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Jessica Simpson: Fashion’s Billion Dollar Baby

The singer-actress-tabloid-favorite might be on her way to becoming a fashion powerhouse.

NEW YORK — In the here-now, gone-in-a-flash world of celebrity fashion lines, there’s one surprise survivor who might be on her way to becoming a $1 billion fashion powerhouse: Jessica Simpson.

Yes, Jessica Simpson.

The singer-actress-tabloid-favorite has proven to have staying power. In the fashion world, she’s outlasted the likes of Jennifer Lopez and, at least for now, is even outperforming Madonna. And she’s about to get even bigger.

“She is the girl next door and has great product that surrounds her,” said Vince Camuto, founder and chief executive officer of Camuto Group, which is the brand’s master licensee. “People like her. People look at her as a style icon.”

Since 2005, Camuto Group (which makes her footwear) has inked licensing partnerships for 22 categories, ranging from fashion accessories, swimwear and dresses to outerwear, watches and fragrance. Jessica Simpson drummed up $750 million in retail sales this year across all product categories, said Camuto.

The latest move involves The Jones Group Inc., which has been licensed by Camuto to design, develop, produce and distribute Jessica Simpson Sportswear beginning for fall. Targeted to better junior areas, the sportswear will complement Jessica Simpson Jeanswear, which Jones licensed in 2009 and began shipping to stores last June.

Camuto said the decision to go with Jones was easy.

“Jones understands the brand. We decided to keep it with Jones because they are doing very well with the jeans.” He said he has high expectations for the new venture. “The line will add to the largest category in our portfolio of licensed product — and represents a significant market opportunity,” he said.

Only a few years ago, it would have been hard to believe Simpson would be the celebrity brand that would break the $1 billion retail barrier. The buxom blonde has had her share of ups and downs, getting lambasted for wondering whether “Chicken of the Sea” tuna was actually chicken and other questionable statements that amused a snarky public. She’s had to endure old boyfriends such as John Mayer calling their sex life “sexual napalm” in Playboy magazine and is constantly criticized for shifts in her weight. Through it all, she’s managed to maintain a favorable public opinion. So while her TV and singing careers have waned in recent years, her fashion and fragrance empire has grown, with sources estimating Simpson’s net worth up to $100 million.

The 30-year-old Simpson has been busy on several fronts recently. After a high-profile divorce from Nick Lachey in 2006 and liaisons with Mayer and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, she got engaged last month to former NFL player Eric Johnson. She recently relaunched her music career and released her first greatest-hits compilation entitled “Playlist: The Very Best of Jessica Simpson” in October followed by “Happy Christmas,” released last month. Known for her approachability, Simpson wrote a blog when she launched her new Christmas album and had more than 500,000 downloads of her single. She’s also an avid Twitterer and has more than 3 million followers. “She’s very communicative to her fans. Fifteen-, 16-year-olds and 40-year-olds like her. Sometimes she has missteps, and they identify with her,” said Jack Gross, ceo of Jeanswear for The Jones Group.

Her popularity appears to segue from music to retail. “Consumers adore her,” Gross, added, describing the crowds at a recent personal appearance. “At Belk, there were 600 people waiting in line,” he said.

Given this response, Camuto and his licensing partners are believers in the power of her brand, which they feel resonates with Americans across the country.

“One thing I like about Jessica is she’s a celebrity, but she’s really a brand. Her celebrity has created a brand that is more sustainable than many others,” said Gross. He said Jones saw an opportunity on the juniors floor and launched jeanswear last June, which has performed “beyond our expectations.” He said Jones wanted to take on the sportswear license as well because it’s eager to build Simpson into a lifestyle megabrand aimed at women aged 15 to 40-plus.

“Many years ago, I realized that juniors is a size and an attitude, not an age. I’m really excited about the demographics buying the [jeanswear] line,” said Gross. He anticipates that Jessica Simpson Sportswear and Jeanswear will generate between $150 million and $200 million in retail sales within the next two years.

Designed to be flirty, feminine and sexy, Simpson’s sportswear collection will include jackets, woven and knit bottoms, skirts and tops that relate through fabric, print and color stories. The line will be housed near brands such as Guess, XOXO and Rampage.

Simpson’s sportswear introduction coincides with the launch of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s apparel and accessories collection, which will be distributed exclusively at Kohl’s this fall, and comes on the heels of Madonna’s Material Girl collection that launched with great fanfare exclusively at Macy’s. Other celebrity lines that have endured, with varying success, are Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B., Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row and Elizabeth & James, and Victoria Beckham.

At present, 650 department store doors carry Simpson’s Jeanswear collection, including Macy’s, Dillard’s, Belk and Bon-Ton. Jones is in conversations with its accounts about housing the sportswear in the same department. The line will be produced in the Middle East, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It is being designed by Kathy Tang, design director, and sales are overseen by Cindy McKotch, vice president of Jessica Simpson, who handles both sportswear and jeanswear.

Gross noted that Simpson has approval rights, as well as input into the line. “I welcome her input. We meet with her on a monthly basis, and she’s involved and welcome,” said Gross, adding that Simpson’s mother, Tina, is also involved. Camuto noted that Simpson attends their concept meetings when they design the footwear. “She’s in our fashion closet; she picked out a [platform] shoe that became the hottest shoe. There’s a great opportunity for clothing, too,” added Camuto, who also plans to launch his own better-priced Vince Camuto collection, licensed to Chaus, next fall.

According to Heather Roussel, executive vice president, design and merchandising at Jones Jeanswear, the sportswear line is inspired by collections such as Isabel Marant, Theory and Sportmax, “but the attitude is younger.” The base fabrics are poly-cotton-spandex and cotton-spandex in pants and jackets. Knits include bouclés and tweeds, and blouses are “very feminine in shape and silhouette,” said Roussel. “The customer can create her own looks, and can mix and match the jeanswear and the sportswear,” she said.

The line is built around a strong pants story. Among the offerings are wide-leg cropped pants, boot cuts, flares and high-waisted fits. Motorcycle jackets and fur-trimmed sweater knits round out the looks. Wholesale prices range from $18 to $35 for bottoms; $15 to $28 for cut and sewn knits; $24 to $38 for sweaters, and $38 to $50 for jackets, said Gross. Monthly deliveries are slated, and there’s also a replenishment program for bottoms. While initial distribution is geared to the U.S., the company is considering other areas of distribution such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and Israel.

Simpson herself wasn’t available for an interview, but said, “Since entering the fashion industry, I’ve envisioned including a sportswear line in my lifestyle brand. This new sportswear line reflects my evolving style, which combines comfort, femininity and flirty fun.”

This isn’t the first time Simpson has had a sportswear and jeans line bearing her name. In January 2005, the former master licensee, JS Brand Management (Camuto took over the master license later in 2005), signed a deal with Los Angeles-based Tarrant Apparel Group to develop a sportswear collection. But that agreement ended abruptly in 2006 with a lawsuit between Tarrant and Camuto. Tarrant claimed Simpson had failed to promote her line, but Camuto filed a counterclaim seeking more than $100 million for the damages caused by alleged misconduct in breaching and abandoning Tarrant’s contractual obligations under the sublicense for Simpson’s sportswear collection. The suit was settled in November 2007 when the parties resolved their litigation, and Tarrant relinquished the license.

The launch will be kicked off with an advertising campaign that will be photographed in March, featuring Simpson.