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Jessica Simpson is no fashion fluke.
With her fashion empire expected to hit $1 billion in retail sales next year, Simpson sits atop a wide-ranging enterprise that stretches from better junior sportswear and dresses to handbags, fashion jewelry, intimate apparel and fragrances. In fact, 22 licensing agreements have been signed to produce Jessica Simpson merchandise, with home, fine jewelry, cosmetics and men’s wear on the radar.
This story first appeared in the March 28, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“The bigger it gets, the more stressful it gets,” said the 30-year-old Simpson, dressed in a body-hugging striped knit dress from her G-III dress license, in an interview in New York, during a visit to meet with licensees and see products.
When the pop star entered the business, she never imagined where it might take her. Since aligning herself with Camuto Group, the Greenwich, Conn.-based company that purchased the brand’s master license for $15 million in August 2005, the business has skyrocketed.
“I didn’t really know I was going to be able to take on the fashion world, but when I was given the opportunity to start a line of shoes, I jumped right on board,” said Simpson. “Vince Camuto is definitely a role model to me when it comes to making shoes. He just believed in me from ‘Newlyweds’ [her former MTV reality show that ran from August 2003 through March 2005]. He just thought I could relate to the everyday consumer, and that I had it in me to design and wear the product.”
Bursting onto the music scene as a teenager, Simpson was discovered by an independent record producer while singing at the altar in church. Later, Tommy Mottola, then-president of Columbia Records, signed her to her first major record deal, in 1997, and she had her first Top 10 hit at 19, followed by several more. After marrying Nick Lachey, of the boy band 98 Degrees, in 2003, the couple became household names with the short-lived “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.” She went on to appear in several films, including “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Employee of the Month” and “Blonde Ambition.”
Early on, the young bride was teased for wondering whether “Chicken of the Sea” tuna was actually chicken, and she made other ditsy statements that amused a snarky public. She’s had to endure old boyfriends like singer-songwriter John Mayer calling their sex life “sexual napalm” in Playboy magazine, and has been steadily criticized in the tabloids for her shifts in weight. Through it all, she’s managed to maintain a decidedly stiff upper lip and a favorable public opinion.
According to the winter 2011 Performer Q study from Q Scores Co., among females and males 18 to 34 years old, Simpson’s awareness is 91 percent, versus an average of 71 percent among performers. “Pretty much everyone in that age group knows who she is. It’s top tier awareness,” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores Co. Her Q score — the percentage of people familiar with her who rate her as one of their favorites — is 15 percent, which is average for performers.
After a high-profile divorce from Lachey in 2006, Simpson was linked romantically with Mayer and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and last November became engaged to Eric Johnson, a Yale graduate who spent five years in the NFL, playing for the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. She recently relaunched her music career and released her first greatest-hits compilation, “Playlist: The Very Best of Jessica Simpson,” in October, followed by “Happy Christmas” in November. Most recently, her name has surfaced as a potential judge for Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor.”
“They have definitely talked to me about ‘X Factor,’ ” Simpson confided. “I think it would be a lot of fun. It’s definitely my life. To be a mentor for up-and-coming artists is right up my alley. I would have loved to have a mentor. I love watching people’s dreams come true.” While she may not have had a mentor, Simpson’s parents, Joe, who is still a minister, and Tina, have managed their daughters’ careers every step of the way. (Jessica’s younger sister is singer Ashlee Simspon.)
As far as taking another walk down the aisle goes, Simpson said she’s in no rush to get married again. Sporting a ruby and diamond engagement ring, she said she’s enjoying the engagement period. “No date has been set yet. We’ve both been married before. We’re enjoying our commitment to each other. We want to take our time,” said Simpson. Nor has she determined who will design The Dress. “I will be part of designing my own wedding gown. We might elope if it gets to that point.”
“But not without telling your mom,” interjected Tina Simpson, co-creative director of her daughter’s fashion line.
Tina and Jessica, who complete each other’s sentences, are intertwined when it comes to their burgeoning fashion business. Since Jessica is often busy with entertainment projects, it’s Tina who holds the fashion company together, coming to New York for a week each month to meet with licensees, go over designs and approve products. Jessica often attends the meetings too.
“How the brand looks and how it all comes together is me, and Jessica, and our team,” said Tina, who also works with her best friend, Beth Pliler, brand manager of the Jessica Simpson Collection. (Pliler was Jessica’s dance teacher in Texas but now helps Tina with logistics.)
So how does Jessica juggle her fashion career and various entertainment projects?
“It all works together,” she said. “I really don’t look at myself as just one thing. I’m kind of scattered and like to have my hands in a lot of different projects. It makes me who I am. It’s what defines me. What I wear, what I sing, the songs I write, the projects I choose all have to represent Jessica Simpson. I wouldn’t take certain jobs if they were to take away from the positive role model that the Jessica Simpson Collection has allowed me to establish…because this is my number-one priority.”
To be sure, the business initially took off based on footwear, for which Camuto, founder of Nine West, is well-known.
