26 FEBRUARY 2015
LEON MAX - AND HIS GLAMOROUS COUNTRY LIFE
It’s a gloomy November morning, and we are sitting in the main drawing room of Easton Neston, the exquisite English home in Northamptonshire that Leon Max bought in 2005.
Leon Max is fascinated by the way women dress. Clothing as cultural semaphore is one of his favorite topics of conversation, and every woman he meets holds the potential for some friendly sartorial analysis. The 50-something writer of this piece—who has just discovered, to her slight horror, a rip in the shoulder of her shirt—is apparently not exempt. “Ah,” Max murmurs politely, eyeing the offending tear. “You are fashionably grungy, I see. Everything is always grungy in England, no? It’s like a little shibboleth of the upper class, wearing something out of your grandfather’s trunk. There’s something to be said for a disregard of fashion, but it has to be a carefully curated disregard. It works best, I think, on someone under 18. After the age of, say, 40, you can end up looking like a bag lady.”
For an example of how not to look like a bag lady, Max, 60, gestures toward his exquisite wife, Yana Boyko, 32, a former model from Ukraine, who has just slipped discreetly into the room to join us. “Yana is my absolute muse,” he says, proudly surveying her chocolate mohair sweater, beige leggings, and immaculate boyfriend shirt—all, of course, bearing the Leon Max label. “But you would be my perfect customer,” he adds generously, his broad feline features breaking into a smile, “torn shirt notwithstanding.”
It’s a gloomy November morning, and we are sitting in the main drawing room of Easton Neston, the exquisite English home in Northamptonshire that Max bought in 2005. He now lives and works here for half the year, spending the other half at his house in Los Angeles, a seven-story castillo in the Hollywood Hills formerly owned by Madonna. A Soviet émigré who arrived in the U.S. with just $100 in his pocket, Leon Max might not be a household name, but Max Studio, the contemporary sportswear operation he founded in 1979, is huge. There are 42 Max Studio stores around the world, as well as 15 licenses including jeans, cosmetics, home goods, and products for pets. His design team churns out new items every 15 days, and 2 million units are produced every month by his manufacturers in China. Then there are all the other hugely lucrative labels under the Leon Max umbrella: Studio M at Macy’s, M.S.S.P. and Chelsea & Violet at Dillard’s, Sophie Max (named after his daughter) at Belk, all of them in the “Zara price range,” as he puts it. Not surprisingly, it is Leon Max, his signature higher-end line, launched in 2011, that he is most interested in promoting, along with its offshoots, Max Studio Country and Max Studio Easton Neston, which, he says, “provide everything a girl needs for a country weekend.”
Max has been described as the Russian answer to Sir Philip Green, the British billionaire who founded Topshop. But with his Anglophile tendencies and love of old-style grandeur—above the mantel in this echoey room is a Rubens the size of a small truck, and underfoot is one of several 19th-century Aubusson rugs on the premises—he reminds me more of Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren for Everywoman, if you will, because nothing, even in the signature line, costs more than $500. While he says he very much admires Miuccia Prada, aspirational, directional collections are just not his bag. “Kudos to people who put themselves forward as the arbiters of taste,” he says smoothly, himself the very picture of “carefully curated disregard” in a gray cashmere sweater and a white open-neck shirt, looking nothing like the uncouth oligarch his country neighbors expected him to be. “But I’m not going to do that, because it would put the price point higher. I prefer to be democratic.”
We are now on a tour of the property, starting with his design studio, housed in the servants’ quarters, a beautiful redbrick building adjacent to the main house. In our wake is a Great Dane, which belonged to Boyko’s ex-boyfriend. “I think he is a little confused,” Boyko says, giggling. “So many beautiful sofas and beds, and none that he is allowed to go on. I would let him, but that is Leon’s rule.”
“He’s very docile,” says Max with a sigh as we pass through a flagstone hallway lined with mannequins. “But he’s the size of a horse and does have this disgusting habit of eating sheep’s droppings...”
The two were introduced by Max’s former muse and house model, Katia Elizarova, in 2012, and they married last year at Easton Neston. The party was complete with fireworks and footmen dressed in 18th-century livery. The 80 guests included the Earl of Albemarle; Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, who owns Althorp, the neighboring estate; and Max’s interior decorator, Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, who grew up at Blenheim Palace with her brother, the Duke of Marlborough. “It was such a high point of effort,” says Max, as we peek into the atelier, “acquiring this dreary house, completely redoing it, then marrying this beautiful young woman and celebrating with some of the smartest, most wonderful people in England.”
Even more lavish, arguably, was the Easton Neston housewarming in 2011. At the time, he had just divorced his second wife, Ame Austin (his first wife, the model Kim Reynolds, is the mother of his daughter, Sophie, 27), and hadn’t yet met Boyko. He had London’s jeunesse dorée—among them, Edie Campbell, Otis Ferry, and Joséphine de La Baume—driven up from town. Pixie Geldof sang with her band Violet, and a film of Suki Waterhouse darting through the house in a Leon Max gown was projected on the house’s facade. “I realized I didn’t know anyone under 50,” he says with disarming honesty. “So I made an effort to cultivate younger friends.”
Max wryly compares the impact he has personally made on British society to a tree falling in the forest: “At some point, I was annoyed that my house was more famous than I was. Why did everyone want to know about the house and not this designer who makes this really beautiful product?”
The writer Plum Sykes remembers meeting him soon after he had moved to the U.K. “It was on a shooting weekend, and he didn’t know very many people, and he did that very un-English thing of inviting every single person he’d met that weekend to come shooting at Easton Neston two weeks later. It was hysterical! He just picked up a whole new group of friends, which included me and my husband. But he’s not your typical Russian in the U.K. He’s not flash, and he’s not a showoff; in fact, he is very modest, and he’s an interesting, entertaining character to throw into the mix.”
