Chrome Hearts: A Closer Look into a Fashion Enigma
The story of Chrome Hearts can be utilized as a modern day Western movie script: a passionate Los Angeles rebel turned successful American fashion entrepreneur, but still hates the status quo and the idea of high-end fashion. The cult-classic brand has been around for over 3 decades, yet it still remains a behind-closed-doors, IYKYK entity. The early consumers and perception of Chrome Hearts differs greatly to what it is today. Mainstream commercialization and your favorite hip/hop & rap artist has unintentionally broken down the barriers of entry for consumption. When a niche entity is mixed with hype culture, the level of saturation inevitably increases. Unfortunately, so does the cringe. And like everything else, the memes came right along.
Now, it’s hard to take the brand seriously sometimes when it’s being laughed at the same way the community laughs at VLONE. Everywhere you go, whether it’s online or your favorite shopping district, it’s hard to ignore all the t-shirts with Horseshoe screenprints and trucker hats with FUCK embroidery. But it’s also hard to ignore all the oddities that Chrome Hearts still churn out and market via their social media posts and flagship displays. How does a brand, who is responsible for all the “drip” that all these rappers claim to have, still create timeless and tasteful furniture and jewelry pieces that appeal to a select audience?
Photo of Biker wearing Chrome Hearts Leather Jacket. Source: Richard Stark Photograph Book
Chrome Hearts is slowly mastering the equilibrium between tasteful art creations for their die-hard collectors and screen-printed merchandise that appeals to the masses. Their adaptation to the modern culture and new consumer base has been widely successful, and not many brands have been able to adapt. The journey of Chrome Hearts has been a rollercoaster ride but one thing remains for certain: Chrome Hearts is here to stay and they still don’t give a fuck.
The Original Title of the Movie 'Chopper Chicks in Zombietown' was 'Chrome Hearts'.
To fully understand the bigger picture, we must go back to 1988. Richard Stark, a high-end carpenter in Hollywood, California, was given an opportunity to costume design a low-budget Troma slasher film titled Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. The horror comedy was originally going to be titled Chrome Hearts, but it was a working title and the team eventually moved in another direction. As the gig continued on and Stark’s creations were beginning to gain traction among the filming crew and their social circles, opportunities began to arise. Steve Jones, later known as Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, immediately connected with Stark via his girlfriend who starred in the film about biker chicks and zombies. Stark began to see something brewing, and he connected with his friend John Bowman, a leather manufacturer, to start a motorcycle-riding gear company based in a Los Angeles garage. This brand would eventually be called Chrome Hearts, as Stark snagged that name after it was tossed by the film crew.
They would take leather goods craftsmanship to the next level, establishing themselves in the motorcycle scene and slowly in the fashion scene. Stark and Bowman would join forces with Leonard Kamhout, a master of sterling-silver jewelry, to add sterling-silver motifs to the leather goods. Their products would take Hollywood and Los Angeles by storm, as punk rock and rock bands like Motley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith began to ask for custom Chrome Hearts pieces. Everyone wanted leather jackets and pants from Chrome Hearts, as each piece would contain sterling-silver hardware on the snaps, buttons, zipper pulls, and much more. The quality and ethos of the product spoke for itself; there was no marketing plan in place. Lenny Kravitz wanted a Chrome Hearts piece because he knew that Chrome Hearts made the best leather jackets in the world at that time. It was no longer just a motorcycle-riding gear company. Chrome Hearts was destined for something greater. But Stark honestly had no clue.
Chrome Hearts Feature for Harper's Bazaar Magazine, February 1993.
When the CFDA came knocking and calling to award Richard Stark the CFDA Accessory Designer of the Year award in 1992, no one answered. Soon, they would finally get in contact with Stark, who promised that he would have someone there to present the award. Next thing you know, Cher is walking down the red carpet in head-to-toe Chrome Hearts to present the CFDA award to Richard. After the CFDA award, Richard began to receive more and more phone calls and messages regarding his brand, but one in particular stood out as the most impactful. Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garçons, wanted Chrome Heart pieces to showcase for a season in her Aoyama flagship. Not only would this expose Chrome Hearts to a brand new demographic across the globe, it opened up the floodgates of the Asian fashion consumers. The star clients were calling, the Asian market was booming, and Chrome Hearts even began stocking at exclusive boutiques like Maxfield. However, the rollercoaster ride of the Chrome Hearts journey reached its first major bump two years after the CFDA award, as the trio of founders had a falling out and agreed to split in 1994 after Richard bought them out of the business. Laurie Lynn, a long-time client and wife of Richard Stark, would join the business and help take Chrome Hearts to the next level: global and digital.
