THE FAME GAME: DO CELEBS SUCCEED AS DESIGNER NAMES?
Byline: Julee Greenberg / Elena Romero
NEW YORK — A primer for all those J.Lo and Sean John wannabes desperate to launch their own clothing lines: First, the clothes better reflect your personal style (that is, if you have any) and, more important, the quality and fit better be great.
With celebrities from Jennifer Lopez and Jay-Z to Michael Jordan and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen putting their names on clothing lines, the question is raised whether celebrity status translates into brand clout.
Celebrities have lent their names to clothing labels before — Kathie Lee Gifford’s line with Wal-Mart and Jaclyn Smith and Kathy Ireland at Kmart, for example. But this latest round of star branding has a much cooler clientele and more competitive distribution.
Industry sources said that when a celebrity is popular, a good clothing line can enhance their popularity. However, when the quality is bad, it can have a bad effect on the image of the star. Vendors and retailers agreed that in many ways, it doesn’t matter if a celebrity is behind a line. In order for any brand to have success, the clothes must have good quality, fit and price.
Hip-hop icon and businessman Russell Simmons was the first to create a true urban brand with the music and street influence built into his collection. Simmons’ company, Phat Fashions, which produces the Phat Farm and offshoot sister brand Baby Phat, brings in more than $460 million. Simmons said Baby Phat, run by his wife, Kimora Lee Simmons, is successful not because of the name behind it, but because of the lifestyle it represents. “I believe that when brands have integrity, they represent what we like about that person’s personal style,” he said. “Everything about my line represents my style. It started with an argyle sweater, something I love. Now I always have a number of them in the line. I shoot the Phat Farm ads in my house. The name represents my entire lifestyle.”
Simmons said this works with most of the celebrity labels out there. He said Jay-Z’s line, Rocawear, works since it represents “real hip-hop lifestyle with a lot of honesty.” Simmons said that Sean John, the $100 million fashion company owned by Sean (P. Diddy) Combs, works because it represents his style. “Sean John has that dressy, urban influence. He takes from major fashion houses like Prada and Gucci, as well as hip-hop, and mixes to create the line,” he said. “I’ve seen hip-hop lines come and go. It was when that real honesty came out in the clothes that people became successful.” Simmons said the best thing about Baby Phat is that “Kimora’s line is based on her. It is her vision of commercial culture that came from her travels and her own style. That is what is has to be.” As reported, Baby Phat expects to reach $70 million in volume by the end of the year.
With lifestyle being so important with celebrity brands, Lopez decided a year ago that it was time for her to launch a line of clothes. Sweetface Fashions was created as a joint venture between Lopez and Andy Hilfiger under which Hilfiger designs, markets and sells the J.Lo by Jennifer Lopez clothing line. “We’ve already built a lifestyle in six months,” Hilfiger said. “In November, we shipped a small holiday line that consisted of jeans, tops, outerwear and active. We launched with 30 Macy’s doors and then rolled out to about 500 specialty stores.”
According to Hilfiger, activewear sold well, with velour suits and outerwear performing best.
Hilfiger said he’s looking to develop J.Lo shop-in-shops.
“We’ve been meeting with in-store-shop companies and aiming for some in the fall,” he said. “We will also go into fragrance for fall. The creative is done, and Jennifer has already picked out the scent, as well as designed the box and the bottle.” Hilfiger is also looking to expand J.Lo into a number of other categories. “We are looking into different licensing opportunities, such as accessories and plus sizes,” he said.
Hilfiger expects to see $100 million in wholesale volume by the end of the year.
Simmons said he’s confident the J.Lo line will last, as long as Lopez, herself, keeps a handle on it. “She has great style and good taste,” he said. “If she stays with it, the line should stay in business.”
Rocawear is run by Damon Dash, a music executive, and rapper Jay-Z. Unlike the J.Lo brand, Dash said it is important that Jay-Z’s name is nowhere on the label.
“The line is not about him,” he said. “It is about our vision. While Jay is definitely the biggest marketing tool that we have, not everyone is a Jay-Z fan, so we can’t have that on the label.”
Rocawear, which launched a junior sportswear and accessories line last year, is not based on lifestyle the way other celebrity brands are, Dash said. “The line is based on quality,” he said. “Sometimes the style is collegiate, sometimes hip-hip. It’s not your stereotypical urban brand. I consider my competition to be all clothing lines out there, including Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap. Other urban brands wouldn’t say this. We can’t base the line on Jay. What if he stopped selling albums tomorrow? The line would disappear.”
But it’s not only the hip junior companies launching celebrity clothing lines. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is getting into it with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.
The twins best known for their roles on the Nineties TV show “Full House,” who have become musicians as well as actresses as they have grown, have their clothing line at Wal-Mart, where it proves to be successful. “We have done very well with the brand, and it remains popular,” said a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. “It is great, quality clothing that is fashion-forward with great prices. The parents love the bright colors.”
The tween line did so well that in February, the brand expanded into a toddlers’ collection.
While some retailers believe there is a lot of money to be made when it comes to buying a celebrity brand, others, like Wet Seal, would rather take from their own mix and create a style that the celebrity represents. “Whoever the trendsetter is at the moment, we like to focus on that style,” said Steven Strickland, senior vice president of creative marketing at the Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based Wet Seal. “I don’t think the celebrity’s name has to be on the garment. We can create the look without the name.”
So for Wet Seal, who is the hot celebrity of the moment?
“Jennifer Lopez is still hot. A lot of women look to her as someone who is about style rather than trend,” Strickland said. “I am also hearing a lot about Nelly Furtado, Alicia Keys and Michelle Branch, but with them, it’s really about their talent rather than their clothes.”
