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Headline aside, there’s nothing aw-shucks about Ellen DeGeneres. She is a formidable conversationalist, direct and thoughtful. Over a vegetarian lunch at New York’s Candle 79, the focus was DeGeneres’ ambitious E.D. launch, but the discussion wended through ongoing cultural intolerance, why the red carpet is less welcoming to her than to her wife, Portia de Rossi, and her first, failed foray into fashion years ago. The world just wasn’t ready for ass-less pants.
Ellen DeGeneres: I’m really excited. I have a tendency to not remember things vividly. I have abstract memories of things, but not concrete, so I’m trying to remember this time. I was remembering when we were all sitting at lunch [Ellen, Portia, members of Ellen’s L.A.-based team of advisers, Marisa Gardini and several prospective design-team members] in our Santa Barbara home and I thought, “We’re going to remember this day. We’re going to look back and think, ‘This is the beginning of a big, big business.’”
This story first appeared in the July 8, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: How big can E.D. become?
Ellen: As big as it gets. How big can it get? Bigger. I’m not trying to launch a little boutique situation. This is my next phase. The show is the show and when I someday decide to stop doing the show, my entire focus is going to be design.
WWD: Do you think about the show ending?
Ellen: Of course. I mean, I have three more years on my contract and of course, that’s a discussion: “Do I keep going or don’t I? What do I do?” Everyone obviously wants it to keep going and as long as I’m having fun and as long as I’m doing well, I’ll keep going. I am having fun now and the show keeps growing and growing, which is amazing.
WWD: Yet you’re planning your “next phase.”
Ellen: This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. We’ve been very, very picky about how to do it and who to do it with. It’s not that after all of these [celebrities] have come out with all of these lines I go, “Oh, me too!” I think that’s important. And I think it’s important that I’m not licensing my name, that this is me, every decision on design, everything I’m putting out there. No one is going, “And this is what we’re doing.” They’re not telling me what to do. We’re partners and we’re all working together.
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WWD: Explain the name E.D.
Ellen: People will call it what they will, but it is “Ed.” It’s obviously my initials, but Ed is also what Portia has called me for a long time. It’s just a nickname. We wanted it to be my name without it being my name because it should represent much more than just Ellen. I like Ed and we loved the way it looks. The periods are just a design thing.
WWD: Is Portia involved at all? Does she casually tell you, ‘You should do this, you should do that?’
Ellen: She definitely has opinions and she’s in meetings with us because she’s a part of it, but it’s me and we pretty much have the same aesthetic as far as what we like.
WWD: I’ve read about your passion for real estate, for buying homes, redoing them thinking that you’re settled, and then finding another. What speaks to you?
Ellen: I shop all of the time. I love houses and every month I look at every design magazine, I buy every latest design book and architecture book. So I’m always learning and educating myself with new ideas, new inspirations. So when I see something — a new chair or something — I think “Where is that going to go?” I have to move because I have no place for it and I don’t want to put anything in storage.
I know so many people who buy things and then they move things out and into storage. It’s like, you’re not going to use it anymore — sell it. I feel the same way about a home. If you grow out of it.…I’m lucky enough that when I do sell homes, I make money because I improve their value and I know how to do that, though I never do it intentionally. I never look at it as I’m flipping houses.
WWD: And you love the makeover process.
Ellen: I just love aesthetic; I love design. I always have, since I was a little girl. We moved every year and a half and I had to redo a new bedroom each time, so I think that’s where it started. They were apartments because we never owned a home, which also made me want to own a home. And as soon as I had enough money, I bought a house. And then I started making a little more money and I built a house and then I made money on each house. I made more money in real estate early on than my entertainment career.
WWD: When you were young and on the stand-up circuit, did the real estate help support you?
Ellen: I had to first make enough money to buy a house and then it just [moved from there].…I didn’t start out thinking, “I’m going to move and make money and move and make money.” It just turned out that when I lived in a place, what I did to it made it more appealing, and each house was better than the last. Obviously, you’re moving up and I thought, “For sure I’ll stay here.” And then it just became a joke and everybody laughed at me when I said, “This is it, I’m not moving again.” And I really meant it, [until] I realized that I just can’t say that anymore.
WWD: You’re on to yourself.
Ellen: Yes I’m on to myself. And that’s fine. I’ve just always loved design in every area. I just like aesthetic — it’s important to me.
WWD: How you characterize your aesthetic?
Ellen: I don’t think there is one. I think style is beauty and beauty comes in many forms. The only thing that I will stick with as far as what I’m attracted to is my wife. I don’t think I’ll change on that; she’s my favorite. But as far as a home, I love so many different styles. Our place in Santa Barbara is an Italian stone farmhouse, and it’s a whole different vibe than our contemporary house in the city. I like having [both], and if I knew how to live that way I would have a lot of other types of homes. I would have a Spanish home, I would have a Tudor, I would have an East Coast. But I don’t like to live that way. I like simplicity.
