It was Elton John who gave me my first Chrome Hearts ring. We were backstage at Caesers Palace after our first writing session together, and something about the ring's heavy sparkle and bulk imbued it with a talismanic power that it retains to this day. Ever since that night, collecting and wearing Chrome Hearts pieces has become an obsession of mine. Little did I know that eventually my friendship with the company's founders, Richard and Laurie Lynn Stark, would become more precious to me than anything they could ever make.
I first met Richard when he came to one of our Scissor Sisters concerts with Cher. At first he seemed like the quiet, brooding type. But now, years later, it's clear that my first impression of him couldn't be farther from the truth. He and his wife Laurie Lynn are two of the most enthusiastic, engaging and active people I know. With a creative philosophy that mixes the full-throttle cool of Easy Rider with a discipline that rivals that of the Bauhaus movement, they've managed to turn a passion for leather and motorcycles into the world's definitive rock 'n' roll luxury brand. For almost 25 years, the Starks have not only supplied their devoted customers with a cavalcade of chunky, mean-looking, diamond-dipped jewelry, they've used their unique design prowess to make everything from clothes, bags, doorknobs, chopsticks, couches and a few years ago they even erected a tepee for Art Basel. In addition to helming stand-alone stores across the States, as well as in Europe and Asia, they publish a magazine themselves and manufacture the goods in their own factory in Hollywood, California, while Laurie Lynn photographs all of their ad campaigns.
The couple's influences are wide ranging, and you never quite know what you'll see next: Whether it's their close friend Cher gracing the cover of their magazine, the work of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe lining the inside of a classic black leather jacket, or a straightforward "Fuck You" engraved on a bracelet -- by following their instincts to refuse trend-bending, they have remained the coolest homegrown fashion outsiders on American soil.
Jake Shears: Richard, when and where were you when you realized you were a biker?
Richard Stark: I saw a big Hells Angels funeral ride by me and I thought, I want to be that.
JS: And did you immediately get a bike?
RS: I was nine years old. The first time I owned a bike was about 15 years later. Before that I couldn't afford one. I got to California in 1978 and I didn't know what I was going to do; I just came out here, basically to check out the California girls. I ended up getting one: Laurie. I was an apprentice to an architect builder for a while, where I learned all kinds of aspects of building. While I was doing that I worked for a leather importing company. I helped them stock and ship whatever they needed. I ended up working for them full time. And then, in 1988, kind of about the same time I met the love of my life, Laurie, I started Chrome Hearts.
Above: Various Chrome Hearts designs and Richard Stark.
JS: I'm sure that when you started Chrome Hearts your life was very different from what it is now.
RS: Well, the company is very different, but I'm not, I hope. It's all about making art and hoping people will like it. I wanted to do something that was my own. And at the time, I didn't quite know what it was.
JS: Laurie, how would you describe Richard, and what are some of his traits that have contributed to the brand's success?
Laurie Lynn Stark: He's solid, an old-school gentleman from another time. He hasn't veered from the person I first met. It's like he's out of a novel or something.
JS: And Richard, what were the first pieces that you were doing with Chrome Hearts? What were the first ideas that you had?
RS: Well we started off by making biker clothing, not really for bikers, but for myself to ride in. In the beginning, we did all kinds of things and basically anything we could to survive. For instance, we made leather swimwear for Laurie's company -- she had a swimwear line at that time. We were also making costumes for Chippendales, because Laurie did all the art direction for them. The first job we ever did was designing costumes for a 1989 movie called Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. Billy Bob Thornton was in it, and at the time nobody had ever heard of him.
JS: Now, when you see objects, functional things, does it just click in your head and you're like, "Oh, let's make our own version of that"?
RS: Yeah, I'll be working on something, whatever it may be, like a desk, or a door, or pants, buttons, whatever, and I'll see something else, and be like, "Oh shit I gotta make that, too." And then I figure that out while I'm doing it. Eventually it all comes together.
Above: Laurie Lynn Stark and Richard Stark.
JS: And is Laurie still the same person that you met in 1988?
