Celebrity has become the primary commodity of popular culture. Fans used to fall for a specific album or film, but now the public tends to base its consumption on the aura of celebrity attached to any given product. Singers can act in films and actors can record albums, not thanks to any innate talent but because their brand is big enough to transcend categories. Fashion magazines have all but abandoned the practice of putting models on the cover because they don't sell nearly as well as famous faces. As a result, celebrities have wised up to their incredibly powerful market potential, moving from endorsing someone else's high-end products to producing their own. Witness the birth of the celebrity luxury fashion brand.
Celebrity clothing lines aren't a completely new phenomenon, but in the past they were typically aimed at the lower end of the market, and restricted to a few past-their-prime TV actresses like Jaclyn Smith and Jane Seymour. Today they're started by A-list stars and share floor space at Barneys New York and Harvey Nichols with heavyweight labels like Chanel, Prada and Dior.
The most successful start-ups have been those by celebrities with iconic personal style. Women have been willing to embrace this new breed of luxury label that offers them the chance to step into the shoes of some of the world's biggest stars.
The first case study is L.A.M.B., the pop star Gwen Stefani's four-year-old line, which showcases her signature style influences. Rastafarian culture, schoolgirl uniforms, Harajuku girls, rocker plaids, skintight denim and ultrahigh heels come together in a riotous collection that reflects her on- and offstage dress sense. While extremely hands-on with the design, Stefani smartly hired a great supporting team and, unlike many of her peers, openly shares the spotlight, posing for photo shoots together with staff and giving them their due in interviews. This down-to-earth approach resonates with fans of L.A.M.B.'s unpretentious looks at upscale prices (like $685 sequined minidresses). Revenue now tops $100 million, and the line is expanding to encompass fragrances, handbags, watches and shoes.
The biggest celebrity-owned luxury empire belongs to Jennifer Lopez, encompassing a high-end collection, Sweetface; a juniors line, Justweet, and multiple fragrances. Together they are valued at more than $255 million. Lopez works in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger's brother Andy, and targets more mainstream tastes than Stefani. Mixing ladylike polish with sleek streetwear, the collection is intended as an accessible distillation of the elements that inform Lopez's diva persona. While Lopez doesn't play a design role like Stefani, her esthetic imprint is still visible in the clothing, including pieces like dramatic, draped jersey dresses and sexy romper suits.
The most expensive offerings come from former tween idols and twin moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. When the child stars turned 21 last year, they gained full control of their $100 million-plus empire and launched two new business ventures: the Row, an edgy line that combines luxe basics like modal cardigans with fashion-forward statement pieces, such as $3,220 Tuscan-lamb-fur coats; and the more affordable contemporary-sportswear line Elizabeth and James. So far they have been very well received; last fall the Row went from two to 29 premium retailers around the world, and doubled the size of its collection. The Olsens' foray into high fashion has been bolstered by their status as emerging fashion icons and as fixtures on the exclusive New York club scene.
Envious mere mortals, take heart: for every success story, there's a corresponding cautionary tale of a celebrity who overestimated his or her consumer appeal. Despite millions of dollars worth of media exposure, including a debut on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Beyoncé's House of Dereon line has failed to catch fire with consumers. No matter how famous the product's provenance, if it fails to impress women on its own merits it begins to resemble a cynical exercise in self-promotional marketing. The fashion media are often reluctant to take many of these side projects as seriously as a ready-to-wear collection from a committed designer. And once the initial attention dies down, consumer interest might fade, loyalty reverting to tried-and-true labels.
Today the biggest risk to celebrities involved with a retail venture is the same one they face on the red carpet: embarrassment. The pop-cultural pantheon might be bigger than ever, but its rate of turnover has accelerated as well. Each misstep threatens to reduce a celebrity's shelf life, and the same press that enshrined her has no problem picking her to pieces when the opportunity appears.
Still, the ego's potential for expansion is infinite. Having already achieved immense wealth and public recognition, many celebrities see fashion as the next frontier to be conquered, not to mention a healthy new revenue stream. Gumption, or perhaps greed, inspires them to reach for more. Their success as designers might last the seasonal equivalent of 15 minutes, but fashion—like celebrity—has always been fleeting.