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My last encounter with the Ed Hardy brand was in 2009. The Simple Life had just ended its four-year run, and Britney Spears was entering the second year of the conservatorship controlled by her dad. America’s first Black president had just taken office. And Ed Hardy had never been so popular, with 70 stores worldwide and more than $700 million in annual sales. And then along came divorced TV dad of eight, Jon Gosselin.
In his very public separation from the “Kate” of Jon and Kate + 8, Gosselin was painted as the villain, an irresponsible burnout who walked headfirst into a midlife crisis right before our very eyes. You’ve not understood chaos until you’ve read this paragraph of a Glamour story from that summer:
“Over the weekend, Jon was snapped holding hands with Hailey Glassman, the 22-year-old daughter of Kate’s tummy tuck doctor, all around the French Riviera. The new couple were also spotted partying aboard the yacht of Christian Audigier, who designs the Ed Hardy line of clothing. So just why have these two become so buddy-buddy? ‘We would like to do a line of children’s clothing.'”
This is why millennials are in therapy. This is why the Ed Hardy brand’s reputation went from must-have to untouchable in the span of mere months. This is also why, when Gen Z icon Addison Rae popped up on the wires this June wearing a hot pink Ed Hardy T-shirt dress, I began to fret. Given her inexplicable reach, I worried that the teens might follow in her platform-thong-clad footsteps — that an Ed Hardy resurrection was nigh. That Big Gosselin Energy was clawing its way back from the French Riviera.
A few weeks later, my suspicions were confirmed: Bella Hadid was spotted in a vintage Ed Hardy T-shirt, worn unironically with white low-rise cargo pants. Bella Hadid is a woman who makes things happen in fashion and Bella Hadid signaled that Ed Hardy is back.
As the resurrection of the Ed Hardy brand is set in motion by the Regina George of fashion herself, I thought it only appropriate to set the record straight about the man behind that infamous signature. Or rather, I thought I should find out who he is. I realized recently, I have no idea what Ed Hardy, the man, looks like, even though I could pick out anything by Ed Hardy the brand from a mile away (his swoopy signature, the tigers, koi fish, and “M O M” tattoo fare on so many trucker hats and tanks).
Imagining Ed, I pictured a white dude with medium-rare skin courtesy of a beach somewhere in L.A. or New Jersey. Balding or perhaps clinging for life to a quickly receding hairline. He’d wear oversize sunglasses, True Religion jeans circa 2009, and an offensive amount of Acqua di Gio.
This couldn’t have been farther from Ed himself, but actually looked a lot like Chrisitian Audigier, the French entrepreneur and designer who ran the Ed Hardy fashion line. Audigier is largely responsible for coupling Hardy’s artwork and signature and stamping both across T-shirts, trucker hats, muscle tanks, stickers, cigarette lighters, USB keychains, and anything else that could fit it. It is he who put Hardy’s name on the backs of Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Disney Channel’s own Corbin Bleu. Audigier, not Hardy, is the man to blame for the crippling fear of rhinestones I experienced as a teen.
But Ed Hardy? He is a far cry from the ego-obsessed party dude of my imagination, and the fact that we have no idea what he looks like, it turns out, was by design. “I told Christian I had no interest in being a figurehead,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Wear Your Dreams: My Life in Tattoos, “I just wanted to get paid and to be left alone.” (Relatable!) The real Ed Hardy’s usual attire is “a button-down shirt and gray cardigan,” not a hoodie with his name on it. The real Ed Hardy is really fucking cool.
Don Ed Hardy, as he’s sometimes known in real life (aka not on T-shirts) is a surf bum slash art prodigy who sold his first gallery piece when he was still in high school, and later attended the San Francisco Art Institute. He is an artiste, a trailblazer of both postmodern art and tattooing, a contemporary of greats like Warhol, de Kooning, and a dozen others you studied in art history class. The press-shy artist (who did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story) wrote that he once worked at the post office with Jerry Garcia’s brother, rubbed shoulders with Lou Reed at a bar, and ran in the same circle as Jefferson Airplane.
When Hardy wrote down his own version of the Ed Hardy years in his memoir nearly eight years ago, I was still experiencing the shell shock from this image of an Ed Hardy model in L.A. Fashion Week 2007 who looks like Waluigi if he got drunk in Atlantic City and let the locals dress him up for a night out.
But here’s what onlookers like me missed: Hardy discloses in his memoir that he was watching the brand’s rise and fall play out from afar, likewise aghast at Audigier’s push, push, push, his hunger, always, for more — more licenses, more designs, and more collaborations (in addition to the rumored Gosselin collab, it was reported by E! in 2010 that Lindsay Lohan was in talks about an Ed Hardy handbag collection).
While Hardy admits that he was not Christian’s biggest fan when the two were first introduced, even he couldn’t have foreseen the way in which Audigier would meld the brand to his liking so that five years later, Ed Hardy’s imagery would become indistinguishable from Audigier himself — a whole personality in T-shirt form.
“‘This guy is at ground zero of everything wrong with contemporary culture,'” Hardy recalls telling a friend of his first impression of Christian in his 2013 book. He signed over the licensing rights anyway, naive of what was to come. He would later remember the decision to go into business with Audigier regretfully, writing, “I had entered into the original deal so stupidly, without any legal advice,” leaving Christian in control of a majority of the brand’s fortune.
In 2009, Hardy, at this point still a mythical creature to most of America who knew nothing of the tattoo world, sued Audigier and his holding company, Nervous Tattoos, for $100 million for breach of contract, claiming Audigier withheld royalties by underreporting sales and launched his eponymous line against the terms of his licensing agreement. (“It became ‘Ed Hardy by Christian Audigier’ and I wasn’t happy about that,” Hardy revealed in his memoir.) The case was eventually settled, but the damage was already done.
With the Ed Hardy revival on the horizon, there’s something comforting to those of us who survived the Ed Hardy apocalypse of the late aughts in getting Hardy’s perspective on the once-in-a-lifetime rise of the brand under Christian’s control. He seems to have been understandably embarrassed by the commercialization of his work, his art that was the result of decades of training and studying under the few tattoo masters in the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s. Hardy respected his influences, from the military tattoos he saw in his youth to the tattoo traditions of Japanese culture, many of which inspired his most recognizable images. Christian, who at one point attempted to superimpose a portrait of Che Guevera onto a Hardy original, did not.
“The mind-boggling success of the Ed Hardy brand only encouraged Christian’s worst tendencies,” Hardy alleges in his memoir, barely holding back disgust. “He pushed the limits on the lavish lifestyle. He lived like the Sun King. His staff was liveried, the women wore French maid’s outfits. Everybody spoke French. He was ridiculous, but after more than a billion dollars in Ed Hardy sales in five years, he could afford to be whatever degree of ridiculous he wanted.”
In a 2019 interview with Forbes, four years after Audigier’s death, Hardy added, “It’s not like I hated [Christian] or thought I was prostituting myself … I had no illusions. I can grandstand. I can add all the historical or philosophical meanderings about tattooing and that can be part of it. But they’re tattoos. This isn’t sacred.”
After Hardy bought back his master license in 2011 in a joint venture with Iconix (which produces Jay Z’s Rocawear, Joe Boxer, Candies), the brand was stagnant for a few years, still in recovery after ending its toxic relationship with…
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