No One Designs in L.A.? Brian Lichtenberg Does

The elevator lurches and out strolls a whippet-thin Brian Lichtenberg, his nips slipping freely in an oversized black tank top as he strides to greet me. He’s holding a Starbucks coffee, a ridiculously complex concoction called a “large soy peppermint mocha Frappuccino,” which he likes “with an added extra shot, extra ice, blended twice,” he says with an inchoate silliness.

It’s clear he takes his coffee like he designs. Which is to say, over-the-top and full of energy, like leggings printed with “Brianel” with interlocking Bs (a cheeky Chanel subversion) and “Die Disney” written on oversized tees. And the ice? Well, because we’re in his scorching showroom, in Los Angeles’ fashion district downtown.

Lichtenberg’s playful approach to logos and branding has attracted the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, MIA, Katy Perry and, most recently, Britney Spears for an appearance on X Factor. Here, he discusses his humble beginnings at Patricia Field’s in New York, how Catholic school got him interested in fashion, and a brief, Gummo-inspired move to Kansas City.

How long have you had this studio?
I first moved in the spring, almost two and a half years ago now. It was three or four of us here. Then we acquired this room at the beginning of this year, so now I have the whole floor, which is great. It’s perfect because if we need anything, it’s within a block radius of the fashion district. And my contractors are walking distance away. The only thing that sucks is the elevator.

Because it gets stuck?
It gets stuck and it’s super slow and it looks like it’s from a horror movie.

Can you describe your look?
I would describe it as really graphic and it could be really angular—I say Briangular. It’s very comical, but also playful and sexy.

Did you always want to be a designer?
When I was younger I wanted to be an architect. I used to draw blueprints for cities in daycare. I loved drawing. Teachers would be like, “Can we save this for future examples for assignments? Can you draw me and my husband as teddy bears getting married?” I was a creative person. The clothing part? I didn’t really give a shit what I wore until high school. I went to a private Catholic school when I was a freshman and we had to wear this certain color shirt and these certain color pants, tucked in. It bugged me. I became friends with these twin girls and they would go thrift shopping and buy polyester slacks and vintage button-ups and stuff like that. That got the ball rolling.

What are you working on right now?
We’re working on holiday and spring/summer samples, and prepping my sales rep to go to New York, because we’re showing there for market appointments after Fashion Week. It’s a crazy time—we need stuff yesterday. All the stuff here is archival, with a little new stuff mixed in, because here in L.A. a lot of the pulls are for musicians and music videos. It’s not really about seasons. I also do custom stuff.

Do you make stuff for yourself?
I don’t. This season I want to be more selfish in that sense. I’ve been thinking I need to make a perfect silk tank top and a fucked-up pair of black denim jeans.

What’s the one thing you like about your business that you didn’t think that you would, that surprised you?
I don’t know, being my own boss perhaps? But at the same time, making those calls that sometimes I wish I had someone else to make for me. At the end of the day, people are waiting for you, because it’s my call, but you’re like, I just want to make some cool shit. [Laughs.]

You lived in New York for a while?
After high school I moved to New York and worked at Hotel Venus for a couple months, Patricia Field’s store that was geared towards Japanese designer stuff. It was in Soho. That was my first retail experience.

Why did you decide to go to New York?
Two of my friends asked if I wanted to come with them. We had a studio in Chelsea, and we had to alternate between the bed and the floor. My two friends got into a tiff and one of them moved back home. By the end of that year the other one left for an extended vacation. But I had to pay rent and shit. It was the end of January and my bank account was dwindling. I wasn’t needed at work that much because it was snowing. I remember they would bring in cardboard and practice breakdancing.

At the Patricia Field store?
Yeah, you know, it’s Patricia Field. It’s a very carefree and laid-back attitude, working with trannies and club kids. I got to meet John Galliano, Kelis, Liv Tyler and Patricia Arquette. That was always exciting.

Then you came back to L.A.?
Yeah, I was so homesick and the weather sucked, and spending 20 minutes just getting ready to go outside, to get all covered up so you don’t freeze to death. I made my own coat, because I couldn’t find anything I liked. I got this thick black wool and made a high collar; it was all unfinished on the ends. I got these big-ass black metal snaps that I hand-sewed. I think it’s still at my mom’s. It’s so awesome. I should base a jacket on it.

Tell me about Kansas City…
I randomly lived there for a month and worked at a health food store. I was 20 or 21 and I was like, Is fashion right for me? Is this what I want to be doing? I had gone on an interview at Fred Segal and didn’t hear back from anyone. My brother was working on Third Street Promenade and met these girls who were visiting from Kansas. I met them and thought they were stylish and fun, and they were like, You should come visit, it’s so much fun. I was really into [Harmony Korine’s] Gummo at the time, that movie about white trash. They were like, Oh yeah, it’s totally like Gummo! So I got a one-way plane ticket and I stayed with two of the girls. I just hung out with them and went to parties. While I was there, I started sketching. When I moved back home that summer of 2000, I made so much stuff, just one-of-a-kind pieces, and put them in my friend’s store. I got good feedback, and things were selling. I was living at my mom’s and I realized this could seriously be a career.

You seem to really love women. You seem inspired by them.
Yeah, me and my brother were born in Florida and grew up with my mom in California. I lost touch with my father. It’s true I find myself having more of a connection with women. Of course, I like boys and men, but I’m dressing women and girls. It’s one of those psychological things. I grew up with my mother, and here I am, years later, making clothing for women.