“Vince is shoes,” Jessica said. “He makes incredible shoes that are affordable and comfortable, and they look high fashion — like they’d be $500, when they’re $69 or $70.”
But Simpson’s brand has since expanded well beyond footwear, and it is expected to get another big push this fall with the addition of the better junior sportswear collection, which is licensed to The Jones Group. Jones already produces the brand’s jeanswear.
“[This will] give the consumer something to dress up in, to feel like a lady, to feel sophisticated, yet it has some sort of funk and flair to it,” Jessica said.“It has a lot of style to it. It’s not your average suit or skirt. It has lots of fun details. We wanted to change things up for the everyday working girl who wants to feel her age. It could be for a girl’s first job, or an internship. She could be in her 20s, 30s, even 40s. My mom would wear it, and she’s over 50.”
“We have to think broad. We have a large demographic,” said Tina, 51.
This is not Simpson’s first attempt at sportswear. Her first apparel license with Tarrant Apparel Group ended with a lawsuit between Camuto and Tarrant in 2006. The suit was settled, and Tarrant gave up the license.
Last fall, Simpson launched jeanswear with Jones. “The denim’s great. We didn’t expect it to be as big — the first quarter in denim was a shock to all of us,” she said. “After the first quarter in denim, we started working on the ready-to-wear. We have jeans that fit every body type. That’s extremely important to us. We just added plus sizes.”
As the business continues to grow, Simpson believes it’s imperative to keep a consistent image, and that’s why having approval rights is so critical.
“Image is the most important thing about someone’s career and longevity. I want to be around until I’m not around anymore and then some,” said Jessica. “We’ve been doing this for five years, but it feels like we’re just starting out because there’s always something new to work on, some new endeavor.”
Jessica and Tina approve every item that bears the Jessica Simpson name. “It’s a three-step process,” Tina explained. “We see it at the beginning design stage. We’ll give our inspiration and our color palette. And then, mid-design, they bring to us what they’re working on, and then we have final approval.”
“I was here for three days straight doing approvals for 10 hours a day, and that’s a lot,” said Jessica, noting that she approves the fit, fabrics, buttons, thread colors and zipper pulls. And she has backup from Mom.
“I couldn’t do this without my mom. We have the same eye,” she added.
“I think the biggest thing, too, is we just don’t walk in and put Jessica’s name on something and walk away,” said Tina.
Jessica piped in, “I’ll get mad if I see something with my name on it and I don’t like it. I’ll say, ‘Mom, did you approve that? I don’t like that. I never saw that, please tell me if you approved that.’ ”
“I’m accountable,” said Tina.
“We get along great,” said Jessica. “I feel like we’ve grown up together. Having a young mom has inspired my style.”
Although Tina didn’t have a fashion background, it seemed to come naturally to her. “It’s just something I was always passionate about,” she said. “I’ve always loved it. I actually was an aerobics instructor for 20 years. I was a [physical education] major in college, and I get to do this. This is really my dream.
“It’s a lot of work,” Tina added. “It’s a big love effort, too. This has taken over my life — it’s all I do at this point. Once we tackle apparel, one day we want to go into home. That’s my biggest passion.”
Fine jewelry and makeup are also possibilities.
“I’m all about makeup and skin care products,” said Jessica. “I’m a product junkie. But I also stick to what I love. If I can put that into an affordable price for my consumer, that would be great.”
The company recently launched prom dresses with David’s Bridal, produced by Simpson’s dress licensee, G-III. “We wanted to make sure that I would wear it on the red carpet,” said Jessica.
Based on volume, Simpson’s biggest business is footwear, followed by fragrance, jeanswear, handbags and jewelry.
Although Simpson is personally invested in all the fashion categories, certain ones she relates to better than others. “I’m always carrying a great handbag, so I definitely want to be involved with all those approvals. I love jewelry. I can artistically come at it with a fun, innovative mind-set,” she said. For example, she’ll show the designer a piece of vintage jewelry and work to incorporate it into the line, and keep it “younger and more accessible and approachable to the average everyday consumer.”
The Simpsons said they’d like to open their own freestanding stores, showcasing the entire range. They currently sell merchandise in 28 countries. Asked whose business she admires, Jessica didn’t hesitate — “Ralph Lauren.”
They work with Camuto Group’s design director, Phoebe Mackay, who ensures that all the licensees are on the same page. “She gets creative direction from us, and makes sure everybody has the same colors, the same aesthetic,” said Tina. For example, for fall, Simpson’s main themes that are evident throughout all her collections are Navajo Girls (fringe, Aztec details, shearlings); Hollywood Boho (velvets, distressed, florals) and Vanderbilt Girl (collegiate looks, leopard).
