Armanis Of Aisle 7

Theresa vitale's wedding last winter was as unpretentious as she is. She was married by a local judge, went to Atlantic City on a four-hour honeymoon and dressed for her nuptials in a $70 rayon pantsuit from Sears. Looking back, says the plain-spoken Vitale, she could have waited -- for a better deal on her duds. Only two weeks later the Wal-Mart store where she works in North Brunswick, N.J., began carrying a new signature line of clothes from talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford. "I'd have worn a Kathie Lee suit to the wedding instead," says Vi-tale, 37. "They make you feel thin and they cover your butt."

Forget. Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne. On Main Street U.S.A., the most lucrative names in retailing these days read as much like TV Guide as Women's Wear Daily. Borrowing from the success of erstwhile Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith, whose clothing line has been a $150 million godsend to an otherwise beleaguered Kmart Corp., celebrities like Gifford, Connie Sellecca, Delta Burke and Kathy Ireland are generating big bucks rolling out inexpensive fashion for Every woman. "It's the fast food of clothing," says retail consultant Alan Millstein, "not world-class, but you can sell lots of it."

While the women's-apparel industry expects only 4 percent growth over the next year, Rick Pellino, divisional vice president at Kmart, says sales of both Smith's and Ireland's collections will increase by double digits. Gifford's line is expected to do even better. Sales projections for the first year were originally around $150 million; industry watchers now expect sales to top $250 million. That's in the league with women's lines from both Lauren and Calvin Klein. "It's one of the most successful product launches in years," says Edward Nardoza, editor of Women's Wear Daily.

What's moving the merchandise? For the most part, the inexplicable kinship the public feels with stars. "Any time you can attach a celeb to a product, the customer pays more attention to it," says Pellino. While Gifford doesn't wear her new clothes on her TV show, she has been known to chat them up in front of 8 million "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" viewers. ("When I see quality like that for $6.96, I still fall out of my chair," she said of a Kathie Lee purse she proudly displayed on the program this winter.) Gifford is the kind of person women can identify with, "not a glamour puss," says consultant Kurt Barnard. Former "Designing Woman" star Delta Burke, long a beacon for the buxom, is appealing to large, economy-size women by vowing to "balance the scales of fashion justice." While others label clothes for heavier women "plus sizes," she dubs them "real sizes." She is negotiating with J.C. Penney and other retailers to carry her forthcoming line. She expects to sell $40 million worth in the first year to people who share her philosophy that "Venus wasn't a size 6."

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Scratching off sales: Most of these celebrity "designers" are fashion professionals in name only. They receive either a guaranteed minimum royalty or a portion of sales (usually between 2 and 10 percent) and may, like Gifford, have the right to approve fabrics, patterns and trims. But most don't sweat the details, deferring to the outside companies with whom they have contracts. "Wal-Mart knows its customers," says Bob Adler, CEO of Halmode, the leading company that produces Gifford's line. "She doesn't want to interfere." Still, a few of the stars are engaged in the . process from the beginning. Burke, who recently formed her own company, Delta Burke Designs, began sketching her own clothes when she was named Miss Florida some 20 years ago, and was, in fact, the real designing woman for her TV series, where she created her on-cam-era wardrobe. The new line of dresses, suits and sportswear she's designed includes everything from a pale pink frock with black piping and a zipper to jeans in six colors.

Is there quality as well as quantity in celebrity fashion? While you won't find Claudia Schiffer strutting them down the runway, showbiz brands are generally better made than no-name brands in the same budget price range-with no strings hanging out or mismatched seams. The manufacturers can make them better because the designer label ensures retailers bigger-volume sales. And the clothes have the kind of decorative touches not always found in discount duds: velvet collars, crisscrossed lacing down the sides or loops around the neckline. "It's better than most Wal-Mart stuff," one Wal-Mart clerk whispers about Gifford's product. "It's the classiest line I've ever seen here." The biggest attraction, of course, is the price tag. It ranges from $17.99 for a blouse in the Connie Selleeca line at Montgomery Ward to $80 for a dress in the more upscale Delta Burke collection. Most Kathie Lee dresses, which are sold in 2,100 Wal-Mart stores, are priced in the $20 to $25 range. "We're able to do so much more because of the volume," said Gifford through a spokesman. "People don't just buy at Wal-Mart. They live there."

But a celebrity name doesn't always guarantee success. One round of adverse publicity can sink a product's chances. Before the comedienne Roseanne was to unveil a new line of large-size clothing, she made headlines by saying she and her then husband Tom Arnold planned to marry their secretary. That was after her infamous rendition of the national anthem at a baseball game. "When she scratched her crotch, she also scratched off Montgomery Ward, Sears, Wal-Mart, Penney's and every other mass merchandiser in the country," says Stanley Warmer, founder of CelebSales, the company that was to produce the line. Warmer is suing Roseanne and her ex-husband for breach of contract; the pair, who are, in turn, suing Warmer, say they terminated the agreement after Warmer failed to pay them.

Who will prevail in the battle of the discount queens? The answer may hinge on marketing. Delta Burke will push her new line with everything from an advisory panel of shoppers to a telephone hot line (1-800-DB-Blues.) Callers may be asked to participate in fitting sessions, product testing or to be part of an advertising campaign. Burke will even have her own chat room on the Internet. But industry soothsayers believe that Gifford's daily TV appearances are the strongest marketing tool of all. "Kathie Lee has won hands down before the battle even starts," says Barnard. Some retail experts even predict her venture will become the largest celebrity licensing deal in history. Says Millstein: "Seventh Avenue may laugh, but Kathie Lee will laugh all the way to the bank." Shoppers like Wal-Mart clerk Theresa Vitale will be laughing with her. Recently promoted to department manager for front-end checkout and cigarettes, she plans to wear more Kathie Lee dresses as the line expands. After all, says Vitale, "I have an image to keep up."

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