LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION:
DESIGNERS FIND A HOME WHERE SPOTLIGHT SHINES
Byline: Lisa Lockwood
NEW YORK — Job description: Must be telegenic, comfortable in front of a camera, able to memorize lines, have good voice quality and entertaining personality, tell funny stories, be a charming guest on “Oprah.” And, oh yes, design clothes.
Sure, fame and fashion have intersected for years. But the demands on today’s “designer celebrity” are far more than a trip to Neiman’s to press the flesh, or even breaking new ground on the runway.
Now it’s all about fame in the fast lane, from movies and TV to Web sites and satellite sales.
Designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi, Donna Karan, Nicole Miller, Nicholas Graham, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Cynthia Rowley are getting their names and faces out there, filling their days with assorted gigs, including appearances on the “Late Show” with David Letterman and “Charlie Rose” and guest spots on “The Nanny,” “Frasier” and “As the World Turns.”
Hilfiger, in fact, just signed a deal to do two style segments a month on “Good Morning America,” starting April 9, and Rowley will make an appearance on Letterman Monday night (Oscar night). Even Giorgio Armani did a Saturday Night Live walk-on a few years ago when he was in New York for a fragrance launch.
And it doesn’t stop with the small screen.
Mizrahi was the subject of a major Miramax documentary, “Unzipped,” commercially released last year to critical acclaim, while MTV’s Oldham is now cutting his teeth in Hollywood, producing music videos and developing a feature film. And Donna Karan was crestfallen when buddy Barbra Streisand passed her over for a movie role.
Taking a more global approach, Nicholas Graham, president of Joe Boxer, has launched a hot site on the World Wide Web that gets 150,000 hits a day. Karan has joined the bit stream with a site on the Web for her beauty company.
But does all this exposure actually sell clothes?
“It’s not just about selling underwear, but creating the image for the brand,” said Graham.
“The more you can reach the consumer, the better,” said Oscar de la Renta, who has appeared on numerous talk shows around the country, including “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee.”
“It’s hard to pinpoint [how much business these appearances bring in], but time and time again, when I travel, people recognize me from TV. The women who watch these programs may not be the consumer for your clothes, but they may be the consumer for the fragrances and the bridge line,” said de la Renta.
Oldham, who also has a monthly segment called “Todd’s Time” on MTV’s “House of Style,” has a different perspective.
“I don’t know if it’s necessary [to do these things to sell clothes]. For me, my interest is not fulfilled fully in the clothes,” he admitted.
Mohanbir Sawhney, professor of marketing at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, who teaches a course in high tech marketing, said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Whatever you can do to increase your exposure is always good. But TV appearances and Web stuff are two different ball games. The Internet stuff is a waste of time. You’re one of 20 million sites out there, so who will find you?”
When told that Joe Boxer gets 150,000 hits a day, Sawhney said, “But how much underwear does he sell? You’ve got to distinguish between those using the Web to look for information and those filling their time. The latter means nothing, in terms of action they’re taking.”
Still, in this dog-eat-dog business climate, when little but the blue chip luxe names seem to be selling, American designers are taking aggressive steps. And the Americans, unlike their European counterparts, are masters at the marketing game.
Tommy Hilfiger puts all the hype in a very simple perspective: “After I’m interviewed on the business shows such as CNN or CNBC, the stock goes up the next day,” he told WWD.
“I don’t have the time to do all the traveling I would like to do,” said Karan, who is testimony to the power of the designer personality. She’s been known to generate close to $1 million in sales when working a two-day trunk show at Bergdorf Goodman.
“I’ve been working on direct communication with the consumer through the newsletter and my videos,” Karan said. “I talk and show runway footage. People enjoy hearing what the clothes are about.”
But Karan, who has shown her fashions on “Oprah,” said she never fully understood what every Hollywood neophyte knows — that people have good sides and bad sides — until she appeared on Charlie Rose’s show.
“I realized the most important thing in life is light. You have to have your lighting person with you at all times,” said Karan.