Strickland said he has seen a shift in the past year when it comes to celebrity style. He said he believes that customers went from wanting to imitate the celebrity’s style to respecting their music.
“Pink is still fun and poppy, but there has been a shift in her music, as well,” he said. “She’s a bit less about pop and more true to her own style of music.”
Macy’s East carries a variety of celebrity lines, and according to Christine Munnelly, divisional merchandise manager of juniors, they all perform well for the store.
“Rocawear girls does very well, it’s their first season, and it was great,” she said. “J.Lo is meeting expectations. They had kinks that have been ironed out, but it’s like that with any new brand. We have carried the line since the first season and are committed to working with them in the future.”
Munnelly said that when the celebrity is good and their brand is strong, it can only help them. She also said a celebrity will do well with their line if he or she is known on many levels. Lopez, for example, is a singer, performer and an actress.
“She has a far-reaching appeal and a good style,” she said. “When a celebrity is hot, the line is hot. When she loses steam, the line does, as well.”
Overall, Munnelly said, the most important aspect in any line of clothing is that the quality and fit must be on target with the customer.
“A customer will only buy the product if the quality is good for their money and if it fits,” she said. “If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t matter if the celebrity’s name is on it, she will not buy it.”
While Munnelly said that a celebrity’s name on a label adds to the “cool factor” of the clothes, this does not ring true for all brands.
“Ecko does really well for us, and do people really know there is a Marc Ecko behind it? This is a case where the label stands on its own,” she said. “The product is good enough where a famous name is not needed.”
Music-driven styles are one of the strongest segments of the Fred Segal Santa Monica stores. Although the upper-class retailer does not carry any junior lines backed by female stars, Sharon Segal, owner of Fred Segal, said she carries Sean John in the men’s department. She said that lines such as J.Lo tend to be for the mass market or geared toward department stores.
“It seems that I notice the highest volume from my store’s junior department,” Segal said. “The sales in dollars may not be as high as some other departments, but that is solely due to price point. We definitely move more merchandise on a consistent basis from that section of the store.”
Star-driven lines aren’t as important to her customer. Segal believes that if a person’s background is music, that person will need to have a great design, production and marketing team to compete in the apparel arena.
“The celebrities with apparel lines will need the same ingredients as any other clothing company,” she said. “The difference is, the customer will have certain expectations the minute a name is attached, so when the line is first launched, it can’t disappoint.”
Because she believes the styling of Sean John fits the needs of her male customer, Segal chose to carry it.
“While we had good sell-through, I don’t think it was because Puffy backed the line, but rather because the styling was great, the clothes were wearable and the quality was good,” she said.
According to retailer Lenny Rothschild, owner of the Chicago-based Lark stores, J.Lo is a great singer, but missed the target when it came to developing her brand. “Goods were said to fit the curvaceous lady, but ‘No way, Jose.” They are preteen ideas with a cute handle,” he said.
Rothschild said male celebrities, on the other hand, have been right on target.
“The men’s urban business never had a name brand,” he said. “The customer went to Polo, Tommy and Nautica because there was nowhere else to go. Along come Phat Farm, Fubu, Rocawear, Sean John and Outkast — nice names that the male customer can relate to.”
But Rothschild said the real question is how long these star-powered, hip-hop brands can get away with making five-pocket jeans with their name on them. “Look at the new hot lines that are not star-driven, but are fashion-driven,” he said.
“There’s Akademiks, Enyce and Girbaud — not hip-hop, just great product that is different, innovative and has lots of style. Move over, hip-hop stars, and say hello to the new Donwans [Harrell, founder of Akademiks] of the world. It’s the styling and concept that sells, not the musical mega-hype. Let the singers sing and the designers design.”
Wendy Red, fashion director of the Washington, D.C.-based Up Against The Wall, picked up J.Lo’s holiday debut.
“The velours did amazing, and we’re doing very good with the jeans,” she said. “J.Lo has a great basic jean in a lot of washes, and the price is right.” The chain also carries other music-inspired brands such as Baby Phat and Rocawear. Red said,
“With Baby Phat, girls love the name and the association to Kimora Lee and Russell Simmons. The girls feel it’s a family kind of thing. The styling is very good, and the brand is something they can relate to.” Rocawear has been Up Against The Wall’s best line across the board.
“It’s selling faster than I can put it in the store,” Red said. “Those velour suits — girls buy one in every color.” Red believes it takes the right celebrity to be successful in the apparel business. “I think that a lot of celebrities can’t get into the business — like a movie star is not going to make it,” she said. “A girl is not going to wear Patricia Arquette jeans.”
Red said it’s unlikely for it to work for women athletes, either.
“How many athletes have real style off the court? When it’s a music artist, they are out there entertaining and wearing clothes that represent style,” she added. “People want to emulate that look of a performer. However, in the musician’s case, their music will come first and the line, second.”
Michael Jordan seems to think he has style off the court. Since its inception in 1997, Nike’s Jordan brand has branched beyond tanks and basketball shorts to include three subcategories: sport, sport-casual and 23, a fashion forward group.
Jordan is known to be a hands-on designer selecting colors and fabrics, and having Nike designers fly to Chicago to check out his newst car or even his closet for inspiration. The NBA star, however, nixed his initial plan to include women’s apparel. In addition to the Jordan brand, which Nike operates as a separate business, Jordan has also made his mark in the fragrance world.
Who’s Line Is It Anyway?
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(the First Daughter)