CELEBRITY APPAREL: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — Does celebrity sell the goods?
Jennifer Lopez is about to find out. Lopez, who is negotiating with Andy Hilfiger for a J-Lo Jeanswear collection, is the latest in a long string of celebrities to lend their names to fashion lines. Back in the Fifties, Gloria Swanson licensed a “Forever Young” dress line to Puritan, and the stars have been at it ever since. While the past half century has been filled with a number of success stories, the fashion graveyard is littered with stars who weren’t able to parlay their fame into a major apparel line.
For example, relatively few people probably remember Marilyn Monroe Jeans or Rosanne Barr’s plus-size line.
Although they’ve had varying life spans and degrees of success, the winners in the women’s arena have been Jaclyn Smith and Kathy Ireland for Kmart; Kathie Lee [Gifford] for Wal-Mart; Cheryl Tiegs for Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Esther Williams swimwear; Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans; Shoshanna’s dress and swimwear line for specialty and department stores, as well as a plus-size line from Delta Burke, that is distributed through department and specialty stores, catalogs and QVC, and generates $60 million.
The flops? A short-lived Diahann Carroll collection for J.C. Penney; a Niki Taylor line, produced by Liz Claiborne for Target was cancelled after nine months and subsequently renamed Meg Allen, a purely fictional label; and the Monroe jeans and Roseanne plus-size lines. Taylor and Target parted ways because the model couldn’t devote the time to in-store appearances and wanted to pursue her own career.
In Roseanne’s case, the TV star terminated her contract and filed a suit against Stanley Warner, owner of CelebSales, who failed to make a $250,000 payment. Warner, who filed a countersuit, said he withheld payment because of a Vanity Fair magazine interview in which Roseanne told of contemplating suicide and made other revelations, which he charged damaged the value of the line for Middle America. In 1996, the jury ruled in favor of Rosanne and her ex-husband, Tom Arnold, and Warner had to pay them $750,000.
Despite such failures — or the risk that a celebrity’s offscreen activities might cause some embarrassment — the allure of fashion continues to beckon.
Newcomers to the celebrity apparel scene include Christy Turlington, an avid yoga fan, who last year teamed up with Puma to help develop the concept and designs for Nuala, which is geared to better specialty stores; Emme, the plus-size model who has a large-size collection with Kellwood Co.’s Ivy division, and tennis star Venus Williams who signed a reported $40 million, five-year deal with Reebok, where she serves as the brand’s poster child. In 2002, the Venus Collection — apparel that can be worn on or off the court — will be offered at retail and will be co-designed by Williams.
Two years ago, Shoshanna Lonstein, former girlfriend of Jerry Seinfeld, parlayed her brush with fame into a contemporary dress and swimwear line bearing the Shoshanna name. It’s proved to be a solid performer and is currently sold to such stores as Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. And of course, there’s Monica Lewinsky who started designing handbags after she left Washington.
The phenomenon seems more prevalent in the men’s market, where Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Bruce Jenner are among the scores of athletes to have lent their names to sportswear collections. Among the biggest recent successes have been Sean (Puffy) Combs, Lopez’s ex-boyfriend, whose hot hip-hop line, Sean John, has been a megahit among young men, along with Russell Simmons’s Phat Farm. Puffy, in fact, plans to change his name in June and will be known as P. Diddy. Last year, Regis Philbin signed a deal with Phillips-Van Heusen for a tone-on-tone shirt and tie line based on what he wears on the hit show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (Reportedly, the line has yet to live up to expectations, but PVH declined to comment.) Tiger Woods and Nike relaunched a golfwear line, which sells at Nordstrom, better golf pro shops and resort shops.
Of all the celebrity apparel deals, Jaclyn Smith’s appears to have the most staying power. Smith launched her exclusive line at Kmart on Aug. 1, 1985, and today, Kmart says more than 40 million women have purchased apparel, accessories, intimate apparel, hosiery and jewelry. A plus-size line made its debut for spring, bearing the star’s label.
Jaclyn Smith merchandise reportedly drums up annual sales of $300 million. According to a Kmart spokeswoman, Smith gets involved in the line’s design and is photographed for every advertisement. “She models clothing for the Sunday circulars and in-store signage,” the spokeswoman said.
Kathy Ireland, whose Kmart collection includes bodywear, swimwear, intimate apparel and accessories, also introduced plus sizes this spring. Ireland also models for the ads and in-store graphics.
Tiegs, who modeled for the cover of Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s 1966 spring catalog, had a line of casual sportswear at Sears in 1981, but that deal ended in 1988. She later sold her clothing line on QVC.
