SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING TO DO
Byline: Eric Wilson / With contributions from Rusty Williamson, Dallas
NEW YORK — What they really want to do is design.
Celebrities of all sorts are rarely strangers to fashion and having the right heritage or connections never hurt anyone. But in a recent variation on what is sometimes a nepotistic relationship between the worlds of celebrity and design, not seen in numbers since the early days of Jacqueline de Ribes, Carolyne Roehm and Carolina Herrera, it is the spouses of the rich and famous who are seeking professional fulfillment behind a sewing machine.
Having a famous surname naturally gives a designer a leg up in the competitive world of fashion, where building brand recognition is a critical goal. Yet in interviews with women of prominent pedigrees who have recently made career changes into the design world, as well as those who have helped to pave the way, the designers insist that their fame, or relation to it, plays less of a factor in their ultimate success than does good old-fashioned business sense.
The fashion-Hollywood relationship has grown to new proportions in an age where designers have become as globally recognized as some of the celebrities they dress. So, it only seems natural that actresses would occasionally turn the tables, taking to needle and thread themselves.
Mariah Carey has been known to sew up a slinky number or two for herself, actresses Tara Subkoff and Chloe Sevigny teamed up on the Imitation of Christ label and “Family Ties” alum Justine Bateman recently started her own line of knitwear. The daughters of famous people are designing, as in Jade Jagger, Paloma Picasso and two out of three Miller sisters, along with the mothers of well-knowns — Ruth Manchester, mom of Melissa, designed a dress line in the Seventies, and now Tina Knowles, mom of Destiny’s Child lead singer Beyonce, who has lately outfitted and/or styled for the band and racked up a number of impressive editorial credits.
As for sisters, Kate Spade’s brother-in-law is actor David Spade and even Seventies’ heartthrob Robby Benson’s little sister grew up to become Laundry designer Shelli Segal.
It’s hard to argue that celebrity doesn’t help generate publicity and consumer attention around a line in a media-driven society, as evidenced by Monica Lewinsky’s handbag launch, although she fits into the wrong end of the equation when considering designing spouses.
There are high-profile examples like Ivana Trump, ex-wife of Donald, who has marketed herself on magazines, wrinkle cream, suits and jewelry, and there are lesser-knowns, such as Tracy Wilson Mourning, wife of Miami Heat basketball player Alonzo Mourning, who is toying with an urban sportswear collection called Honey Child, and Sadie Frost, wife of actor Jude Law, who works on the London collection Frost French. Going in the other direction, Kenneth Cole is married to Maria Cuomo, daughter of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whose son Andrew announced Monday he was running for his father’s old job.
But these are women who want to be taken seriously as designers, first and foremost. None of them consider their occupations to be a hobby for bored housewives or a means to compete with their husbands, and they consider themselves to be a humble lot, more interested in being judged by their designs than their labels.
They also are coming to market with a product or perspective on design that, while born out of their public lifestyles, is often applicable to a broad range of society. In some cases, their self-admitted ignorance of the way things work in this business is also a blessing, as it’s more of a challenge to overcome an obstacle that seems insurmountable than one they didn’t know existed until it had passed.
Susan Dell, the Austin, Tex.-based ready-to-wear designer who is married to Dell Computer Co. founder Michael Dell, probably has the widest knowledge of the fashion industry of her contemporaries, holding a degree in fashion merchandising and design from Arizona State University. She made custom clothing for herself and friends for more than a decade before opening her first store in Austin in 1999, and intends to open more stores, as well as expand her sales through the Internet.
While Dell said her famous name may have initially created some curiosity about her designs among the press and potential clients, she intends to use it neither as a calling card nor as a sales technique.
“I don’t think my name helped me to get clients when I first started my business or now,” Dell said. “My clients can afford to get clothes from any designer they want, whether it’s Gucci, Ralph Lauren or anyone else. If I don’t have the clothes and designs they want, they’ll get them somewhere else.”
Dell’s approach toward business has been centered around personal service, both in her store and through collection sales at the homes of private clients. For the most part, she has avoided lengthy profiles and most interview requests, although Dell scored a major publicity coup recently, designing the inaugural gala dresses for Barbara and Jenna Bush.