WWD: You can love different aesthetics, but as someone launching a lifestyle brand, there has to be a prevailing aesthetic.
Ellen: Oh, yeah, as far as that goes. Well, we were talking about houses.
WWD: Is there a connection?
Ellen: I think it has to be comfortable and I think simple does apply. Simple not in a basic way, but simple in a sophisticated, not tricky, not trendy way. The hardest thing is to find something that will go with anything else, something you can mix and match and wear without it looking like it was last year. I know things have to change, I know that’s what fashion is. But it just drives me crazy when one year, you wear a collar that is three-quarters of an inch and the next year it’s [bigger] and you can tell something is out of style because of the collar. I know that’s the nature of the beast, but I’m going to try to make things that are simple and basic enough that they last. Comfort and quality are really important to me as well. I want my stuff to be dependable so that someone can wash it and it’s still going to look the same and feel the same.
WWD: Why now? When do you find the time?
Ellen: Look, I’m not as busy as a lot of people. I’m not as busy as the President of the United States or Ryan Seacrest. I think that if you love something and if it’s your passion, then you have plenty of time. I think about my show as a very well-oiled machine. I go there every day and we create the show and that’s it. I have many hours of the day to think about design when I go home and I have weekends and I think about it all the time. Why now? It just turns out that the partners came at this time. I’ve been looking to do this for a long time; my team and I have been searching for the way to do this exact thing. I didn’t want to license my name. I wanted it to be me, and I wanted to have partners who knew what they were doing and knew how to build a business. I’m not doing this because I’ve had so many celebrities on the show talking about their perfume or their clothing line or whatever. I would hate for it to look like, “Well then I’m going to do it.” I’ve wanted to do this for ages. We’ve just been picky. We wanted to do it right. I have representation that protects me in every way. Every decision we make, every time I make a deal with anybody, it is because it is me. It is not my name; it is not my brand. It is me. I wanted to do it the right way and it just took this long to find the right team. I feel like it’s the most amazing team, an all-star team.
WWD: How are you approaching the capsule launch for holiday?
Ellen: We’re launching with tabletop. How I see the product is every single thing I’d want in my home. Growing up I knew what I liked. We didn’t have money but I really wanted my bedroom to look a certain way. All I had for an influence was Pier 1; that’s where we went. Even with my first apartment before stand-up, I tried to make it look cool. My awareness was [limited] and my environment was very different because I didn’t read Elle Décor. I didn’t look at all of those things so I didn’t know…
I think now people are a lot more educated because more people read Elle Décor and Dwell and Architectural Digest, and now they have access to furniture because of Design Within Reach, because of Restoration Hardware and because of all of these stores that have popped up that are replicating these [original designs]. So that’s what I want to do. You’re only able to put your house together within a certain budget if you have access to certain things and if you’re educated about them, about what your lighting fixture can be and what your tabletop can look like. So my goal is that people can have a beautiful house, a really comfortable house, without only being able to afford [very expensive] things.
WWD: Money is no longer a constraint for you when working on a house. Are you prepared to be budget-conscious?
Ellen: For a long, long time I was budget-conscious. Quality has to be there. Obviously, there is a difference if you’re buying something from the Gap or Saint Laurent. But if you’re able to have something that’s really stylish, then why not?
WWD: Where will the clothes be positioned in terms of price and customer?
Ellen: As far as price point, it will be midlevel. As far as who it’s for, I think it’s for anyone. I hope that what I wear is something that — I’m 56 — so somebody who’s 56 can wear it, and I also think that someone who’s 18 can wear it. It’s just great clothing. It’s simple: a classic shirt is a classic shirt. Same thing with pants or drawstring pants. It’s for everybody who has the same sensibility that I have.
WWD: Women’s and men’s?
Ellen: Yes I’ll do both.
Ellen: I don’t think we’re starting with dresses but I would [do dresses] because I love to buy Portia dresses. I love Dries Van Noten, I like Comme des Garçons. There are certain deconstructed, simple dresses that I love buying her. So if there is something that I love and I would still proudly represent it as something that I love, it doesn’t matter that I personally wouldn’t wear it. Because if I’m just going to be that specific, it’s kind of limiting for me.
WWD: When I interviewed you seven years ago, you said you wore a lot of Jil Sander. Whom do you wear now?
Ellen: Me. Most of the stuff that I wear, especially for the show, we design. We have been all year long.
WWD: Is that a relatively recent thing?
Ellen: Yes. When I started I had such a specific style. I loved suits and I was limited to either Stella McCartney or Jil Sander. In the very beginning, it was really hard for me to find suits that fit, other than buying a men’s blazer to cut down. So we just started making my own stuff. But I wear Rag & Bone. I wear some Thom Browne, I wear Dries, I wear Public School and The Row.
