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Stepping on the Gas: Jessica Simpson Out To Build Megabrand

Jessica Simpson's iconic status just made her $15 million richer through a deal with Vince Camuto, who bought her namesake brand for that amount.

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NEW YORK — Jessica Simpson’s fashion status just made her $15 million richer.

Vince Camuto believes in Simpson as a fashion icon — and put his money where his mouth is by putting up that amount to purchase the Jessica Simpson fashion brand.

In a deal brokered by the Icon Group, Camuto, president and chief executive officer of Camuto Group, bought the master license for the brand from Andrew Kirpalani, chairman of JS Brand Management, based here. Larry Zarsky, co-president of Icon Group, said he believes this is the largest, up-front celebrity fashion licensing deal in history.

“I don’t want the Jessica Simpson brand to be anything I wouldn’t wear,” said Simpson, via telephone, during a quick break from a fitness video shoot where she said she’s spent the whole day — on a treadmill.

“Vince is the mastermind behind this,” Simpson said. “He’s very creative. I have a vision for what I want done. I don’t want my name on something that isn’t right.”

And Camuto has big plans. “We really think there is an opportunity to make this the hottest brand out there. If this is not a $1 billion or $2 billion brand, I’ll be shocked,” he said in the BCBG Max Azria footwear showroom here. Camuto was the co-founder and chief executive officer of the Nine West Group Inc., which he grew into a $2 billion conglomerate before selling it to Jones Apparel Group Inc. in 1999. Currently, his licenses for BCBG Max Azria and BCBGirls are among the leading footwear brands in the marketplace.

The way Camuto sees it, he can’t go wrong with Simpson. “I think Jessica really is America’s sweetheart and I think her fans will grow with her,” he said, adding unobjectively, “I don’t think customers have an attachment to the ready-to-wear firms that are currently in existence.”

Camuto said he expects the company likely will hit $100 million in wholesale volume in its first year, though he noted that it will “take time for us to pull it all together.” He’s expecting the wholesale volume for footwear alone to reach between $40 million and $50 million in its first year.

“In 2007 and 2008, there will be big increases in the brand,” he said.

The Jessica Simpson fashion brand showroom is located here at 1450 Broadway on the first floor. Design teams, however, will be housed in New York, Los Angeles and northern Italy.

Princy by Jessica Simpson, a young contemporary collection sublicensed by Los Angeles-based Tarrant Apparel Group, is where the brand will have its start. Launching for fall, the collection includes denim (retailing between $59 and $99); knit tops (retailing between $24 and $59), and jackets (retailing between $69 and $89). The collection will be available at Federated Department Stores, Nordstrom and specialty boutiques.

“We don’t want to rush this — even though we put the money up front,” said Camuto. “We’re putting a team together. We think there is a big need for this brand at the international level. I think freestanding stores are another great idea, but we have to build our foundation right now. We want to put our teeth into this.”

A contemporary ready-to-wear collection, simply called Jessica Simpson, will launch next year, and will likely be broken into various groups depending on price points. “We may do a purple label or a blue label or a black label,” Camuto said.

Jessica Simpson footwear, with styles ranging from studded heels to strappy metallic sandals, launched at the World Shoe Association footwear trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month and will hit stores in the spring. Riding the wave of her current flick, “The Dukes of Hazzard,” a red cowboy boot will launch earlier, hitting stores in November.

Camuto expects the brand to encompass a number of categories including swimwear, sunglasses, handbags, outerwear, jewelry, watches, lingerie, hosiery, hats and possibly housewares.

Zarsky, co-president of Icon Group with Robert Levin and Stuart Sher, is handling the licenses for the various categories. “We’re bringing Vince the crème de la crème,” Zarsky said.

The endorsement with Dlish Fragrance, producer of the Dessert Beauty fragrance and body care product line, ends at the end of this year. In January, Zarsky said, it will be signed under the master license umbrella.

“We think of ourselves as a fashion brand,” Camuto said. “The word ‘celebrity’ is just one aspect of it. At the end of the day, it’s style and design that will drive the collection. We wouldn’t have put the money up if we thought otherwise. Our mission is to give a taste level to the woman who couldn’t afford Prada or Gucci.”

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