“I think my name did create a lot of interest from the press because they’d heard of the Dell name,” she said. “That’s probably something that went on in the beginning. But now I don’t get any questions about my name in relation to my fashion business. It’s about my designs and what I offer my clients.”
Designer Daniella Clarke, whose husband is former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke, quipped, “I never went into stores and said, ‘My husband’s in Guns N’ Roses, can I put my pants in here?”‘
Clarke, whose Los Angeles-based Frankie B. collection of low-slung jeans has become a cult hit at specialty stores, said she’s always known that she’d be a designer, having made her own clothes since she was a child, or having modified them, as she did at age 12 by ripping the waistband off her jeans to create a sexier look. Clarke toured with GN’R in the Eighties and early Nineties, often restyling the band members’ pants to fit more tightly or revealingly, as good rocker pants should.
Two years ago, on her 30th birthday, she decided to turn that talent into a business asset and launched Frankie B., named after her daughter and late father’s first initial. What she has brought to the market is a product born from her lifestyle — sexy, tight-fitting pants with a shockingly low rise, with zippers as short as three inches.
It was naturally a tough sale to retailers at the start, as the pants defy manufacturing logic, but once Clarke convinced Ron Herman-Fred Segal to carry her first style, Frankie B. became an instant hit, particularly in the body-conscious Los Angeles market, where Hollywood stars like Charlize Theron and Pamela Anderson snapped them up.
“The company is growing really quickly,” Clarke said. “I’m completely overwhelmed by it. I think it’s because we got a lot of celebrity attention and more attention came from the fact that we had such an unusual item on the market.”
Clarke insists her success — the brand was estimated to hit $1 million in sales last year — had nothing to do with her familial association to celebrity. She never used her husband’s name or any of his money in establishing the business, but rather her own belief in the product. Clarke models the collection in marketing materials and look-books, in photographs that clearly spell out the appeal of such designs.
“It was really risky,” she said. “I just think it was not a mainstream thing to do. People were wary of that.”
Where Dell designs luxurious evening gowns with the experienced eye of someone accustomed to social affairs, and Clarke creates the sexy stage looks of rock stars, the end success depends more on creating a product that the traditional apparel market has ignored rather than creating a business out of celebrity.
“Ultimately, the question is, ‘Does the product have a reason to be,”‘ said Diane Von Furstenberg, who revolutionized the dress market with her printed jersey wrap styles in the Seventies by addressing an element of the decade’s worldly, female sexuality that had previously been untapped.
“It’s always the product that speaks,” Von Furstenberg said. “That’s really what determines it at the end.”
But at the beginning, a name like Von Furstenberg doesn’t hurt. She described it as a calling card that facilitated her entry into the respectable doors on Seventh Avenue and ultimately into a manufacturing contract that produced more than five million dresses and inspired countless more imitations.
“Obviously, the fact that I married an attractive prince and came to New York helped me to see Diana Vreeland, but then Diana Vreeland has to react,” Von Furstenberg said. “It’s like any introduction. If you are introduced by somebody, you get to the door a little faster, but that’s as far as it goes.”
Of course, it helped to be a young attractive princess and it helped to have good legs, but, Von Furstenberg cautioned, “I know so many people from Europe with beautiful names who showed products that didn’t make any sense and they never got anywhere.”
Jocelyne Wildenstein, former wife of Alec, was the latest famous Mrs. to make a move from the front rows to behind the scenes of fashion, creating a collection of animal-print scarves in September with Vacco, an Istanbul-based manufacturer. But retailers weren’t interested, and the deal folded.
Pam McMahon, wife of television personality Ed, designed an eveningwear line based in Los Angeles in 1998 and showed her collection at Bryant Park with her husband in the audience, resulting in the requisite celebrity press coverage, but she abandoned the project within a year, according to friends involved in the project, to be with Ed.
It doesn’t take a degree to become a designer, but a lot of fields are like that. So what’s the appeal of the fashion industry to these women?
“I live a lifestyle, and I know what I like and what women who live a certain lifestyle want,” said Baby Phat creative director Kimora Lee Simmons. “The knowledge I have is inborn. It’s knowing what’s fly. I know that because I have a certain lifestyle, because I work with these women, live with them and constantly get input from consumers, that I can offer them clothing for a lifestyle that they are familiar with.”
