Are You Ready to (Dress Like You) Rock?
Posted January 17, 2018 5:32 p.m. EST
LOS ANGELES — On a slightly scuzzy strip of Sunset Boulevard, past the faded rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and oddly psychedelic trappings of a kitschy Thai restaurant (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite), out the back and down the stairs, is a one-room studio.
“This is where I started, by myself,” said Mike Amiri. “One table, one chair.”
Amiri is the founder and designer of Amiri, which is perhaps the most popular men’s luxury brand you’ve never heard of. Amiri doesn’t give many interviews, and he hasn’t yet been made a cult obsession by most hypebeasts, the streetwear devotees that constellate the menswear-discussing corners of the internet.
His clothes — shredded denim, biker jackets, worn flannels and everything studded, distressed, leopard-spotted or glitter-dusted — have gained a following among the swag-seeking missiles of the NBA and NFL (DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Brandon Ingram, Odell Beckham Jr.), but his biggest fans may be the retailers who, even in these retail-challenged times, sell his clothes. A lot of his clothes.
“It has become one of the biggest businesses in the men’s ready-to-wear,” said Jay Bell, senior vice president for men’s ready-to-wear at Barneys New York. “It really doesn’t happen often.”
In only three years in business, Amiri has gone from nothing to a projected $40 million in sales in 2018, according to the company.
“We got very excited, very quickly,” Bell said. “It’s growing faster than any business currently in my designer matrix. It’s a phenomenon. It really is.”
Amiri no longer works on Sunset, although he keeps the old studio — backslid now to more or less one table, one chair — as a reminder of days gone by. In fact, he said on a warm day in mid-December, as the crash of silverware could be heard from the restaurant kitchen above, he grew out of it quickly and moved to a studio in Koreatown. In six months, he grew out of that one and relocated downtown. Soon we were headed there, negotiating Los Angeles traffic in Amiri’s new G-Class Mercedes. As of this month, he has moved once again, to a 30,000-square-foot complex that will house his design studio, a showroom, a digital studio for e-commerce and, for kicks and good measure, a basketball court.
Amiri, 41, grew up in Hollywood, the son of émigré Iranians who parlayed a business in antique rugs into real estate investments, enough of them to rent an apartment in Beverly Hills so that Amiri and one of his brothers could go to Beverly Hills High School on the right side of the tracks. (Amiri remembered being an outsider there, ditching classes and smoking cigarettes alongside classmates like Angelina Jolie.) But his sensibility was forged along the Sunset Strip of the 1990s, the halcyon days of hard rock and Viper Room debauchery.
“Coming from Hollywood, the heroes were people you would see here,” Amiri said. “People in those jackets, the flannels, superlong hair, polka-dot shirts with leopard. For me, that was the coolest thing ever. To anybody else, they look like burnouts.”
That sensibility, some 30 years later, still dictates the Amiri look, which is as subtle as a scream. Amiri’s first collection was built around embellished jeans and sweatshirts and tees holed by shotgun fire — distressed clothes you could hardly blame for their distress. It is based on vintage items, which Amiri began his career scouring flea markets for and reinterpreting.
“For people who have more money than time, you don’t have to go digging every weekend at the Rose Bowl,” said Will Welch, the creative director of GQ. “It’s the vintage grails you always wanted to find.”
Here they have morphed into something glitzier and gamier. Amiri has a free hand with embellishment, and a love of casual staples — hoodies, flannels and so on — ratcheted to luxurious but still flea-bitten extremes. As rock gods crank their amps to 11, so does he. A note on a pair of jeans in development at his studio read “Needs Destruction.”
Jeans like those are a big part of the Amiri business, and its cornerstone. Amiri idolized Hedi Slimane, a fellow (if adopted) Angeleno and rock obsessive, who helped pioneer cult luxury denim as the designer of Dior Homme in the early Aughts. The pairs Amiri himself designs are, generally speaking, skintight, slashed and stretchy, and can run to $1,000 or more.
Stretch has fallen out of favor in men’s fashion, but Amiri realized that stretch fabrics were more comfortable for those who live, party, sleep and wake up in their jeans, and a man with a 34-inch waist doesn’t mind finding he fits into a 32. (Amiri introduced a women’s collection in 2017, and while men’s still accounts for 75 percent of sales, women’s is growing.) Amiri’s brashness is in stark contrast to some of the luxury brands with which he now competes, which tend to fetishize newness and intellectualize their approach. So, too, was the brashness of Slimane’s designs for Saint Laurent, whose spirit hangs heavy over Amiri’s collection. (Slimane left Saint Laurent in 2016, leaving a grunge-shaped hole in the marketplace.) At Paris Fashion Week, where Amiri will stage his first presentation Friday, his line is not likely to look similar to the more established luxury houses showing alongside him.
“It’s easy to come from LA and think what you do is very cool,” he said. “But a lot of things you do can be really vulgar. You have to know, this might not even be that cool globally.” He acknowledged the importance of balancing the collection between rowdiness and refinement, even if the scale tips slightly toward the former.
“It’s not for everybody,” Welch said.
And yet, for those it is for, it is very for.
“People, at least in LA, it’s how they dress,” said Sarah Stewart, buying director of Maxfield in Los Angeles, which was Amiri’s first client and carried the line exclusively for its first year. Last year, Amiri built out a six-week pop-up space at Maxfield where, he said, he sold $275,000 worth of clothes in the first three hours.
Although rock musicians have worn his clothes — an early custom client was Steven Tyler — Amiri is one of a handful of designers, like Virgil Abloh of Off-White and Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, who have reinterpreted rock staples for a hip-hop era, taking some of their cues from rock (the skintight jeans) and some from hip-hop (the oversize shirts and jackets Amiri puts on top of them).
“It’s interesting to me because rock ‘n’ roll has never been more dead,” Welch said. “But everyone wants to dress like Kurt Cobain.”
Amiri doesn’t like to think he’s designing just for rock stars. “I love when someone comes up to me and they’re a dentist,” he said. One came up to him on Melrose Avenue not long ago. “He goes, ‘Dude, I love your jeans, I wear them on the weekend,'” Amiri said. “It makes me feel like I’m in high school.” There is good business to be done from mining such school-days memories, which die hard. Amiri has his own. Browsing a rack of pieces for his Paris show, he came to a leather jacket airbrushed with an image of Kiefer Sutherland as a young vampire in “The Lost Boys” (1987).
“It’s so nostalgic for a certain time,” Amiri said with a sigh.
You might have to send one to Sutherland, a reporter suggested.
“Or his dentist,” Amiri said.