everywhere that he sees it.”

Do you have a business philosophy, life philosophy?

“Not a set one really, but whatever it is it’s honest and I have to want to do it. That’s why I said [on my bio] ‘The future: Whatever I want.’ “

Speaking of your handwritten bio, you know most people don’t include things like the year they fell in love or when they had their first child on official press bios.

“They don’t?”

No.

“Why not?”

I don’t know. They should. Your family is a pretty big influence on you then?

“Everybody influences [me] and I let ’em. I don’t necessarily do what everybody says, but I hear it all and I’m totally open to hearing it all. Even though I’m the boss it’s really something that means nothing to me — at all.

“Everybody works with me. I’m on the same exact level as everyone in the entire building and my family. It’s not like ‘I’m your dad you have to listen. I don’t talk to my daughter like that or anything. I say what I gotta say but I don’t pull rank or anything, that’s not my style.”

When will your 8-year-old daughter get her first Harley?

“Other parents have said to me, ‘What’s gonna happen when some guy like you shows up at your house on a motorcycle to pick up your daughter?’ Right? And I go, ‘What’s gonna happen when my daughter, dressed in full leather, pulls up to your house and wants to pick up your son on a motorcycle?’ “

Yeah, well that’s a toughie.

“She’s probably gonna be more conservative — even though I’m conservative. She’s more of an adult than both me and wife anyway.”

What would surprise people to learn about you?

“That I’m black.”

Peals of laughter erupt in the room, and the lion smirks at his joke. And with that he rides off into the sunset — on a Harley, of course.

Chrome Hearts is located at 6-3-14 Minami-Aoyama, (03) 5766-1081.