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Brands like Porsche and Ferrari make a mint every year by selling branded lifestyle goods like shoes, hats and even wilder items. Bugatti takes things to the extremes with things like its $84,000 belt buckle. These products not only make their respective companies some extra money, but they reaffirm their high-end design aspirations to wealthy buyers. However, the next firm possibly dipping its toe into this upscale pool is a bit more mass-market – Mazda.

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Volkswagen IROC Concept - Click above for a high-res image gallery

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Amidst a wave of reshuffles at several automakers' design departments recently (including Hyundai, Volvo, Ford and BMW), Laurens van den Acker's departure from Mazda earlier this month caught people by surprise. The talented Dutch designer, only 43, had steered Mazda's distinctive styling language for the past several years, after having designed for Ford in Dearborn, as well as Audi and a handful of independent design houses before that. The picture, so to speak, appears to be coming into focus

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Following hot on the heels of reports that Volkswagen designer Derek Jenkins had defected to Mazda to head up its North American design office comes news that the Japanese automaker has replaced its global design chief, Laurens van der Acker, with Ikuo Maeda.

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Our friends at AutoblogGreen recently got the chance to hear the Chief of Mazda's US design team, Franz von Holzhausen, give an insight into the design culture at Mazda. Reading his name immediately conjures the image of a sophisticated Euro stylist but the Connecticut-born designer, now based in California, looked more SoCal surfer than smug design guru.

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