Running a fashion business has given Jessica a chance to indulge her other passion: shopping. “I love to vintage shop, personally. I buy all kinds of vintage pieces. In Los Angeles, there are certain stores that I love, and they’ll put certain things on hold for us, knowing that I’ll be wanting that Alaïa piece, for example. I also like shopping for vintage in places that nobody would. When I was shooting ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ in Louisiana, I’d find all these incredible pieces that I have archived. The other place is South Florida. Southern women are definitely a huge inspiration to us. We are Southern women. They always love to do it up and look fabulous at all times. It’s fun to grab cool, huge rhinestone pieces or fun brooches that you can make into a necklace.”
Jessica said she has no desire to design a more expensive collection. “We thought about it. All this looks expensive, and it doesn’t fall apart. I don’t think we need to go there. Making it affordable for everybody is really where we’re at.”
Ever since she was a young girl growing up in Richardson, Tex., Simpson has shown a flair for fashion. “I’ve always been into shoes since I was a kid. I’ve always been into high heels. I wish God would have given me three more inches,” said Jessica, who stands 5 feet 3 inches tall.
Growing up, she said she never liked to wear the same outfit twice. “I had to be very creative, because I couldn’t go out and buy different outfits. My mom’s been my stylist since I was born. I was a preacher’s daughter, so I did have an image I had to uphold,” she said.
Simpson described her personal style as “classic…Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, Michael Kors. I like sleek and beautiful. I also like the fun, quirky stuff such as Lanvin and Alexander McQueen. Valentino is a definite inspiration for me,” she said. “I love dresses. I love short skirts and showing off my legs. Sometimes I have to try and hide the boobs. I love wearing a suit jacket with a pair of cutoff jean shorts, and a great fun necklace with a T-shirt. I’m pretty simple. My style never gets too complicated.
“I don’t always like to dress up. I like to have something dressy and mix it with something casual. If it’s sequins, I still think it can go with shorts. In L.A., you always need somewhat of a jacket. It’s chilly at night.”
Describing herself as a “homebody,” Jessica lives in a secluded 5,500-square-foot home in Beverly Hills, once owned by Ellen DeGeneres, which she purchased for around $5 million in December 2005. Her parents live about 15 minutes away. During the evenings, she’s more likely to be found sprawled out on the couch than crawling the nightclubs. “In my downtime, I’m wearing sweats and on my couch catching up on TV shows. My fiancé is really into art, and I am, as well. We’ve been watching a lot of fun documentaries and going to art galleries and hanging out with some cool painters. My house is my little château. I like to stay home with my friends and cook, or we all order in. My house is a revolving door. I always have at least five people over all the time.”
Simpson said she even met Johnson in her own home. “He was out with some of my friends, and I was at home. One of my friends said, ‘You should come back to Jessica’s house.’ He came to the door and said, ‘This is Eric Johnson, and I said, ‘Who?’ And he said he was coming to hang out. And I haven’t let him leave the house. We got engaged at the house. It’s one of those rare stories.”
Will he work in the family business?
“No,” the women replied in unison.
“Eric’s a great guy. He’s taking art classes at UCLA. He’s very artistic. It’s nice to have an artistic athlete. You don’t find that too much,” said Jessica. Together they hike, bike, and live with a five-year-old Airedale terrier, who came with Eric. “We’re very relaxed. It takes a lot to get us stressed out. We talk through everything. You’ll see him off in the corner, and what’s Eric doing? He’s just meditating.”
“He’s a nice man for Jessica because she has such a crazy life. He’s a great balance for her,” added Tina.
Turning back to business, the duo said they were pleased with the relationship they’ve established with their licensees.
Jessica and her team frequently travel to Europe for inspiration — Jessica took a trip with Johnson to London and Paris in early March to visit stores and do some vintage and fabric shopping. Although Simpson designs a line for teens and young women, she doesn’t feel that it needs to be cutting edge. In fact, she said often the trends need to be filtered down before they are sought by their customer.
“We like to see the trends that are coming. Trends that are in the magazines right now, we’ll have next year. We’re not too far behind, but we are behind,” said Jessica.
Unlike some other celebrity lines that often fade out as fast as they arrive, Simpson’s brand appears to have staying power.
“In all honesty, I think people really trust me,” she said. “They trust that the product is going to be great, because they’ve given it a try and it hasn’t failed them. As far as how I’m different, I’m very real with who I am. I don’t take myself too seriously, and I’m very approachable. I want people who wear my clothes to say, ‘Yeah, this is Jessica,’ that I’m their friend and I have invested my time and my energy. I want everybody to feel like themselves in my clothes. I don’t know how other celebrities handle their businesses, but I’m very hands-on and I think you have that personal touch with me, and I think that outreach is very important.”
When her sportswear launches this fall, Simpson will be hitting the road to visit stores like Dillard’s and Macy’s. “The in-stores are really to say thank you to the buyers,” she said.
Asked whether the sportswear launch will be exclusive to one particular retail chain, Simpson laughed and gave a football analogy: “When we launch the sportswear with Jones, we’re going to go long and wide. We have too much time invested with this. We saw with our denim we did a soft launch, and it did so well. We could have come with a huge launch, but they were testing it. Now there’s not much to test because people trust the Jessica Simpson brand.”