WWD: In fact, this isn’t your first foray into fashion design. Years ago when you hosted the VH1 Fashion Awards, you made a pitch for ass-less pants.
Ellen: It didn’t catch on. I don’t know why. I’d forgotten that I did that. That was hilarious, the ass-less pants.
WWD: Back to less avant-garde fashion, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have said they learned about fit while having their television wardrobes tailored. I imagine having your own clothes made will inform a great deal of the collection, what works and what doesn’t.
Ellen: It also showed that there was a giant hole in the market; I’m not the only one who likes to dress this way. Yes, it informed me. For example, short-sleeved shirts. At a certain age you don’t want a shirt like a polo shirt that cuts you right there [mid-upper arm]. It’s not always flattering for women, so we designed short-sleeved shirts that are more flattering, with the sleeves a little longer.
WWD: Talk about that hole in the market.
Ellen: Obviously, I realized that I didn’t have things to choose from. And then I watch people show up to the show and I see people dressing similarly to me and I can see that there’s been an influence, yet it’s not exactly quite right because it’s just not out there yet. Of course people are going to keep buying what’s out there, but if you give them something new, they don’t know what they want until you give it to them. I think there’s room for fashion to grow into different areas. I was reading the article you wrote on me in W and what I was talking about still applies. We go to a red carpet and Portia is pulled aside for the fashion shot and they’re asking me to step aside. A suit is fashion. Men go to events in suits and they look great and there are really cool designs. But for whatever reason suits just aren’t as appreciated as dresses at red-carpet events.
Everybody responds to what they’re attracted to, but that doesn’t mean that your eye can’t learn to appreciate other things. People make it such a big deal that I only wear suits. Katharine Hepburn only wore suits. Some women just like to wear suits. There’s nothing wrong with having something that you’re more comfortable in. It doesn’t mean I don’t like dresses. I shop and buy stuff for Portia all the time and I have great taste in dresses. I just don’t buy them for myself.
WWD: Do you foresee putting your collection on the runway at some point?
Ellen: I don’t know about the launch but at some point I hope to do that, for sure.…The rollout for this and the marketing — I obviously don’t know all of that yet. I know what I want it to be, and when you say, ‘How big do you see this getting?’ I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t want it to be the biggest brand name that you can imagine.
WWD: You said you shop all the time. Are you an all-purpose shopper…home, clothes, food?
Ellen: Not food; I don’t like grocery stores. They’re too overwhelming for me. Too many aisles, too many fluorescent lights.
WWD: Let’s talk about social media. You have this gigantic platform already. How will you integrate the brand launch?
Ellen: Oh easy. Sometimes it will be with humor; sometimes it will just be straightforward. Reaching people and talking to people is just another form of communication, so it doesn’t matter in what form. [Social media] is the form that everyone is using lately so that’s fine.
WWD: Twitter — you have an amazing 29.5 million followers. How involved are you?
Ellen: During the summer I’m less involved, but during the year I’m fully involved in everything. We obviously have departments. It’s a giant business and our social media is huge but I’m involved with every aspect of the show in every way.
WWD: Will the E.D. social media staff be separate from the show staff?
Ellen: They’ll cross over and integrate but I’ll have a separate staff.
WWD: Will you be the face of the brand or will you use models?
Ellen: I don’t know; we haven’t gotten that far. I mean, I would definitely hire models. There are pretty people out there and that’s what they do to make a living, so why not use them? So I would definitely hire models. I mean, I would always want to be the face of it because it’s mine, but…
WWD: You’ve been a pitch person and model and had some positive and negative experiences — J.C. Penney, Cover Girl.
Ellen: Actually J.C. Penney was very positive until it just wasn’t going in the direction that everyone had intended to go when we signed on. The first few commercials we did for the Oscars were huge, the budget was huge, we did really creative things. I was really excited about it and everything changed and people got fired. I really don’t look at anything as a negative experience. It went well and then it didn’t.
WWD: What happened with the Mothers Against — whatever the mothers were against.
Ellen: Supposedly it was One Million Moms. I don’t think there were quite that many.
WWD: But there is alliterative advantage to One Million Moms. That group protested against you being in a Christmas commercial. That was extremist. In terms of mainstream acceptance of gay people today, are you surprised at where the world is now versus in 1997 when you came out on your sitcom?
Ellen: No I’m more surprised that there’s still blowback. I’m still surprised and sometimes I get caught off-guard because I just expect everybody to have evolved to a place of open acceptance that everyone’s different and nobody should offend anybody else. Unless you’re actually prohibiting somebody from living the way they want to live.
WWD: Do you think gay people face animosity in everyday life?
