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Leather and Silver: The Full History of Chrome Hearts

From California motorcycle clubs to collaborations with Virgil Abloh

Leather and Silver: The Full History of Chrome Hearts From California motorcycle clubs to collaborations with Virgil Abloh

Leather and silver. An unusual combination that is the basis of the DNA of a Chrome Hearts brand and that has been able to seduce, among others, Karl Lagerfeld who made it his own unofficial jeweler, Rai Kawakubo who loved the brand so much to ferry it to Japan from its native California and Virgil Abloh, frequent collaborator of the brand and, like its founder Richard Stark , creative with a thousand talents. A brand that has seduced both fashion and music – getting a legendary one-of-a-kind deal with the Rolling Stones as well as a following that includes the Sex Pistols, Guns 'n' Roses, Cher, Elton John, Aerosmith and virtually every singer or rapper from the early 1990s to the present day, including A$AP Rocky, Kanye West and Travis Scott. Yet the attitude of Richard Stark, the very soul of the brand along with his wife Laura Lynn and the rest of his family, could not be more averse to the softness of marketing and the rituals of European fashion.  He once told V Magazine:

«Nowadays, everybody’s fucking luxury. I don’t use the word…I just try to use amazing materials, craftsmanship, attention to detail, precious metals, precious gems, all that kind of shit. I guess you can call it whatever you want».

After more than thirty years of life, in fact, Chrome Hearts has remained a brand that does not compromise, that has not given up its soul halfway between that of the motorcycle club and the rock band, able to expand in all areas of creativity until the creation of furniture, perfumes and glasses but that has a clear and inflexible vision of its identity. If the brand is famous among fashion insiders and little to the general public it is because selling out is not an option – Stark is a craftsman, not a designer, marketing does not interest him, there are only two really important things: leather and silver.

The brand was born, as Stark recounts, during "one sedated evening" in 1988. He was a luxury leather dealer and his friend John Bowman, a leather craftsman, both keen bikers, came up with the idea of starting to create leather jackets and accessories for themselves and friends. To decorate them they named the third founding member of the brand, Leonard Kamhout, a goldsmith who had employed only a specific alloy of silver and copper named sterling silver. Kamhout created buttons, eyelets and straps of pure sterling silver for them. The result of that collaboration was a series of handmade leather, leather and silver leather motorcycle jackets, saddles, with a craftsmanship and a unique quality of materials as well as a country-goth aesthetic that forever defined the future of the brand. All these years the production center has remained the same: a huge campus-laboratory that occupies three entire blocks in the very heart of Hollywood.

The official birth act, however, passes through the cinema and, specifically, through a B-movie named Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. The film was important because one of the co-producers asked Stark to curate the costumes – a series of leather studded jackets and bras, cross pendants, boots and cowboy belts – making him find his true vocation. Even the film's working title, Chrome Hearts, inspired him by the name of the brand he founded by opening his first store in Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles. Among his first clients were Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, known during the film's production, Lenny Kravitz, and members of the film. One day the art director Laurie Lynn enters the store to order custom-made swimwear and meets Stark: a few months later the two are already in front of the altar and Laurie Lynn Stark becomes a partner of the brand that, after the abandonment of the original partners, becomes a family business.

1992 is the year of the turning point. The phone rings, but at Stark's house no one hears him or cares to answer. At the other end of the line is the Council of Fashion Designers of America who would like to announce to Richard Stark that he has been selected as the winner of the Accessories Designer of the Year award. With nothing to know about the award they won, the Starks continue with their everyday life until a Vogue editor calls back to warn them – even telling them that they can choose any celebrity for the presentation of the award. Richard Stark chooses Cher but does not communicate it to the production. Just a week after the awards ceremony, during a fitting, the singer and actress realizes that no one has realized that she will announce the victory of Stark on stage. The ceremony went well, Cher's outfit, completely custom-made, remained in the annals of the red carpet and Stark withdrew his award – without even knowing what the CFDA was.

In the meantime, the business expanded. From the normal leather goods to shoes and jeans to the production of furniture, the work of goldsmithing conducted on the metallic appliques of the jackets turned into jewelry, and then in the production of glasses. Chrome Hearts was one of the favorite brands of the best American rock singers: their licensing deal with the Rolling Stones is legendary, leading Stark to produce a gold belt and diamonds in the shape of the band's logo worth 40,000 dollars - although Stark never personally met any members of the Stones. One day, looking at the precious belt and discovering that Mick Jagger and Stark had never met, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith told him, quite outspokenly: "‘What? I’d suck your cock in a Macy’s window if you fucking made me this."

Although ideally far from the world of fashion, Chrome Hearts has always declined its identity through a large number of illustrious collaborations. The most important was the one with Rai Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçona, who "exported" Chrome Hearts to Japan, consecrated the myth in the rest of Asia and co-signed with Stark an exclusive capsule for Dover Street Market that continued to renew over the years. The others were no less: in 2004 it was the turn of Yves Saint Laurent (before the brand name received the re-styling of Hedi Slimane), in 2009 that of Nigo and BAPE as well as Baccarat, In 2010 he was up to Rick Owens, in 2012 and 2018 Virgil Abloh for Off-White™, in 2016 with adidas, for the redesign of a special Stan Smith and in 2018 with sacai. In addition to a continued relationship with Abloh, who debuted Louis Vuitton's SS19 in the brand's pop-up, Chrome Hearts recently collaborated with Jordan Barrett and Bella Hadid who was a regular at the Los Angels factory when she was still a teenager.

The brand identity model developed by Chrome Hearts, both purist and always open to dialogue, precise but poorly coded, unlike that of the most historical and institutional luxury brands, has allowed it to transcend the same category of fashion and become a cultural phenomenon in a few years, without, moreover, exploiting the usual media and commercial platforms for the current luxury industry. The multi-disciplinary and the focus on craftsmanship have allowed it to expand, no less, to all categories of production, making it an already accomplished example of that new conception of luxury that places value in the cross identity of a brand and its community rather than in its status symbol.