RS: Yeah, but she's way hotter. She gets better by the minute. I describe her as the colorful side of me, and Chrome Hearts. Laurie actually had way more of a fashion background than I did when I started, making her own clothes and swimwear, and she did styling, art direction, all that kind of stuff. I didn't really have much designing experience, I just kind of came up with the idea one night and thought that it would be pretty simple to accomplish. I later found out that it's a really hard thing to accomplish.
JS: How did Laurie end up being so involved with the image aspect of the company?
RS: She was always doing styling and art direction for major photo shoots, not just for Chrome Hearts, but all kinds of things, from television to swim ads. She was like, "I'm just gonna shoot this shit, man." And she's as good as it gets.
LLS: I'm hands on, Richard's hands on. But early on I almost started off as kind of a muse to him. And then I quit everything I was doing to work with him as a partner in the business. We knew we had to do it together. And eventually, just when we were thinking, "Oh, maybe we should do something else," Jessie Jo, our daughter, came in. All of a sudden she's the next generation. We didn't want to say, "This is our dream, you should live it," but she automatically has wanted to get involved, designing and being a part of it.
Above, clockwise from left: Chrome Hearts custom rings with Scissor Sisters motif, Laurie Lynn Stark and the Chrome Hearts' Hollywood Factory.
JS: And she's designing some amazing stuff for you guys.
LLS: We've always run our business as a family.
JS: When did you realize that what you were doing was taking off?
RS: Well it pretty much happened immediately, but I guess the really big change was when we won the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] Award in 1992. When we heard we had won, I had never heard of the award; it even took me a couple of weeks to call them back, because I just thought it was some kind of committee trying to get money from me or something. So you know, that was some serious recognition. But no matter how much recognition you get, if you don't work your ass off taking advantage of what's coming at you, it doesn't much matter.
JS: I love how you remain fascinated by artists and musicians, people like Steve Jones [of the Sex Pistols], Antony from Antony and the Johnsons, Lou Reed and Marina Abramovic. Do you relate to them as fellow outsiders? I mean, all of those people that you're fascinated with are working outside of the mainstream and kind of doing their own thing.
LLS: We grew with a lot of these artists that we love. I remember Lenny Kravitz saying to us, "I want to make music." All of a sudden, 20 years have gone by and you see what he's become. There are people we grew up with, like Duff McKagen and Steve Jones. And then there are people that took us under their wings. There are musicians and artists that are drawn to us because they see something that's familiar but rare. And they support us by buying something, showing up to an event, wearing something in a shoot. A lot of the publicity that we've had has been mostly love that people have had for Chrome Hearts, not by paid advertising. It doesn't carry the same weight when you pay people to wear your stuff. It's different when Cher wears something because she wants to. Or Cindy Crawford wears one of our pieces with a couture dress in Vogue. You can't pay for that.
JS: But there's another aspect of what you guys do which involves the concerts you have in your factory's loft. You've created a performance space. It's esoteric, it's something that most brands in your position aren't interested in doing.
LLS: It's a community and a family and about talent coming together. People feel safe with us so they can express themselves. I would hate to ever lose that. It's something we want to expand even more. We'd love to do it in New York. It could be a place where you can go play a new song for 100 people and we can all have dinner at the same time. We want to takeover a space downtown.
RS: You know, when we started, it was to make clothes, and jewelry and stuff to ride in. We're related to the fashion world, but we're not in it. We don't play the game. There are no "seasons" for us. It's all about the art of what we do.
JS: I've always seen a strong tie between what you guys make and your love for America.
RS: I'm American, born and bred, so it means a lot to me. There was one night when I realized how important America was to me and the redneck in me came out. I was at the Colorado River with a bunch of Europeans. They were all getting down on America, and I kept listening to them complaining. Finally I said: "You know what's the greatest thing about America?" They're all like, "What?" And I said, "You can get the fuck out!" That was kind of a turning point for me. It's a really hard thing to manufacture in America -- California and New York are probably the two worst states you could do what I do in. But I fight for that. I have stores all over the world, but I make the stuff here, send it over there and bring the money back to Americans.
JS: It sounds like it would be easier to make your clothes overseas.
RS: Well, it's kind of the way it is right now. But I like to defy stuff. I try to live in this Chrome Hearts world, and fuck the rest of it.