Bijan Pakzad, Designer and Billboard King, Remembered
Iranian fashion and fragrance designer Bijan Pakzad -- who died April 16 of a stroke in Beverly Hills -- was, we are told, "the most expensive menswear designer in the world." Those who packed Royce Hall at UCLA to memorialize him in the warmth of springtime were reminded by the screens onstage that his was "a life well lived ... by a man well loved."
Bijan's life was, at its well-loved essence, that of someone on the outside looking in: first as part of the Iranian diaspora, when he came to L.A. in 1973, then for years as a struggling designer. As he cultivated a mononymous public image, like Pelé or Prince, his signature was endlessly repeated with its well-hung letter "J" drawn in determined, assertive strokes.
His billboards, dotting the Westside for decades, have trumpeted Bijan's creative endeavors and his by-appointment-only Rodeo Drive boutique. Like his contemporaries Angelyne and Darrell Winfield (the Marlboro Man), Bijan's was a personality that, through those same billboards, could be distilled into one seminal, easy-to-grasp concept. Angelyne's pink. Winfield's cigarette. Bijan's smile.
The smile also elevated Bijan's sales pitch: Where Angelyne was forbidding and Winfield was foreboding, Bijan merely smiled. Occasionally it's unclear what, if anything, he was actually selling. It is, however, a simple human gesture offering a brief psychic respite from the American Lung Association's Smoking-Related Deaths to Date tote board on Santa Monica Boulevard and the looming traffic snarl of the 405 Freeway beyond it.
At the memorial service, white flowers and candles covered the stage beneath two massive projected images of Bijan. For such an intensely colorful designer, trafficking as he did in stark yellows, luminescent reds and deep greens, Royce Hall was bathed in grim black suits. Pianist Maryam Mehran sallied forth with the third movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, more popularly -- popularly! -- known as the decidedly grave "Funeral March," a song that is to memorials what ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" is to trailers for films in which ELO's music is not featured.
Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo eulogized Bijan while listing his accomplishments for Rolls-Royce and Oxford University and his victories at the advertising industry's Clio Awards.
"What made Bijan so unique?" she asked. "Bijan's mind was an untiring creative force." Practically every internationally known Persian singer except Googoosh appeared to pay respects, choosing music squarely at odds with massive, smiling images of a happy Bijan. There's Kamyar's version of Lionel Richie's "Hello," the lyrics of which are better suited for a missing-pet sign than a memorial service; Sattar's Farsi sadness song; and Martik's soulful rendition of "My Way," Bijan's favorite song. Martik's well-intentioned tribute gradually became half-narrative and half-confession, mixing up personal pronouns in a way that's somehow only slightly less awkward than when they get screwed up during sex.
Other luminaries appeared via video: H.I.M. Empress Farah Pahlavi holding forth about proud Iranian Bijan and his love for her late husband, the Shah; George H.W. Bush congratulating Bijan and wishing him "continued success" before Bijan's son, Nicolas, helpfully read off Bush's more recent letter of condolence, sentiments echoed in a letter received that morning from George W. Bush.
"You know what a pleasure it is to walk into a place and have someone have a worse accent than I have?" Arnold Schwarzenegger asked, after taking the dais to extol Bijan's moneymaking prowess, showmanship and signature yellow Rolls-Royce parked in front of the Rodeo boutique.
Schwarzenegger revealed little about Bijan beyond their friendship and Bijan's proud parenthood (the word proud was used often). He showed off his Bijan-designed sports coat. An American flag is emblazoned on the right side of the jacket's inner lining, a California flag on the left side.
Charismatic televangelist Benny Hinn then took the stage. "We often talked about heaven and spiritual things," Hinn recalled in his gentle Israel-by-way-of-Florida twang. "... I have shared my heart with him often."
Achim Anscheidt, Bugatti's director of design, divulged Bijan's final design: a Bugatti with a stunning yellow stripe straight down its center, with Bijan's name on the bottom of a spoiler that pops up when braking.
"God is a designer," self-avowed egotist Bijan declared in one of his TV ad campaigns, and the slide show that followed -- much like the entire Bijan aesthetic -- was an endless tattoo of luxury, wealth and exclusivity, a fog through which only rarely were there hazy illuminations of the man as a parent, which was as far as the inquiry went at the memorial.
The memorial ended with solemn words by Bijan's children, and the mourning multitudes gradually departed.
Wealth and exclusivity mean that fewer people -- on the outside looking in -- are able to get close enough to see if someone's true nature is ever unveiled. Then again, maybe there's really nothing at all to unveil. Perhaps that's by design.