Karan’s not only out there promoting herself. Last year, she appeared, along with Bill Blass and Mizrahi, in TV commercials for Mercedes-Benz. That wasn’t her first commercial, either. She’s done them for rayon and Dry Idea, but doesn’t have any desire to do a cameo on a TV show.
“I’m going to leave that to Isaac,” said Karan. But she admitted she was disappointed she didn’t get a part she wanted in Streisand’s upcoming movie.
“Memorizing lines is not one of my strengths. I like to improvise,” said Karan. In fact, she recalled when she did the Mercedes commercial last year, she was surrounded by “hot guys” on 42nd Street. Rather than say her scripted line, “Nice T-shirt. Nice Car,” Karan improvised with, “Nice Body. Nice Car.”
“But they got nervous because of the Calvin Klein ads and went back to the original line,” Karan recalled.
Mizrahi, who probably created more buzz about himself last year with his movie, “Unzipped,” than any other designer, has an unmistakable screen personality. In fact, “Unzipped” wasn’t Mizrahi’s first movie: He played a fashion designer in “For Love or Money,” and he has been represented by CAA.
For Mizrahi, though, it’s not really about selling the merch.
“I only like to do [these projects] when it’s a form of expression, not extraneous promotional nonsense,” said Mizrahi. “I don’t know if it helps business, but business is extremely good, and it could be due to the movie.”
To launch his new secondary line, Isaac, Mizrahi traveled to several Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus stores around the country, meeting and dressing customers and, at Saks, talked about his fashions via satellite.
“It was so much fun to see what their needs were,” he said. “They want diversion. It was like doing the Donahue show. It’s not like a fashion show, more like a Weight Watchers experience. Part of the risk was having real women put the clothes on for the first time. A couple of times, they came out of the dressing room and looked awful. I’d say, ‘Take that off, and try this on.”‘
Mizrahi said he has been asked to do Leno and has appeared on Conan O’Brien, “Dateline NBC” and “Good Morning America.”
“Those are a lot of fun, and they’re away from fashion. It’s not a panel discussion about hemlines. And the hosts seem interested. But you’re always the second guest. You’re never the first guest. It’s usually Milton Berle,” said Mizrahi.
Mizrahi said he has been approached to appear on sitcoms, but it’s never the right situation. “Oftentimes, they want my mother and me, but she refuses to do appearances.”
But Mizrahi said he never lets this new-found fame go to his head. In fact, he pointed out that on the back of the newly released “Unzipped” video, his name is never mentioned, although his picture and name appear on the front.
Reading from the back of the box, he said, “Stunning supermodels and glamorous celebrities…With exotic styles and featuring the world’s sexiest models, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and more!”
“I must be ‘and more.’ I think it’s funny. Obviously, they did the demos, and if you say Isaac Mizrahi, no one will buy it. It’s the most amusing thing. I guess I’m the high jinks of the industry,” said Mizrahi.
Mizrahi may be modest about his celebrity status, but Nina Santisi, vice president of advertising and public relations at Mizrahi, isn’t.
“At the store appearances, there were lines for at least an hour. People wanted his autograph. They were pulling up scenery from the events to get him to sign it. They were scrambling for him to sign anything. It’s very different now. It’s reached another level for us. We think it’s because of the movie.”
Santisi said “New York Undercover” did a spoof on “Unzipped” and showed backstage runway footage and a designer wearing a bandanna, and Maytag is now spoofing the movie in its new washing machine commercials. “They show washing machines coming down the runway, and other machines behind a scrim in the background. The Maytag repairman talks about his latest models.”
Perhaps de la Renta put it best: “I strongly feel exposure is important. No one can sell your products better than yourself.”
But not all the Americans are hitting the circuit.
Calvin Klein, possibly the most famous American designer, for all his controversial edge, shies away from the camera. He regularly turns down offers to appear on talk shows, according to a company spokeswoman.
He will turn out, however, when the heat really turns up, appearing on “Good Morning America” when his notorious CK ads were being investigated by the Justice Department, and on “Larry King Live,” right after an unauthorized biography about the designer was published.
