Once upon a time, celebrities were happy to slap their names on merchandise and take the money.
Now some are emerging as full-fledged designers. Katie Holmes, celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, Victoria Beckham and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen will all be showing off their looks for spring and summer 2013 at New York fashion week, the semi-annual stylefest that kicks off tomorrow.
The emergence of celebrity fashion designers is helping some retailers boost women’s apparel sales, which struggled in the wake of the downturn. Zoe’s collection has sold well at Neiman Marcus Group Inc., according to Ken Downing, the department store chain’s fashion director.
“We have had great response from customers and a very successful launch,” Downing said. “We probably have more celebrity-driven collections than ever before.”
While celebrity designers have a mixed record -- model Milla Jovovich’s Jovovich-Hawk line fizzled -- their fashions, along with a flood of brightly hued clothes and accessories, have helped perk up women’s apparel sales after a prolonged post-recession slump, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of NPD Group Inc.
Women’s apparel sales climbed 3 percent to $108.1 billion in the 12 months ended in June, according to NPD, a Port Washington, New York-based market research firm. U.S. department-store chains sell more women’s apparel than any other category of merchandise. At New York-based Saks Inc., women’s apparel represented 35 percent of the chain’s $3 billion sales in the most recent fiscal year.
Barneys New York Inc. champions collections from Holmes and the Olsens. Saks, Nordstrom Inc. and Macy’s Inc.’s Bloomingdales chain sell contemporary lines like the Olsens’ more-recent Elizabeth & James collection. Dallas-based Neiman and its Bergdorf Goodman store in Manhattan carry the most of these designer brands -- and their less expensive, second lines.
Each time celebs appear in public -- including Holmes’s and Beckham’s daughters, six-year-old Suri and one-year-old Harper Seven -- the gossip media amplify their connection to the fashion world. Meanwhile, the stylists who orchestrate red-carpet looks have become famous in their own right. It’s no accident that the former Mrs. Tom Cruise has teamed up with her stylist, Jeanne Yang, for her collection, called Holmes & Yang.
While some celebrities simply strike deals with big apparel makers to mass produce under license -- Iconix Brand Group Inc. produces Madonna’s fashions for Macy’s, for instance -- Holmes and Beckham have their own fashion houses.
The ultimate feat for a fashion designer is to become the next Ralph Lauren -- a difficult task because such publicly held multibillion dollar empires are highly complex operations with global distribution channels, different categories and various price points.
Fifteen years ago, celebrities mostly dressed themselves, said Maren Hartman, director of U.S. content for WGSN, a London-based trend forecasting firm. Now they use stylists and have learned “much more about fashion. When people learn about something, they think they know a lot about it and want to capitalize on it.”
After careers as child actresses in the TV comedy “Full House” and selling goods to tween girls, the Olsens evolved into what Downing calls “real fashion girls.” Mary-Kate, during her brief New York University stint, became known for her “homeless” look in which she paired baggy clothes with oversized sunglasses and handbags.
In 2006, the twins began selling a collection called The Row, named after London’s Savile Row. While their segue into couture had its doubters, the 26-year-old Olsens silenced them in June when they won the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for womenswear designer of the year. Their success has opened doors for other celebrity designers.
The Olsens create clothes that are feminine without being overly sexy, Hartman said. Their simple, clean, tailored silhouettes, such as wide-legged pants, are a bit quirky, Hartman says. Think black lambskin motorcycle pants for $1,700 and $2,390 basket-weave wool kimonos.
“The Olsen sisters are totally involved in the product development process,” Hartman said. “I have been at fabric shows standing next to Ashley Olsen looking at fabrics and handling them. That comes from a true love of fashion.”
As such, they’re not afraid to charge big bucks, she said. Last year, for example, the Olsens produced a alligator backpack that sold for about $39,000, viewed as a scandalous price by some fashion bloggers.
It works because their attitude is: “We don’t care whether you can afford it or not. This is what we are doing,’” said Hartman.
The Olsens and Holmes have also burnished their reputations with lofty accessories collaborations. The Row produces $565 mules with Manolo Blahnik, and Holmes & Yang creates $2,460 purses with luxury bag maker Valextra.
Part of the Olsens’ and Holmes’s brand image is also to be Made-in-the-U.S.A., while Beckham prides herself on the Italian provenance of the luxuries she sells.
Holmes’s Lincoln Center debut likely will benefit from the media storm that surrounded her sudden and quick divorce from Cruise, Downing said.
“Certainly the press about her personal life will propel a lot of conversation about her show,” he said.
Holmes and Yang, who has styled Cameron Diaz and Sandra Bullock, unveiled their collection in late 2009. Their inspiration was their own need for easy timeless pieces that go from casual to cocktail, according to their website. They began by producing limited amounts of one-of-a-kind separates meant to be a permanent part of a woman’s wardrobe, it says.
“Katie prides herself on being very classic and tailored,” Hartman said.
Among the pieces Barneys New York is currently selling are a $3,100 black leather cape and a $995 blouse made of transparent black chiffon over a pale charmeuse inside layer.
Zoe, 41, comes to fashion week’s premier venue for the first time with a better-established brand. She debuted her ready-to-wear line in 2011 after reaching a licensing deal with giant apparel maker Li & Fung USA to produce a new contemporary lifestyle collection. Neiman Marcus said last month it was introducing her vintage-inspired costume jewelry exclusively.
Los Angeles-based Zoe learned the fashion world ropes by dealing with designers as she dressed celebrities including Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Garner, and she became famous through a Bravo TV reality series that follows her as she juggles her family life and career.
“She has been able to create a brand based on how she likes to dress herself and clients,” Hartman said. “With that you get a contemporary line that lends itself to the modern bohemian, 70s inspired pantsuits that reference her love of Yves Saint Laurent and flowy dresses that give a nod to Halston.”
Her current fall collection features $695 bishop-sleeved gowns, $295 purple velvet bellbottoms and a $375 ombre shaggy faux-fur jacket.
Beckham’s London-based fashion house in four years has grown to produce two dress collections, denim, eyewear and accessories. Her partner is Simon Fuller, who managed the Spice Girls and also works with French-born designer Roland Mouret.
Beckham makes sexy, sophisticated clothes that are streamlined and body-hugging to emphasize the classic feminine hourglass silhouette, Hartman said.
“Hers is not a laid-back type of look,” she said.
Celebrity designers have had mixed results.
Zoe’s line recently apparently had fit issues that necessitated markdowns, Hartman said. Holmes’s collection hasn’t yet developed a strong identity, and it’s too soon to tell whether it will “have legs,” she said.
Representatives for the designers and for Li & Fung either declined or didn’t respond to interview requests.
“It does help to have celebrity buzz,” Downing said. “But ultimately it’s about a great product. If you took the label out of the back of it, is it something that the customer would want to wear?”