NEW YORK — Jennifer Lopez is taking greater charge of her own fashion destiny.
The departure of the president of Sweetface Fashions Co. last week, and its creative director shortly before that, might indicate some problems with the Lopez fashion franchise. But those involved with the company said the singer/actress/designer has become an increasingly active participant in design and business decisions, and that the management changes won’t cause JLo by Jennifer Lopez to miss a beat.
Following the departure Friday of Denise Seegal, Sweetface Fashions’ president and chief executive officer since June 2002, the company said Andy Hilfiger, co-founder and director of the company, will assume Seegal’s day-to-day responsibilities. Hilfiger and Lopez founded the company together in 2001, but following a rocky debut at retail that fall, when the designs were criticized for issues of fit and quality, Seegal was brought in to help prevent JLo from turning into another “Gigli,” which wasn’t a high point in Lopez’s cinematic career.
To a large degree, Seegal succeeded, with a host of other companies scrambling to align themselves with Lopez as licensees — at a fast pace by industry standards — and with company executives projecting that JLo merchandise will top $400 million in sales this year. Lopez’s fashion business has grown to rival the size of Sean John, the company founded in 1998 by her former boyfriend, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, although Sean John is focused on men’s wear and has taken a more conservative approach to licensing.
Despite the implications that Hilfiger, who worked in marketing and communications at his brother Tommy’s business before joining forces with Lopez, was pushed aside for his lack of experience in running a company, some thought Seegal looked at the position as a stepping stone to bigger things after her resignation from Liz Claiborne Inc. in 2000. Hilfiger did not return calls for comment on Friday, and a spokesman would not comment beyond the company’s press release when asked whether his assumption of Seegal’s duties would be permanent.
“Denise has done a wonderful job in bringing Sweetface Fashion to this point in our history,” Hilfiger said in the statement. “However, we have an exceptional team of executives and key personnel in place who have substantially contributed to the growth of our brand and its licenses.”
Last month, Hilfiger similarly pointed to the strength of the company’s existing staff when Heather Thomson, vice president and creative director, left Sweetface at the end of her contract to join Kids Headquarters in a similar position for its start-up fashion project with pop star Beyoncé.
At the time, Hilfiger said, “Jennifer is the creative director. We have a great design team here, and we also have a fashion [manager] that works closely with Jennifer in Los Angeles,” referring to Gina Rizzo, who works directly with Lopez, Hilfiger and the design team on all JLo by Jennifer Lopez branded products.
According to executives at many of the 11 companies that signed licenses with Sweetface since its inception, Lopez has personally become more active in the oversight of design and how the business is run in recent months, some noting that her involvement could have foreshadowed Thomson’s departure.
Kenny Horowitz, president of handbag and belt company Daniel M. Friedman & Associates, said he spent two days last week in Los Angeles with Lopez working on the summer collection.
“She is going to be very involved in the creative process going forward, and that is going to be very beneficial for the company,” Horowitz said. “She didn’t want the licensees to put her name on whatever they wanted. She has a fashion and a style of her own, and wanted to have that emulated in all of her products.”
Horowitz described Lopez as pleasant and full of ideas for the line of handbags, which debuted at retail last November.
“She is extremely in tune with what is going on,” Horowitz said. “It’s not a case of ‘I’m a celebrity and I’m going to tell you what to do.’”
The JLo name has had impact at retail — certainly for the licensees, if not for Sweetface itself, according to executives at those firms. Its outerwear license with Herman Kay Bromley, which bowed for winter 2003, is poised to double sales to $12 million at wholesale this year, driven by puffy down jackets, corduroy and a surprise hit with wool styles.
A year-old license with the costume jewelry company Miriam Haskell has had sales of $14 million, including countless hoop earrings that retail from $15 to $18 with a signature embedded rhinestone. The handbag line is projected to have sales of $10 million this year, up by $4 million from its initial projections. A major launch of innerwear with Warnaco that hit stores last month is expected to do in the neighborhood of $50 million. Her fragrances with Lancaster have proven to be blockbusters as well, with Glow hitting $100 million at retail in its first year and Still in the neighborhood of $50 million.
Some stores have said the core sportswear line, produced by Sweetface, has yet to live up to their expectations, but anecdotal evidence could point either way. The head of one specialty store chain, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said on Friday she is dropping the line, but the Herald Square flagship of Macy’s East, which features the largest assortment of JLo sportswear on its fourth floor, was buzzing with customers that afternoon, many of them carrying $59 jeans (also marked by a signature rhinestone dotting the “j” of JLo on zipper pulls) and $89 white corduroy jackets with fake fur trim collars to the registers.
Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based marketing research firm, said JLo’s fragrances have been strong performers, but added that her long-term prospects in the sportswear arena will depend on better merchandise.
“My sense is it certainly has a following with larger-size girls,” Buckingham said. “But I don’t think people are rushing to it. I wouldn’t write it off, but I think it’s going to be more about the merchandise. It can’t rely solely on her name.”
That is exactly the thinking behind Lopez’s increased involvement in the design room. According to her handlers, Lopez is planning to make her presence more widely known after several months of relative seclusion following her public breakup with Ben Affleck and the subsequent surprise marriage to singer Marc Anthony. She is planning a public appearance at the Macy’s flagship on Sept. 12 to promote her fragrance line, they said.
“She’s constantly sending me pictures of her and the clothing,” said Sue Kim, the fashion director of JLo outerwear at Herman Kay Bromley, who takes design inspiration and fabric direction from Lopez and Sweetface Fashions. “I see the JLo line as having more of a crossover reach. They don’t want to be too urban or too young. It’s more of a crossover customer, kind of in the middle.”
Richard Kay, president of Herman Kay Bromley, said sell-throughs of the current season have been strong, adding, “The more they talk about her, the more she’s on the covers of magazines, the better. I have seen a lot more of her in the press in the last month, and I think that has a positive effect.”
Gabrielle Fialkoff, executive vice president of Miriam Haskell, said that the costume jewelry collection has surpassed the company’s expectations, adding that the more expensive pieces, called “case jewelry,” have been a surprisingly strong category, as have hoop earrings — part of a broader fashion trend — that were customized to fit the JLo image with a thinner, sleeker design and a rhinestone crystal embedded as a signature detail.
“It’s a touch of bling,” Fialkoff said. “It was a great product, a good trend and Jennifer’s name, as well. You need all three elements to be successful.”
— With contributions from Rosemary Feitelberg