Born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1954, Leonid Maxovitch Rodovinski, the son of a playwright and a civil engineer, always dreamed of immigrating to the West. “There were these buses of teenagers wanting to party who used to come to St. Petersburg in the summer from Finland, where alcohol was prohibited in the 1970s,” he says. “I remember thinking how lucky these kids were just on the other side of the border, with their wonderful clothes and long hair and rock ’n’ roll records.” He had planned to sneak into Finland until, in 1974, he found out that Jews were being given permission to leave. “I thought, Wait! Who do I have who is Jewish in the family? Oh, yes, my father’s mother. Great, I can change my passport. All I needed was a letter from Israel and they let me go. I was flabbergasted.”
But when his plane to Tel Aviv stopped over in Vienna, he had a change of heart. “I thought, I’m no Zionist, I don’t want to go to Israel; they can’t make me!” So instead, he headed to Rome, where, after selling some family Fabergé pieces he’d smuggled in, he managed to live la dolce vita for a year. When the money ran out, he went to New York and landed a job as a trainer at a gym owned by a fellow Russian. (“I was in excellent shape,” he says, patting his teeny status paunch.) He ended up enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Technology—not because he was interested in fashion (in fact, he had ambitions of becoming an architect), but to follow a girl he had a crush on. Still, something clicked, and he went on to work for Bis and then Elie Tahari (“this Israeli electrician,” as Max describes him). After a “kerfuffle,” Tahari fired him, and he struck out on his own. “Bis had been a startup, so I had the experience of watching a company go from zero to $30 million. I thought, If Bis can do it, so can I.”
By the early ’80s, Max had set up factories in the Far East and undercut his rivals by putting out greater volume at lesser cost. He is a designer, yes, but he is also, perhaps first and foremost, a manufacturer. He remembers making his first significant chunk of cash after buying up a job lot of typewriter ribbon he spied in a warehouse and using it to make poplin separates. “It was very densely woven and of very beautiful quality,” he recalls. “But you could barely get a pant leg out of it. Nothing we made from it went past a size 8.”
The three of us are now sitting in the private dining room off the magnificent, arch-windowed gallery overlooking his 600 acres of land, eating lunch prepared by Max’s personal chef. With his love of history and architecture (fueled, he says, by being brought up amid the cultural splendor of St. Petersburg), Max has always had a thing for beautiful homes. Prior to Castillo del Lago, as his L.A. mansion is called, he has lived in houses designed by Richard Neutra and Greene & Greene. He chose Los Angeles as his primary base because, after so many harsh Russian winters, he didn’t want to deal with the cold. But after seeing a brochure of Easton Neston while on a trip to the English countryside, he decided, in 2004, to broaden his horizons.
Among the few personal touches around the house are framed photographs scattered about the immaculate surfaces. Quite a few are of Max at various stages of life: a snapshot of him as a little boy, a publicity image from those early L.A. years, a picture of him cradling a newborn Sophie. But if you want to see a true pictorial document of his life, you need to look at his phone. He volunteers to scroll through it with me. There’s Lady Mary Wellesley, granddaughter of the Duke of Wellington, shooting at Easton Neston. There’s an item about Boyko in the gossip column of The Daily Mail, and there’s...is that Amal Clooney? How does he know Amal Clooney? “No comment,” he says with a sphinx smile. I wonder if she might be an ex-flame. “Nothing of the sort,” he says cheekily. “I’m a married man.” (I later find out that they met through a mutual friend and are truly nothing more than acquaintances.)
Before I leave Max generously offers to dress me. Back to the design studio we go, our stomachs full of roast lamb and Bakewell tart. In the sample room there are bonded stretch-leather jeans, coated-wool parkas, “sueded” pencil skirts, vegetable-dyed flat leather boots, and crepe evening dresses that would work perfectly on the red carpet. He chooses stretch pants, a mohair-and-spandex sweater, and a pinstriped shirt, adding a khaki woolen jacket from the Easton Neston Special Edition line. In other words, he has dressed me as an older clone of Boyko. I could do worse; with her Slavic cheekbones and Duchess of Windsor physique, she really is, without a doubt, a stylish chatelaine. “My wife is always by far the best-dressed person anywhere we go,” Max says with a shrug. “And remember, we are surrounded by rich people who can afford to buy £20,000 gowns.”
For her part, Boyko is still settling into her new role. Learning to be alone at Easton Neston when Max is away was one hurdle. “I had to sleep on the sofa in front of the TV,” she admits. Tonight, they are having a rare evening in to watch the Tatler reality series Posh People, about the upper-crust -English social scene. (“Apparently, yours truly is on this episode,” Max volunteers.) It will be just the two of them in this big, utterly silent house. Perhaps babies would give it a bit of heart? “That’s the plan,” Max says. But it makes him nervous to dwell too much on the future.
“I was at my mother’s grave in St. Petersburg recently,” he says. “She is buried with Father, who went through the roundup of the intelligentsia and the Stalinist purges, and my grandmother, who went through the Russian Revolution. And here’s me, this Western capitalist, and there’s been no major, horrific event. It’s as though a generation has skipped the horrors. But at some point, I believe the shit is going to hit the fan.”
Should business ever go south, he has a backup plan. He surveys one of his magnificent rooms with undisguised pride. He is particularly pleased with the walls, which are covered in an 18th-century-inspired damask he had manufactured at one of his factories. Spencer-Churchill, the decorator, wanted instead to have it produced using “some fantastically expensive Florentine looms,” but Max persisted. “The Chinese,” he says happily, “did it for no charge. See, if all else fails, I could always be an interior designer.”