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 semiannual stylefest that kicked off last week.
The emergence of celebrity fashion designers is helping some retailers boost womens apparel sales, which struggled in the wake of the downturn. Zoes collection has sold well at Neiman Marcus Group, according to Ken Downing, the department store chains 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 Jovovichs Jovovich-Hawk line fizzled – their fashions, along with a flood of brightly hued clothes and accessories, have helped perk up womens apparel sales after a prolonged post-recession slump, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of NPD Group.
Womens apparel sales climbed 3 percent to $108.1 billion in the 12 months ended in June, according to NPD, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. U.S. department-store chains sell more womens apparel than any other category of merchandise. At New York-based Saks, womens apparel represented 35 percent of the chains $3 billion sales in the most recent fiscal year.
Barneys New York champions collections from Holmes and the Olsens. Saks, Nordstrom and Macys 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 and Beckhams daughters, 6-year-old Suri and 1-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. Its 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 produces Madonnas fashions for Macys, 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 Londons 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, theyre 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 dont care whether you can afford it or not. This is what we are doing, Hartman said.
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.
Holmes Lincoln Center debut likely will benefit from the media storm that surrounded her 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 womans wardrobe, it says.
Katie prides herself on being very classic and tailored, Hartman said.
Zoe, 41, comes to fashion weeks 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.
Her current fall collection features $695 bishop-sleeved gowns, $295 purple velvet bellbottoms and a $375 ombre shaggy faux-fur jacket.
Beckhams 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.
Celebrity designers have had mixed results.
Zoes line recently apparently had fit issues that necessitated markdowns, Hartman said. Holmess collection hasnt yet developed a strong identity, and its too soon to tell whether it will have legs, she said.
Representatives for the designers and for Li & Fung either declined or didnt respond to interview requests.
It does help to have celebrity buzz, Downing said. But ultimately its 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?