If You Know, You Know
Chrome Hearts Classic Shot, Photographed by Laurie Lynn Stark.
The mantra of Chrome Hearts remained the same after decades of success: If you know, you know. If you don’t know, fuck you. Respectfully, of course. The exclusivity of Chrome Hearts defined the brand in the early 2000s and through the 2010s. Richard and Laurie opened their first flagship store in New York City in 1996, marking a significant milestone in the journey of Chrome Hearts. The cult-classic products now had a home and a door for consumers to walk through and browse. Throughout this time, they would never sell products online directly to consumers and their website only had location information, as more and more flagships were built strategically in various locations around the world. As of 2021, there are 20 flagships in Asia (Japan, China, Korea), 10 in the Americas (mostly the United States), 3 in Europe, and only 10 authorized retailers around the world. The barriers of entry for mass consumption prevailed throughout the years. If you found out about Chrome Hearts somehow, you now had to find a way to make a trip to a flagship to experience the brand and its products in person.
Everything in the store would be Chrome Hearts customized, from the door handles to the wood counters and even hangers. One-of-one art pieces are displayed through the flagships, sometimes even outside the retail space. It truly is a retail experience like no other and you really need to go out of your way to find it. The lack of digital presence and brand information is not only a strategy of the Stark family, it also represents Richard’s approach to his work since the beginning. He never had a marketing plan for Chrome Hearts. His Instagram account, which is surprising in the first place, only has 5 posts. Everything about Chrome Hearts is cryptic, from their product development, factories, inventory, collaborations, and overall brand ethos. It really does feel like a cult when you’re introduced to Chrome Hearts because even secondary market resell was hard to obtain for a significant period of time. Even if you knew, you didn’t really know. That’s what made people want Chrome Hearts even more.
Left: Chrome Hearts Store in West Village, Manhattan NY. Right: Chrome Hearts Aoyama Store.
Since the inception of Chrome Hearts, the world of fashion consumption has changed significantly. Access to infinite information is now a few mouse clicks and thumb scrolls away. Instagram is filled with mood boards and images tagged with all your favorite brands and influencers. Even if you want to get away from the advertising and social algorithms, you can’t. This would change the fashion world and how their audience consumes it socially and financially. As cryptic and lowkey Chrome Hearts was, the Stark family and their team knew it was a global phenomenon they couldn’t avoid. Whether they wanted to or not, they knew they had to adapt.
The hip/hop & rap community is undoubtedly the most influential among the youth and young adult demographic. You either want to be a rapper, idolize a rapper, listen to a rapper religiously, or spend a good amount of time consuming a rapper’s social content. The Stark family saw this and began to expand, as they began to slowly cater to rappers in the late 90s, 2000s, and early 2010s. Artists like Juelz Santana, Lil Wayne, and even Jay Z, were seen sporting Chrome Hearts pieces and jewelry. The images of these rappers in Chrome Hearts would become Internet relics, as every mood board Instagram page continuously queues up a square image of Jay Z sitting courtside with Beyonce, wearing Chrome Hearts. If you know, you know.
Jay Z wearing Chrome Hearts.
However, this would not have nearly the same impact as the present day. Chrome Hearts is undeniably one of the most mentioned brands in hip/hop & rap music. Artists like Drake, Migos, Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, and Gunna have all cosigned Chrome Hearts as the next cool brand to wear. The Starks are now fielding calls from private shoppers and stylists that are hoping to get their clients as much Chrome Hearts clothing as possible because all the “cool” artists have labeled it as “drip”. And unlike the CFDA in 1992, the Starks are answering immediately. Each of these artists has over millions of dedicated fans and followers, as they listen carefully to what their favorite rapper is talking about. So when Drake and Migos are rapping about Chrome Hearts, their fans immediately hit Google for a chance to relate to the artist socially and financially.
Post Malone and Lil Wayne wearing Chrome Hearts.
This influx of mainstream consumption of the brand would shatter the barriers of entry set forth by the Stark family early on, and honestly they have embraced it to some extent. The introduction, implementation, and normalization of e-commerce and secondary market reselling via StockX and resale boutiques globally have influenced Chrome Hearts’ decision to launch their own direct-to-consumer shopping section within their website. Not only are they supplying prominent rappers and influencers with clothing as marketing materials for the brand, they are also beginning to supply the consumer directly via their own e-commerce platform. You can find cult-classic Chrome Hearts products and oddities on their website, which was once just a landing page with locations of global flagships. Now, if you know, you know but you can also buy.
