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Op-Ed | Celebrity Fashion Hijackers

Is fashion’s love affair with celebrity labels going out of style? Au contraire, argues Teri Agins.
The Kardashians promote the Kardashian Kollection | Source: Shutterstock
  • Teri Agins

NEW YORK, United States — In the autumn of 2011, the sisters Kardashian introduced their new women's label at Sears, with Kim, Khloe and Kourtney posing — abreast and a-butt — in body-con leopard print outfits, in fashion ads photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Sears was right on trend, as celebrity fashion brands like Jessica Simpson and Carlos Santana had become bestsellers at Macy's. Sears went all in, installing charcoal grey Kardashian Kollection boutiques at hundreds of its branches in a 'Hail Mary' move designed to reverse the apparel slump at the once-legendary, now-beleaguered mass merchant.

But the Kardashian kommotion didn’t last long. By 2013, Sears shoppers were no longer keeping up with the Kardashian Kollection. I saw this for myself at the Yonkers, New York branch of Sears, where a shoddy spread of clothes, flimsier than Halloween costumes, went virtually untouched at 50 percent off, alongside last-chance $9.99 markdowns on the “Klearance” rounder.

Frankly, I was amazed that it took so long for Sears to pull the plug. On May 5, Fortune magazine revealed the liquidation of the KK label, a few months after Sears and the Kardashians had quietly called it kwits.

I could already hear the collective clucking on Seventh Avenue from legions of struggling professional designers, fed up with the celebrity hype that had helped drown out their creative styles at retail. With the Kardashian sisters now down, two-for-two (their capsule experiment with womenswear retailer Bebe Stores in 2009 barely lasted a year) was this a sign that the tide could be turning? Was fashion’s love affair with celebrity labels going out of style?

Au contraire, to be sure.

Since last October, when I came out with my second book, Hijacking the Runway, How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers, I've watched star-struck consumers, retailers and investors continue to gravitate to celebrity fashion brands, just as I predicted they would. What's more, management consultants and Hollywood agents keep fuelling the flames, scouring the marketplace to cook up fashion deals for celebrities and professional athletes.

Meanwhile, the big winners — fast-fashion behemoths like Zara, Forever 21, H&M and Topshop — continue to steamroll over the fashion establishment. Independent designers jockey for the bragging rights that come with "best designer" awards or the celebrity billboards that get photographed wearing their clothes. Ironically, that's fashion's real impact today: the steady churning of brands that keeps the industry dynamic. In fact, I'm already primed for the resilient Kardashian franchise — buoyed by Kim's 30 million followers on Twitter and Instagram — to make a fashion comeback, real soon.

Nine West founder Vince Camuto worked wonders to turn reality-show starlet Jessica Simpson into a populist fashion icon starting in 2005. Young fashionistas identified with Jessica in her trendy platform sandals, the shoes that put her label on the map and then mushroomed into more than 22 product categories, growing into a $1 billion-a-year-at-retail powerhouse in less than a decade. Jessica Simpson was a wake-up call to stars on the red carpet and reality TV: partner with an established industry player to create your own clever spin on fashion — and take it to the bank!

No matter how ambitious or well-financed they may be, most celebrities can only dream of the high-fashion retail success that Victoria Beckham and twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, founders of The Row, have amassed in recent years. Neither brand needed a long track record in the fashion industry to quickly amass scores of exacting clients — which is very hard to do. All three women work full-time as fashion designers — and it shows. They market wearable finery, such as $3,100 Victoria Beckham sheath dresses and $2,950 lambskin leggings by The Row, which a niche of affluent — albeit skinny — mature women keep buying, year after year. They go fishing where the fish are.

But most celebrities are more obsessed with becoming — as opposed to creating — a fashion label. They like a licensing play that allows them to monetise their fame and keeps their names in lights, while they fiercely compete to stay on stage and screen. Celebrities are the go-to vehicles that guarantee consumer interest — instant buzz and acceptance — across the 24/7 Internet, which has created so much virtual space, demanding a staggering amount of content to fill it.

The surge in sales from celebrity novelties such as J-Lo and Justin Bieber fragrances, along with gimmicky shapewear and stilettos marketed by TV Housewives, are among the trendy flourishes that stores depend on to tart up their assortments, as they ride the wave of the bold-faced names of the moment.

Today's celebrity fashion hijackers are formidable. Making their over-the-top red carpet bows at the 2015 Met Gala last week were the usual showstoppers, Rihanna and Beyoncé. Both superstars have achieved new fashion heights: Rihanna was recently named as Puma's creative director for womenswear, while Beyoncé is developing her first athletic streetwear label, backed by Topshop's Sir Philip Green.

If only more conventional designers could pull a Tom Ford or a Michael Kors to become household names, as relatable as movie stars. But that doesn't happen in a hurry.

So who will become the next star to scale fashion’s slippery slope? Mark my words, if it’s a conventional designer, celebrity and social media will factor in big time, to raise his or her global premium high above the din. There’s just no other way.

Teri Agins is a fashion writer and the author of Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion DesignersThe End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, and the Wall Street Journal’s Ask Teri column.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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