Composite of Britney Spears, Bella Hadid, and Kim Kardashian wearing Ed Hardy

In Defense of Ed Hardy

Bella Hadid isn't the only reason to dig out your Ed Hardy skull tee.

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, The New York Times reported. 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. He had set off into the French Riviera sunset to party with Hailey Glassman, a young twenty-something who just happened to be the daughter of Kate's tummy tuck doctor. The pair was spotted canoodling and also partying — aboard the yacht of Ed Hardy clothing designer Christian Audigier, no less.

Jon Gosselin holding up an Ed Hardy t-shirt
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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 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.

Bella Hadid wearing a surgical mask, sunglasses, and a white Ed Hardy t-shirt
The Image Direct

The ensuing headlines and tweets invoked a sense of dread and heavy use of the word "regretfully," written by those of us old enough to remember a pre-Kanye Kim Kardashian and the movie 17 Again starring Zac Efron.

The Man, the Myth, the Mall Brand

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 that 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 the late Christian Audigier, the French entrepreneur and designer who ran the Ed Hardy fashion line. Audigier was 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 was 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, was the man to blame for the crippling fear of rhinestones I experienced as a teen.

Corbin Bleu during Young Hollywood Rocks Ed Hardy Store
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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." 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 freaking 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, I was still experiencing shell shock from an 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 Audigier's biggest fan when the two were first introduced, even he couldn't have foreseen the way in which the designer 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 Audigier 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 Audigier in control of a majority of the brand's fortune.

Christian Audigier smiling and sitting on an Ed Hardy motorcycle
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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 recent Ed Hardy revival, 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 Audigier'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. Audigier, 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."

Ed Hardy the Sequel: More Ed, More Hardy

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 Gosselin. But in 2020, Kevin Christiana, a former Project Runway contestant who has previously collaborated with Adam Levine and Steven Tyler on "rock n' roll-inspired" collections, took over as creative director of the Ed Hardy brand. And to Christiana, Hardy is more than just a name. The designer told hopes to align the post-Audigier Ed Hardy brand more with Hardy's art, as the artist himself had once believed Audigier would.

Hardy grew up in post-war Newport Beach, California, which he described as "totally white and fascist," in his 2019 interview with Forbes. Even so, the scene turned him on to the still-taboo world of tattooing, mostly via war vets who returned to the states bearing traditional military iconography infused with an Asian influence from their time abroad.

When Ed was six years old, his father left for Japan to work as an engineer. He "completely went nuts" for the country and never came back, Hardy writes, but still sent young Ed the Japanese art and artifacts that had inspired him to stay: "tea sets, little framed pictures, a silk jacket with embroidered dragons, tigers, and hawks." The souvenirs planted the seeds of an infatuation with Japanese culture that culminated, a few decades later, in a mentorship under the late tattoo master Horihide.

The Ed Hardy aesthetic we know today is a fusion of traditional Americana tattoos and the ukioye style of woodblock printing that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Japan. But tattoo wasn't the medium Hardy envisioned for himself when he was a printmaking student at the San Francisco Art Institute. After he graduated in 1967, having studied under the foremost experts in printing, etching, painting, and sculpting on the West Coast, Hardy was offered a full scholarship to attend an MFA program at Yale. In an alternate universe, Don Ed Hardy's name might be shuffled among East Coast-based legends of the late twentieth century — Basquiat, Haring, Pollock — but Hardy declined the offer. Instead, he stayed predominantly on the West Coast in his early career, with stints tattooing in Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco before decamping to Hawaii, where he mentored under the infamous Sailor Jerry, and later, Japan.

Don Ed Hardy
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Today, the artist splits his time between Honolulu and San Francisco. He put down his needle in the mid-aughts, though he still paints and operates Hardy Marks Publications, a publishing company that he runs with his wife, Francesca Passalacqua. "I am interested in the kind of weird beauty that is simultaneously dumb, funny, frightening, and seductive," Hardy said of his work in 2016 in an artist statement posted to his website. Far from the hearts and ribbons and other stagnant flash designs for which his brand is known, Hardy's paintings are striking and layered, with both nuanced and overt references to the many influences he's encountered in his career spanning more than 50 years.

When taking the reins of such an iconic brand, Christiana says there was a moment where he and his team considered starting from scratch, ditching the infamous "Ed Hardy" signature, and remaking the label stitch by stitch, redefining the public image of the label Ed Hardy to be more in line with the person Ed Hardy, and his prolific legacy. Ultimately, they decided rather than ignore the legacy of the brand, they'd lean into it. The strategy makes sense, given fashion's current infatuation with Y2K: Grailed, eBay, and Depop are brimming with "vintage" Ed Hardy apparel (with prices ranging from $30-50 per item). Why would the label want to compete with itself?

At present, the Ed Hardy Originals store features updated versions of old classics — the tiger head, a skull printed on a tie-dye background — with more modern silhouettes. Graphic T-shirts come in boxy, cropped options, as opposed to the tight hip-length cardigans of yore. "Camp shirts" feature Hardy's iconography as patterns. The same fabrics are also found in the lining of leather jackets and splashed across track shorts. The Ed Hardy logo is still ever-present, if only a few font sizes smaller.

"It may never be 2009 again for the Ed Hardy brand," Hardy wrote in his memoir, "but it did become an authentic cultural phenomenon. To me, they harnessed the psychic power of tattoo and that is what took everybody for the ride."

The past year has taught us a lot about our misconceptions of the previous decade. One needs only to look as far as Britney Spears's or Megan Fox's stories to understand that the tabloids had more influence on us than we'd like to admit. It might be a stretch to extend the same courtesy we've afforded teen starlets to a brand, but I have no problem extending an apology to Don Ed Hardy himself. Revisiting his work as it rides the current wave of pop-punk popularity powered by Gen Z, who were infants in the days when Hot Topic was anything other than a euphemism for a washed-up MySpace brat, has opened my eyes to Don Ed Hardy's world. It's time to give his art a chance to shine on its own.

Knowing the man behind the brand satisfies my millennial urge to shop with intention. But the question remains whether Zillennials' influence is strong enough to override the associations so many of us made to these tee shirts when we shopped for them as pre-teens ourselves. But if anyone has that power, surely it's Bella Hadid.

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