5 Questions for Max Azria

Despite a year of financial ups and downs, Max Azria is feeling chipper.

“Every single morning is like I just started,” said the designer, founder and CEO of the privately held BCBG Max Azria Group Inc. “I’m 63 years old, and I act like I’m 18.”

Azria is optimistic about getting back on track after a 2011 revenue decline and questions surrounding the firm’s ability to repay $230 million in refinancing debt due by 2015. “We are working with our lenders to modify our covenants in our loan agreement,” Azria said. “Business is good, and we have a positive outlook for the future.”

His most recent launch of shoes under the luxury brand Hervé Léger by Max Azria suggests a strong return. While Hervé Léger footwear is slated to hit retail this month, a gold stiletto style from the line drew buzz earlier this summer, when Penelope Cruz wore it on the red carpet at the premiere of Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” Azria’s other labels, including BCBG and Max Azria, are already favorites among such celebrities as Jessica Simpson, Fergie and Kate Winslet.

And while BCBG Max Azria Group continues to increase its offerings and store counts, the designer said he is more intent on perfecting his formula than expanding. “[My company] has a lot of options to become bigger, but it’s not about bigger; it’s about better,” Azria said. “This year, I want to be deeper in every aspect of our business and better in everything — production, accounting, design and merchandising.”

The company does a portion of its business with Greenwich, Conn.-based Camuto Group, which holds the license for BCBG Max Azria and BCBGeneration footwear.

Azria’s president of licensing, Sophie Rietdyk, said that relationship is robust. “Good shoes are not easy to make,” she said. “Licensing partnerships like ours continue to be strong because we effectively combine technical know-how and sourcing capabilities with [a solid] design direction.”

And Robin Rothenberg, Camuto Group’s president of sales for BCBG Footwear, agreed. “We are probably one of [BCBG Max Azria Group’s] longest-standing licenses,” she said, adding that she works with Azria’s wife and business partner, Lubov Azria, on BCBG Max Azria, and his daughter, Joyce, on BCBGeneration. “Max Azria is a strong brand for Camuto Group, and more importantly, it is a strong brand to consumers. It’s certainly one of the most recognized [fashion] names in the country and abroad.”

Here, Azria talks about his design inspiration, how his wife serves as both business executive and muse, and why running a fashion house is like leading a musical ensemble.

What is your approach to running 22 brands and more than 450 BCBG boutiques worldwide?
MA:
I’m like an orchestra conductor. My challenge is to be the best in every department, and to make everything work together. The key is to look at each line separately but to define each line from the same starting point, providing sophisticated pieces that address all aspects of a woman’s lifestyle.

Why is it important for you to have footwear for all your brands?
MA:
Our goal has always been to evolve [each] brand into a complete lifestyle collection. By having a strong presence in various categories, we are able to dress women head to toe. We are also in love with shoes. What is more sexy for a woman than a beautiful pair of shoes?

How would you describe your overall approach to the footwear business?
MA:
I’m not going with classic rules. I have my own [ideas]. I am creating my own way to be in the business and to grow the business. I do this for happiness. I’m a little bit too romantic, probably.

Where do you find your design inspiration?
MA:
I take inspiration from many different things: my travels, film, art and particularly my wife, Lubov. As a woman, a creative professional and a mother, she is the picture of style. She leads a dynamic lifestyle, wearing many different hats and always brings her personal style into every aspect of that life. She has always been my muse and continues to inspire the look of each of our collections.

You’ve said you would consider a BCBG Max Azria Group initial public offering. Is that still on your radar?
MA:
Why not? It could happen in six months, or it could be three years. I don’t know. But whatever we do, we will do it well, or we won’t do it.