You Cannot Escape the Memes
There’s certain things in life that are guaranteed: death, taxes, Drake wearing Chrome Hearts, and memes. There are several consequences, both positive and negative, about mass mainstream exposure and consumption of a niche brand and community. One of these consequences are the inevitable memes that hit way too close to home sometimes. For an entity that was once so exclusive like Chrome Hearts, the memes came flooding with mainstream consumption. Every Instagram fashion meme account is filled with images making fun of dudes wearing Horseshoe tee-shirts and FUCK hats, which are two staple items in the Chrome Hearts clothing collections. Or they talk about fighting the final Chrome Hearts boss, who are die-hard collectors in Japan who wear head-to-toe Chrome Hearts like it’s their sterling-silver body armor.
The saturation of the Chrome Hearts logos is prevalent throughout social media, as people flood the Internet with screen-printed Chrome Hearts that resemble merchandise more than actual pieces that Richard Stark and his team was creating during the early stages of the brand. It’s a no-brainer that the screen-printed merchandise is their bread and butter; it’s the most accessible product and always in stock, if it’s not being bulk bought by resellers. Now, the Chrome Hearts signature Old English typography is everywhere and people are even turning their backs on pictures to show it off. It is on the same playing field as something like a VLONE, which is a significant deviation from the actual ethos of the leather goods brand once sought out by every rockstar and Hollywood celebrity. Whether that is a good thing or not, there is one thing for certain. Chrome Hearts is here to stay.
The Future of Chrome Hearts
The Chrome Hearts Family.
The rollercoaster ride of Chrome Hearts continues on today and they are undoubtedly ascending to the peak of their business endeavors. They are easily a billion-dollar company, as the Starks secretly sold 10% of their company to a private equity firm for roughly $150 million dollars. However, Chrome Hearts consumers will never directly feel the weight of that billion-dollar valuation because even as of today, Chrome Hearts still has not changed their brand ethos. The products have deviated a bit to meet the needs and demand of the new-age youth consumer, but the Starks are still pushing the well-oiled machine that defined their brand in the early 90s and 2000s. Flagships still have FUCK YOU motifs throughout the store and it’s still an odyssey to get to a brick-and-mortar Chrome Hearts store. The production of the best leather goods in the world has not stopped and they are still doing it out of their Hollywood factories. Everything is still made in the United States of America, except for their eyewear line that is made in Japan. However, to survive in an overloaded information and short-attention span fashion economy, the Starks have adapted to new strategies.
To ramp up sales, which are at an all-time-high, they began mass-producing screen printed merchandise for public consumption. The streets wanted t-shirts with abrasive Chrome Hearts logos and typography, and they met that demand like they did when all of Hollywood wanted a Chrome Hearts leather jacket back in the day. The future is bright for Chrome Hearts. There will be more collaborations, more oddities, and more storytelling through their products. The Starks have found creative inspiration from their children and family, as specific projects pertain to each of their interests such as bikinis, nail polish, and workwear.
With the help of creative director Mattyboy, the ethos of Chrome Hearts have dabbled in the contemporary art world. Mattyboy’s hand-drawn style brings a new level of artistic uniqueness to the designs of Chrome Hearts, as he finds the perfect balance between his color characters and the traditional symbols. Aside from the hand-drawn art, Chrome Hearts still create one-of-one pieces that helped define the brand’s legacy since day one. A prime example is the workbench project, as Richard Stark tapped back into his woodwork background to create an art piece with family friend Virgil Abloh. Clients are now able to look at the art piece as if they are in an art gallery when they stroll through the Chrome Hearts flagships. A true full-circle moment.
Richard Stark Sculpture.
Aside from all the saturation, memes, and screen printed merchandise, Chrome Hearts remains a timeless entity with their designs, legacy, and heritage. The brand represents something that is rare in modern-day fashion, as they embrace the idea of conforming. They still refuse to follow trends. They still refuse to participate in any status quo procedures in the fashion world. Marketing strategies are still cryptic and the numbers are still private. You will know about a Chrome Hearts project or launch when they want you to know. Now, if you know, it’s because they wanted you to know. Not because they need you to know. It’s truly a journey like no other. Chrome Hearts has risen from the muck of Hollywood and polished itself into something greater.
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Writer: Art V.
Visual Content Sourcing: Felix R.