Gifford’s Kathie Lee brand career sportswear and accessories bowed exclusively at 2,200 Wal-Mart stores in 1995 and sales exploded. At the time, she was the co-host of “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee.” The line then expanded into intimate apparel, sleepwear, watches and hair care.
But the ride hasn’t been without its bumpy moments. For three years, Gifford was the target of human rights campaigns claiming products bearing her label were made by children and under sweatshop conditions. Gifford personally hired independent monitoring firms to ensure the collections were made under proper conditions — and to do damage control for the brand. Sales, while still an impressive $500 million at retail, have fallen off somewhat from a reported $700 million a few years ago.
Gifford’s deal with Wal-Mart is apparently changing. According to sources, Kathie Lee merchandise might be offered to other retail chains in non-competitive categories. Wal-Mart declined comment, and Robert W. Adler, vice president of licensing for Kellwood Corp., (whose Halmode division holds the master Kathie Lee license and makes some of the lines) said the company was negotiating new things for the brand, but he wouldn’t disclose them. Gifford doesn’t design the line, she reviews it when it’s done and makes a speech at Wal-Mart’s annual meetings wearing the clothing. She also gets involved in some marketing efforts.
With all the land mines peppering the road to a successful star-powered brand, it’s not as easy as slapping a big name on a line and collecting royalties.
According to industry executives, the most important ingredient is the product’s integrity. Furthermore, the retailer and/or wholesaler behind the deal has to support the line with marketing, advertising, quality production and prime real estate. The line must stay true to its customer, and it’s a big plus when the celebrity gets a lot of media exposure, has input into the line’s design, and helps to market and advertise it.
Observers believe a J-Lo Jeanswear collection could be more than a flash in the pan, since Lopez is so closely identified with the fashion world. But one question is whether J-Lo can succeed where most women’s celebrity apparel lines haven’t ventured: upscale department and specialty stores. The most successful celebrity deals have primarily been at the mass level, which craves celebrity and well-known names. Even Martha Stewart chose Kmart to build her $1.3 billion Everyday housewares franchise of bed, bath and home furnishings.
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale’s, said, “We have done very well with Puff Daddy’s line [Sean John] because of the design integrity of the clothes. Women also buy a lot of the T-shirts and tops. The design has to be right, the quality has to be good and the price has to be right for the quality. The name of the designer can enhance the product, but without the first three things, it’s no-go.”
Ruttenstein said he’s eager to see J-Lo’s line.
“If the criteria are right, it could be great. I’d hope it would have good design, good quality and good pricing. Puffy’s very involved [in his line]. He edits, he suggests, he gives direction. [Lopez] should do the same. From the way she dresses and presents herself, I would think she’d have the ability to do that — judging from the Versace jungle print dress to the more stately Chanel dress she wore this week to the Oscar’s,” he said.
Ruttenstein believes J-Lo’s customers would range from the screaming teenage fans to Park Avenue matrons.
“The Puff Daddy customer is not only an urban customer,” Ruttenstein said. “He’s suburban, he’s Wall Street, he’s from every walk of life.”
Over the years, Ruttenstein said Bloomingdale’s has done well with Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans, Phat Farm, Diane Von Furstenberg and most recently, Shoshanna.
“We do outstandingly well with Shoshanna — her dresses and her swimwear. Both are big parts of our business. We sold out of the swimwear at the flagship. It’s the fit and the design.”
On the other hand, Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, believes Lopez has a good shot of being successful at the mass level, where she’d be under less pressure.
“My advice to her would be Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target. Go to that end of the market. Do the mass market and do it really well. There’s nothing wrong with doing a mass market line,” although he cautioned, “I would try to avoid the sweatshop labor issue.”
“She’s an electric, very charismatic person. Bloomingdale’s might not be a bad place to launch it and then expand. Target is doing a great job. I’d throw the snobbishness out the window. The upscale thing is just not going to happen. It puts her under too much scrutiny. She’ll be doing sweatshirts and sweatpants. The Target arena wouldn’t put her under the same kind of scrutiny as getting it placed in a store between Prada and Chanel.”
David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, the large buying office here, also believes J-Lo could be “huge” because Lopez has fashion credibility. The fact that she wore “the dress of the decade” to last year’s Grammy Awards is a big plus for her, said Wolfe, referring to the revealing Versace gown.
“I have such faith in her,” Wolfe said. “She’s managing her career in ways movie studios managed stars. She’s gone from being a fabulous Latina to a celebrity icon.”
Wolfe suggested Lopez go for a mainstream audience. “I think she needs to go broad. I’d gear the line for people who think they’re a young 15 to the hot 40-year-old market.” He believes that Andy Hilfiger will probably want to sell to department stores, but “they’re the least logical place to look for real growth.” However, he said that Sean John has been very successful there in the young men’s market. “Stores are fighting to get the line.”
