By  on December 24, 2008

Celebrity stylist Gretchen Monahan, whose ambition and joie de vivre make her seem larger than 5-foot-nothing, is focused on building her own branded world.

She operates three Grettacole salons, two G Spa day spas and two Gretta Luxe designer boutiques in metro Boston. Monahan opened a 21,000-square-foot destination spa at the MGM Grand at Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino in May, and the same month, she launched Gretta footwear, produced by St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Co.

Her skin care line, as yet unnamed, is slated to launch in the first quarter of next year.

In Manhattan, she has the Gretta Style Studio, her Greenwich Village penthouse loft, where she grooms and styles VIP clients and out of which she serves as Dove’s pitchwoman (she’s in her third year as the brand’s hair care expert).

Building on successful sales of shoes on QVC, she would only acknowledge being “in talks with” an apparel manufacturer for a licensed line of clothing and accessories. Market sources said that G-III Apparel Group Ltd., which produces goods for Calvin Klein, Guess and Cole Haan among others, has been in negotiations with Monahan.

Monahan, a 38-year-old Boston native, also has three television gigs: cohosting “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style” on Bravo, contributing a weekly makeover segment for “The Rachael Ray Show” on CBS and being featured on a syndicated trend report “Gretta’s Got It,” which airs on NBC affiliates in Boston and Miami.

“I’m not a Jessica Simpson, a J.Lo or a Fergie,” said Monahan, sipping iced tea at a restaurant near her Copley Place store in Boston. “I’m a service talent. You earn credibility as a service talent because you teach and you show.”

Hard work and charisma has propelled Monahan. She’s an intense listener, husky-voiced and disarmingly candid. Its earned her powerful allies, such as television chef Ray.

“I knew G — that’s what I call her — would be perfect for our show,” Ray said. “She has given me so much fashion and lifestyle advice over the years that I had to share her with the rest of the world.”

Monahan also connected — over a coloring session — with Terri Rawson, chief marketing officer of Brown Shoe, who helped her get the consulting roles at the $2.4 billion footwear giant. That led to Gretta shoes — the smallest label in the firm’s portfolio.

“Gretchen always has a twinkle in her eye,” said Katie Lee Joel, wife of Billy Joel, who met Monahan when a mutual friend brought her along to a dinner party the Joels were hosting in Miami.

The pair traveled to Istanbul last summer, sharing clothes out of two small carry-ons and picking through bazaars for medallions and textiles to inspire shoe details. “She is appreciative of where she is every day and you can tell she gets a kick out of the fact she’s getting to live her dreams,” said Joel.

Excluding television contracts, Gretta Enterprises pulls in about $13 million annually.

For 15 years, Monahan built businesses catering to affluent Bostonians. But working with Ray, who created an empire on a cheery persona and a knack for simplifying recipes, changed her thinking.

“I had been of the mind-set that if you don’t do high-end and protect your name, you’ll just be up in flames,” she said. “But there has been so much success in the democratization of fashion and beauty and I’ve gotten to live that firsthand.”

Monahan may open more upscale boutiques and spas, but when she talks about the Gretta brand, she speaks about tight household budgets and “real women.”

She doesn’t have to imagine what that’s like. An only child, Monahan was raised by grandparents and by her aunt and uncle, who were childless. (Monahan’s father was absent and her late mother suffered from schizophrenia.)

When, at 23, she wanted to open a hair salon, her aunt and uncle cosigned the loan, using their home as collateral.

“I remember fighting with them, saying, ‘I can’t take this [loan],’” she said. “I remember sitting up late, being so stressed and saying, ‘I will work every hour until this is paid off.’ It still haunts me.”

By her late 20s, Monahan’s salons (where her aunt worked as a receptionist) were hopping, she opened boutiques selling Stella McCartney and Jimmy Choo, and bought a home in affluent Wellesley, Mass.

Now she lives in New York, but makes regular circuits through Needham, Mass., where Gretta Enterprises is based; QVC’s East Chester, Pa., studios, and Brown Shoe’s St. Louis headquarters.

“She is magnetic and I’m not sure she ever sleeps,” said Rawson. “She has a huge passion for life.”

Market sources estimated that Monahan has sold about $1 million worth of shoes during her QVC appearances. Brown Shoe doesn’t break out the volume of individual brands. Sales are projected to double next year, she said, continuing distribution through QVC and shoe e-tailers such as Zappos and Piperlime.

Although nothing is signed, Monahan almost certainly will produce a clothing line. It’s been a longtime dream, though it has taken years for her to decide when and with what focus.

“The minute you get any little spark on TV, everyone wants to do something with you,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of things crumble. You can’t just throw a label on it and think it’s going to sell.…I’m not going to extend my brand in a destructive way.”

In 2005, months away from launch and against the advice of her development team, she scrapped her skin care line and commissioned one formulated without parabens, a preservative that has become a red flag for many consumers.

That meant a loss of more than $100,000 — “a big lesson,” she recalled.

“I haven’t been the kind with family or connections to set up my opportunities. I know those people now, but it wasn’t my path. I had to work really hard for this. I still do. Nothing comes easy, but when it does, the experience is deep and rich.” 

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