Ellen: I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to it until it’s brought to my attention. There was something recently. My face was used for an invitation to some prom thing at a Catholic school and it was like they were burning my picture because my face was on the invitation. I didn’t know anything about it. I was like, “Wow, that really happens still?” So I’m surprised when someone brings something like that to my attention. No, I’m not surprised things have come so far. I don’t know why it takes so long for people to just accept everyone for who they are. It kind of goes back to fashion — there should be clothing for everybody. I mean, girls shouldn’t have to be pink and boys shouldn’t have to be blue.
WWD: Extremists aside, everyone seems to love you. Why does everyone love you?
Ellen: I don’t know.
WWD: Your popularity and public image will clearly fuel the brand. You must have considered that.
Ellen: I mean I’m grateful. I don’t know how to put this, but it doesn’t matter to me as much — I used to [care] desperately. I grew up wanting people to love me. And then, of course, my worst nightmare happens where they didn’t. So I think I got to a place where I really love myself and really accept myself, flaws and all. I’m not perfect. I have lots of things that I work on all the time. I really like myself and I don’t care what other people think. I don’t care if I dress in a way that they ask me to step aside to photograph Portia on the red carpet. I think it’s interesting. I understand why they do it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings; I like how I dress. I like how I put time into what I pick out and what I’m wearing. So I think it’s partly that I wouldn’t know if people didn’t like me.…I don’t know that people love me or don’t love me.
WWD: Any celebrity brand depends upon the connection of the celebrity with the consumer. Likability is a business thing. You don’t think about that?
Ellen: No, I don’t. Obviously I’m aware on some level. We wouldn’t be making a business deal if I weren’t doing well, if I weren’t a brand that’s popular. But if I think about that too much, then I’m thinking of myself as some kind of a business. I know that’s what we’re talking about, but it all stems from who I am as a person. I don’t want to even say “Ellen” because then I’m talking about myself in the third person and it becomes really weird. I’m just living my life honestly and authentically. It’s a ripple effect of an energy that goes out there, an authenticity. I think that’s what people are craving. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of it in the world right now, so that’s probably it. It’s just a ripple effect of honesty.
WWD: Your traditional ratings have gone up at a time when people can watch television whenever they choose. That’s pretty amazing.
Ellen: I really don’t think about all of that stuff. People bring it up to me and when we finished the season everyone at Warner Brothers was saying that this is a rarity — a show that’s on 11 seasons and that’s growing in ratings. It’s unheard of. I just do what I do, I acknowledge that and I’m grateful for it, but I don’t think about it as “why.”
WWD: Back to E.D., we haven’t discussed the pet element.
Ellen: Animals obviously are very important to me, so we’re doing a whole line of really great-looking items. I don’t want to be specific because I don’t want people stealing my ideas. It’s for dogs and cats. I think there’s a stigma about cat people — you know, the cat lady. I think there can be really good-looking things for cats. They don’t all have to be tacky; they don’t all have to be carpeted condos.
WWD: Do you have cats?
Ellen: We have three cats and three dogs. I have beautiful homes and I want my homes to be beautiful in every area. I don’t want ugly animal things around in our beautiful homes, so we’re going to put out a line of really good-looking pet supplies and leashes and collars and everything, toys.
WWD: That seems genuine from you. There was a moment when every major brand had the dog bowl and whatever.
Ellen: Right. Everything is going to be an extension of my lifestyle. It’s going to be what I see as a necessity. I mean, there are going to be frivolous, playful things as well, but the way I live is inspiring everything.
WWD: What’s the most frivolous thing you’ll do?
Ellen: When I say frivolous, I mean that everybody buys throws that you don’t really need but they’re good-looking. And who can’t use another throw? Coasters could be considered frivolous, but they could also be a necessity. There’s nothing wrong with having great-looking coasters so you’re not ruining your table. When I say frivolous, I don’t mean something really crazy that nobody needs.
WWD: You sound so excited about it — coasters and all.
Ellen: It’s really crazy. All of this makes such sense to me. If you’d seen me as a 13-year-old girl in my bedroom and what I was doing and cut to now, you’d go, “Oh well, that makes sense.” Like everything in my life kind of makes sense. Nothing is, “Boy, I’d never see that happening.” But it’s still pretty incredible that it’s happening, and who knows what’s next.
WWD: You seem to have a good idea.
Ellen: I think that “row, row, row, your boat gently down the stream” is a very profound song. Life is but a dream. I think that it’s your boat and you row your boat and you don’t pay attention to anyone else’s boat and you can dream anything you want. And if you have thoughts that it’s a bad dream and have thoughts that things don’t happen and it’s a tough world and it’s not fair, then that’s how you see it and it just depends on what you see. And I think I learned early on that I could dream and create anything that I wanted. So, you know, I did it.