Wolfe believes Lopez has broad appeal. “I think she’s the right person at the right time. I’ve been waiting for a Latin fashion icon. You had the music of Ricky Martin. It’s ripe to exploit. People care about fashion and have a lot of fashion flair, all they need is a leader. The world had Joan Crawford in the Forties, Elizabeth Taylor in the Sixtes. Women of every age think Jennifer Lopez is beautiful. She’s managed to cross the niche market barrier.”
He recalled Swanson’s “Forever Young” dress line in the Fifties. “It was done with a major dress firm at the time. It was after her comeback in “Sunset Boulevard” and aimed at 50-year-old women. She was heavily involved in design, p.r. and TV shows.” Other early deals were Twiggy tights and eyelashes, where the British model licensed her name out to manufacturers. “The Jaclyn Smith deal with Kmart seems to work; Niki Taylor fell flat. She probably didn’t have time to devote to it,” he said.
Noting Lopez would most likely play a major role in her line, Wolfe pointed out that problems with celebrity apparel deals typically occur when the celebrity isn’t involved. “Jaclyn Smith’s opinion mattered, and Gloria Vanderbilt had a public image, and she would come in and give her approval. She had a ‘taste-level’ involvement,” he said.
Some observers also believe celebrity apparel deals can only succeed when the retailer invests heavily in it.
“I think what happens is the celebrities who are of the moment will come and go, just like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. It’s the content and the validity of the product and the fashion that counts,” agreed Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies for Kurt Salmon Associates. For the most part, Aronson said, “What you put in is what you get out.”
He said Kmart put a lot into the marketing, display and assortments of its Jaclyn Smith line. “When a name becomes a brand like Jaclyn Smith, the critical mass and the distribution power of the retailer will put it in the public eye and keep it there,” Aronson said. “It’s not just a matter of a passing fad. The company invests in marketing and floor space, and the product is relevant for them.” He said the Delta Burke plus-size line also has a credibility factor. He said it’s easier to sustain a celebrity name at the mass market level.
Lopez, he believes, has an eminent name. “It’s got the buzz and will create initial interest. It depends how they target the market she attracts and make sure she hits the bull’s eye. There’s basically one chance to succeed, and they have to match the psychographics. They have to make sure they’re doing the consumer research and seize the moment.”
Aronson doesn’t think a star like Julia Roberts would ever enter this kind of agreement, saying it could diminish her special appeal in her core business — something her handlers would not risk.
Still, he added, “Jennifer Lopez is making a decision to cash in some chips based on an explosive opportunity.”
Rick Isaacson, senior staff vice president of IMG, the licensing company here, disagrees that Roberts would turn down this kind of opportunity.
“Julia Roberts doesn’t have her name on an apparel line, but she’d do it in a heartbeat,” said Isaacson. “The primary motivation for an entertainment celebrity is a combination of ego, fan base and money. What better way is there to continue to keep their name in front of their fan base?”
IMG has matched several successful activewear lines with celebrities, including the golfwear deals for Palmer and Federated Department Stores, Tiger Woods and Nike for golfwear, and tennis star Williams with Reebok.
“Woods was very involved in the initial campaign and development of the logo and the promotion of the line. Physically, he’s an attractive guy for the clothes. The clothes drape and lay well on him. He looks good. Unlike a lot of golfers, he’ll wear the complete line of clothing,” said Isaacson.
Rachel Mattson, a partner in Trend Rx, a trend consulting firm in Minneapolis, who previously worked for Target, sees celebrity apparel as a short-term proposition.
“I don’t think celebrity licensing deals work out very well, long term. The celebrities have a life span and retailers get nervous.” She said retailers would have been nervous if they had a Jennifer Lopez line at the time Sean Combs got arrested. “It would have bugged them. Target is a family store.”
And then there are those who believe it all comes down to the celebrity’s popularity.
Claudine Murphy, executive vice president of Look-Look, a Los Angeles-based youth market research firm, said, “Celebrity apparel deals really depend on how broad the cultural appeal of the celebrity is. Look at the success of Sean John and Phat Farm. Marc Ecko, with his hip-hop urban culture, has authenticity. His brand is starting to have more crossover appeal.”
Asked how Lopez should merchandise the line, Murphy said, “I think she should go young for the clothes. Really young girls would definitely want to wear it. Department stores letting her have control over in-store presentation would be really important.”
“Jennifer Lopez has such a broad appeal,” concluded Murphy. “She has made a name for herself as a fashion icon. In her video, ‘My Love Don’t Cost a Thing,’ so much of that is focused on her jeans and she has a wonderful curvy body. When women buy jeans, they all want to know, ‘How does my butt look?”‘