He may prefer to remain out of the camera’s view, but Klein’s clever ad campaigns could teach the packaged goods industry a thing or two. He has become a household name, sometimes managing even stimulating debate over issues of taste and morality — all the while generating more jeans sales.
Ralph Lauren has also managed to reach household-name status without the camera lights. Lauren has been a guest on “Charlie Rose,” but, like Klein, usually shuns TV appearances. He certainly gets his image out there, though: His photograph appears regularly in his ads.
But the spotlight has its pitfalls.
Oldham, for example, said he’s terrified of personal appearances at stores and won’t do them anymore. Because of all the exposure he’s gotten on MTV, he said, throngs of people show up, but they’re not there to buy clothes.
“My appearances cause too much of a distraction because of TV; it creates a whole different interest level. They’re not there to look at the clothes. For me, it’s just too physically and mentally debilitating,” said Oldham.
Rowley noted that after one of her appearances on a TV show, her first boyfriend called her up and said, “I can’t believe I had to hear you’re getting married on CNN.”
With so many magazines, TV shows and talk shows devoting air time to fashion — “Entertainment Tonight,” in fact, recently hired a fashion producer — the question is, how do designers rate on the media scale?
“People are fascinated by fashion and are interested in clothes, as well as the person. That’s the major reason people watch the Oscars; it’s to see the clothes,” said Marvin Kitman, TV critic for Newsday.
“For our magazine,” said Bonnie Johns, senior editor of People, “designers are important, in terms of celebrities who have become the new role models. We focus on designers who have a huge following, such as Victor Alfaro, Pamela Dennis and Badgley Mischka. We just did Tom Ford. We tell our readers who these people are, that they’re real people behind these designs and they have real stories to tell. They’re one of the best-read articles in People magazine.”
Linda Bell Blue, executive producer of Entertainment Tonight, said, “We help bring the celebrity association of the designer to the public. It starts with the celebrity connection and the curiosity about what they’re wearing.
“We just did a piece on Sharon Stone and Vera Wang,” Blue continued. “It would never occur to many people to be interested in Vera Wang without the celebrity association, but she’s a very interesting person. She’s become a celebrity herself since so many women wear her clothes.
“Just this week, I’m doing a segment on Todd Oldham and the clothes he’s designing for the Oscars and his new store opening in L.A.” Badgley Mischka was to appear Thursday night to discuss whom they’re dressing for the Oscars, Blue added. “We’ve featured Isaac Mizrahi, Richard Tyler, Nicole Miller and Calvin Klein. What people wear on TV, people notice. Take Fran Drescher, even ‘Murphy Brown.’ Their clothes have become part of their character.”
As for where designers fit in the pecking order of media stars, society columnist Liz Smith said, “I think all of these barriers have really fallen. When you have someone really distinguished like Bill Blass give millions of dollars to the New York Public Library, he fits right at the top of the social scale.
“In what has been called society of achievement, these guys make lots of money and are big business conglomerates. They can sit down with David Rockefeller and have an interesting conversation, and it’s not about hemlines,” Smith said. “Versace, Armani and Valentino are the most important people in the Italian social world. Mizrahi, and some of the young ones…people are thrilled when they show up. Look at Calvin and Ralph. They’re big stars. In my opinion, if you have a lot of money, you’re acceptable and they want you. That’s the real social life left in this city.”
What attracts these designers to the limelight?
“It just seems like part of what I do for my job,” observed Cynthia Rowley. “Design the collection, design the shoes, do Letterman — it’s part of the whole process.
“Nobody’s a private person anymore. If you’re in a creative field people are passionate about, they want to know about you,” she added.
Rowley appeared on the opening segment of MTV’s “House of Style,” with new hosts Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow, and she talked about spring clothes with Samantha Mathis. She also did a 10-minute stint on “Oprah” this month, fielding questions such as, “Why don’t designers do size 48?” “I had to defend myself and the industry,” said Rowley.
As the first designer to appear on Letterman, Rowley said she doesn’t plan to talk about fashion. Instead, she’ll show some of the unusual household gadgets she has invented.