Simmons made her name modeling for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and began appearing in Phat Farm’s advertising campaigns in 1982. She married its founder, Russell Simmons, and joined the company as creative director of Baby Phat two years ago.
“It just sort of happened,” she said. “It seemed like a natural transition.”
Simmons goes to work everyday and takes a role in every aspect of Baby Phat design, marketing and advertising, from creating invitations to approving beading and embellishment on each pair of jeans. She pulls from her marriage, her family and her modeling experience in conceptualizing the collections, which the company describes as “turn of the century sex kitten.”
“I’ve pulled a lot from my modeling experience,” she said. “When you’re modeling, you’re in front of the camera, but not having input on what you’re wearing. But working with Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel was the longest job I ever had. Dealing with Karl Lagerfeld and seeing how he interacts with his staff every day gives me a different perspective that I would not have had otherwise.
“I saw how his mind worked, how he expressed himself, not to mention that when your first job is Chanel, that plants fabulous seeds in a girl,” Simmons said. “It’s a far cry from flipping burgers at Wendy’s.”
In more royal circles, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece is launching a children’s wear line at retail this spring called marie-chantal, a move she said was inspired by the recent additions of three children to her life as well as a “bit of a baby boom” among her friends.
“I was thinking of something to do professionally, and because I was surrounded by kids, that’s why I started to make children’s clothing,” she said.
The line, which has a European esthetic, has had a strong start, with bookings from Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and other specialty stores around the country, as well as in France, Switzerland and Japan. Marie-Chantal said she was disappointed that most contemporary children’s wear was made to look like adult clothing in small sizes, so she strived to create a line that would “make kids look like kids again, instead of small adults.”
“It’s been a wonderful learning opportunity,” she said.
Marie-Chantal has made an effort to remain humble about the collection, insisting she is using her name on the label to personalize the collection rather than to exploit her fame. It’s also a European name, and she wants the business to have a global reach, she said.
“I’m new at this,” she said, “and taking things as they come. I’m working hard to make sure the clothes speak for themselves, rather than the label.”
But if there’s any doubt that a great name combined with a great product can result in a successful business, just ask Tova Borgnine, chief executive officer of the Tova Beverly Hills beauty business.
Borgnine’s interest in professional cosmetics developed years before she met and married actor Ernest Borgnine, but she attributes her ultimate success to a fluke encounter that arose from the fact that she was his fifth wife.
She had aspired to be an actor, but became enamored with the beauty industry while taking a required course in makeup and went on to open a small beauty business in New Jersey in the late Sixties, but sold that after her first marriage failed.
She moved to Las Vegas in 1970 and opened a makeup concession, servicing local showgirls and headline acts with a face preparation based on cactus root extracts from Mexico. Tova met Ernest Borgnine on a blind date, married him and moved to Los Angeles, where a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed the newlyweds for a profile and came away with a story entitled, “Ernest Borgnine’s wife discovers Face Lift in a Jar, all the stars use it…”
The article was syndicated, resulting in more than 2,500 responses and $56,000 in orders for a product that wasn’t yet on the market.
“I had no company,” Borgnine said. “So I put one together in six weeks, predominantly because I didn’t want to go to jail. The people who read that article, who sent in $60, they didn’t know me, but they knew that Ernest Borgnine is a man who would not cheat them.
“Once you’re in everybody’s home, you become either a friend or an enemy,” Borgnine said. “If it was just my face, it wouldn’t have meant anything at that stage.”
The circumstances that created the Tova Corp. also shaped its distribution, as it was set up as a mail-order business. Borgnine said she would never have considered a nonretail venue, based upon her ego and desire to be carried alongside the Estee Lauders and Helena Rubensteins of the world, had it not been thrust upon her so.
But it paid off, as the company launched its first fragrance in 1982 and joined with QVC in 1990, and has grown from four products to 297 sku’s.
“What I would take credit for is showing that the strength of the major players in this industry does not mean that people with vision and ideas can not still make the American dream come true,” Borgnine said. “I might have stayed in makeup or become a ‘Hollywood wife,’ but I was driven and the driving force was that I loved what I did.”