“I was always making, doing,” says Brian Lichtenberg, leaning out the passenger window of a Honda Odyssey as it rolls hard through Compton.
The designer admits this morsel with a calm fondness. Over the years I’ve known him I’ve seen influences wax and wane, seen him create and modify trends, but he’s always been an artist. All the while so collected and cool, like some gentle business knight-errant.
Lichtenberg has influences. They come in various spectacular forms, in place and idea. Los Angeles has had an uncountable influence on the designer, who started by making custom outfits for celebrity pillars such as Beyoncé, Ciara, Lady Gaga, and M.I.A. His streetwear line, BLTEE, which has seen widespread adoption among the fashion-set-with-a-sense-of-humor, utilizes the tropes of hi-brow with a lovingly subversive twist. Homiés South Central, Ballin Paris, and Féline Meow are a few of the cheeky nods emblazoned on his tees, hats, lighters, and sweatshirts.
One could consider it part of a Lichtenbergian trinity of sorts: Los Angeles, pop, and sex appeal. His design aesthetic doesn’t rely on some basic algorithm to reach the masses. But we all have an origin story, and Brian Lichtenberg’s starts in Orange County.
Growing up in SoCal, Lichtenberg was well aware of the proximity to Hollywood. At his high school, they shot legendary teen hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and She’s All That (1999).
“I was like, ‘why don’t they use us as the extras? Those people look old,’” Brian laughs. I ask him when it was that he first designed a garment and found himself pleased by the results.
“When I first saw Björk it was over. I had never seen designs like that before; she was wearing this incredible look by Hussein Chalayan made out of Tyvek. I was like, uh, they have that at FedEx for FREE. I went and grabbed a ton. I cut the envelopes apart and sewed them into one big piece of material and cut a pattern.”
Listening to Brian describe the gleeful ease with which he designed this first groundbreaking garment is like someone telling you they’ve never picked up a crossbow then proceeding to Game of Thrones the shit out of a target board.
In college Lichtenberg took three levels of Japanese classes, and first went to Japan when he was 19. I asked him how the hell a 19-year-old affords a ticket to Japan, assuming this was a mom-funded venture.
“No, I worked and saved my money,” Lichtenberg smiles.
“So you were like…responsible?” I ask.
That same 19-year-old took to Manhattan to soak up all the delicious cult-y pop fashion vibes he could for a summer and a fall. He worked at legendary clothing boutique Hotel Venus, which had the attention of several celebrities. “Remember that amazing bustier Kelis wore in the “I Hate You So Much Right Now” video? She came in and bought that from me. She had two dudes with her texting on their BlackBerries while she shopped. I realized years later it was The Neptunes.” Lichtenberg had started making denim cuffs with denim spikes for the shop, but sewing and selling designs by hot imported Japanese labels like Hysteric Glamour, Clutch, and Ozone Community only kept the Cali boy in NYC till January. The colder it got, the less commission was made and his co-workers spent their time at work break dancing outside in the snow.
Lichtenberg’s ticket back home came in the form of Gwen Stefani’s stylist who had him customize a denim tunic for the Empress of Rock to wear during her performance on The Late Show in 2006. “I ruined the grass dripping bleach on that dress. Sorry, mom!” he laughs as we dock the Odyssey at the W Hollywood before proceeding to the helipad.
In 2010, the legendary shoulder pad revamp was born, being seen on everyone from a pre-Kanye Kim Kardashian rocking a ruby asymmetrical body con to Lindsay Lohan in a pewter glitter hooded dress. The designer, by this time firmly settled back in Los Angeles, continued his upward climb, designing and selling out of a Silver Lake Craftsman, and jumping out to Tokyo for inspiration every year. Shortly thereafter he showed a collection there, “When I had my first fashion show in Tokyo I really couldn’t believe it, it meant everything to me.”
That Lichtenberg showed in Tokyo before New York is enough information in and of itself to understand the man’s modus operandi, and that he isn’t simply a West Coastian who aspires to someday make it on the East. He is from here, and for here, and we’re just fine with that.
Compton Thrift Store
“When I started, everything I sewed by hand, the Compton thrift stores were a great source of inspiration. For the first several years of designing and selling i made everything myself so in all my collections I still want to interject a garment that has a real human touch to it.”
“I’m attracted to the bold graphic nature of a construction site. I zone out and catch myself daydreaming driving around. The chaotic raw nature of the city, there’s so much construction! I’m always pulling ideas for shoots and garments from the city around me.”
W Hotel Helipad
“The wide, vast landscape of Los Angeles is always a great location for a shoot. The helipad gives you access to so much of L.A. in one shot.”
“I’m drawn to the Japanese aesthetic and design, its so clean, modern, fresh. Architecture packaging and advertising all of it! I especially love dipping into the Japanese book stores they’re a huge source of inspiration.”
Walk of Fame
“Hollywood glamour has a laid-back sensibility to me. Part hippy vibe part surf skate athletic culture. Thats why I love it, its more relaxed than other major cities.”
Photographer: Ted Emmons for 7artistmgmt.com.
Stylist: Richie Davis for 7artistmgmt.com.
Model: Sasha Melnychuk for whynotmodels.com, Los Angeles.
Hair: Cherie Combs for losangeles.onerepresents.com.
Makeup: Dana Delaney for therexagency.com.
Special Thanks: Ray Omaña González.