“I don’t get nervous at all. I don’t have a new movie out that I’m plugging. If I’m a big bomb, I think people will still buy my clothes. I’m not an actress or a comedian. It’s not like I’m going to say, ‘I couldn’t get the laughs last night,”‘ said Rowley, who is scheduled to appear Monday night on Letterman with one of her all-time favorites, Mary Tyler Moore.
Does Rowley believe these appearances translate to sales?
“We get calls all the time. When I appeared on MTV, people called our stores.”
To Marc Jacobs, a gig on MTV is essential for his business.
“It’s very important for us to do things like that because we don’t have a budget for advertising,” said Jacobs, who appeared last month on MTV’s “Fashionably Loud” featuring clothes by Jacobs, Mizrahi and Anna Sui worn on top models.
Media observers believe TV appearances boost designers’ profiles, as long as they choose the right vehicles.
Kelloggs’s Sawhney advises, “To enhance your brand, you have to study Leno as a brand, or Letterman, and study yourself, and see if there’s a fit between the two images being projected. Otherwise, it could hurt you more. [You have to pick your shows] the same way you put advertising in a magazine.”
Can all this exposure backfire?
“It’s impossible to become too overexposed on TV,” said Newsday’s Kitman. “Overexposure is what makes TV stars. People of limited talent appear on TV and become great big stars by repetition.
“I don’t know if it helps business, but designers have a lot to say compared to the average 15-year-old slut on ‘Sally Jessy Raphael.’ I think the designers elevate TV,” said Kitman.
Several years ago, Nicole Miller did a guest appearance on the soap opera “As the World Turns.” She played herself and had two scenes. “We thought it was good exposure, and we liked the way they wrote the script,” said Miller.
“I got a lot of feedback. When I did personal appearances, a lot of women came up to me and said, ‘I saw you on the soap opera.’ It’s amazing how many people watch them,” she said.
Miller has been a guest on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, and she got a lot of calls from people who saw the show, but admitted it might have been because George Clooney of “E.R.” was also on that night.
Hilfiger, who’s a member of the Actor’s Guild, is piling up screen credits. Besides his upcoming GMA stint, Hilfiger does Tommy TV, a live broadcast from his showroom that’s beamed into his retail megashops. He’s done 10 so far, and 30 are planned.
“We show backstage at our shows. We talk about who we dress and why, and people call in. We have a satellite hookup with Macy’s, Dillard’s and May Co.,” said Hilfiger.
Last year, Hilfiger did six segments on MTV and VH1 called “The Tip by Tommy Hilfiger.” He interviewed musicians in their homes about how they dress. Among those interviewed were Tory Amos, Stevie Nicks and Tom Jones.
Hilfiger recently completed a documentary with Spike Lee, originally to show at the CFDA awards, but did his own re-edit at the last minute to emphasize his clothes. The original is still alive: “We are talking to a few different networks about running a re-edited version,” he said.
Hilfiger said he usually makes money for such gigs, through the Actor’s Guild, which he had to join when he did promotional teasers for “Thirtysomething.” But when it’s cable TV, he added, “They thank you very much.”
Nicholas Graham said he’s thrilled about the interest he’s drumming up on his new Joe Boxer Web site. In fact, Graham, a minister of the Universal Life Church, is officiating at a wedding in Times Square April 3 for a man who proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the Web site. The event’s expected to generate plenty of TV coverage, said Graham. ‘It’s cyber, it’s Times Square, it’s underwear,” he said. He’s also looking into developing his own sitcom. “To me, it’s about marketing and turning the brand into an entertainment vehicle,” said Graham.
But designers as entertainment vehicles can be another matter. When Oldham appears on talk shows, he finds them “‘extremely surreal.”
“Everything about it is so weird. Your interests and accomplishments have to be summed up in 45 seconds, and there’s nary a shred of interest on the host’s part.”
But still, he finds all these media outlets are creating another personal dimension.
“I don’t think about the money. Your name becomes more ‘out there.’ They will seek it out. In a roundabout way, your presence is a little broader, and you’re known for being a little different version [of a designer].
“My goal is to keep myself valid and alive,” said Oldham. “I’d suffocate if I had to just be doing design.”