What I Really Want to Do Is Design

They can’t sketch, drape, or sew, but celebrities do have opinions on fashion. How clothing lines went from dowdy to dynamite for a new flock of A-listers

She’s always late,” says Rigoberto Casillas. The fey 22-year-old with bleached blond hair and a Spanish accent had woken up at 3 a.m. to drive from Temecula to the South Coast Plaza Macy’s to wait for Paris Hilton’s appearance in February. His T-shirt bears the likeness of his idol, and his hoodie, which is also from the heiress’s sportswear line, is printed with the Old English lettering favored by gangs and rappers. At such events you expect to see suburban kids like Casillas. You don’t count on a 58-year-old woman buying Hilton’s $79 leopard-print “Glitzy Cheetah” pumps, but she’s here, too. As the afternoon wanes, high school students in uniforms join a line that curves around cordoned-off reporters from Fox, E!, the Associated Press, In Touch, Riviera, and The Orange County Register. ¶ While the fans wait, Paris Hilton, wearing a slinky minidress and yellow heels, sits on a couch in a converted Macy’s administrative office. Her skin is perfect, and there’s a dreamy look in her eyes. Samples from Paris Hilton Shoes, her new footwear line, are displayed on a table. A  PR person advises a reporter, “You might have to prompt her about the shoes. Like, they all have pink soles.” ¶ Hilton is asked how the project came about. “I got approached with the script a couple years ago,” she says in a placid voice, referring to The Hottie and the Nottie, her movie that was released the same day. ¶ One of several handlers calls out, “We’re talking about the shoes.”

“The shoes,” Hilton says, shifting gears. “I have always been a big shoe fan, of course, like every girl.” She owns “like, a thousand” pairs. “I already have my own clothing line, and we do fragrance and purses. It seemed like the next step would be to do shoes.”

Forty miles away, in a downtown L.A. factory against which homeless people sleep, Paris’s sister, Nicky, is busy with her own two apparel lines. Sweaterdresses, checked miniskirts, and tweed blazers trimmed in patent leather from the Nicholai line’s fall collection hang on racks. The clothing will arrive in stores this summer with price tags of $100 to $800. Nicky selects an eggplant-and-black baby-doll style with a pleated bow. “Evening dresses were big,” she says, referring to orders from Kitson and other boutiques. She wears a black T-shirt, denim shorts, flat shoes, and a heart-shaped diamond pavé pendant. Her manner is more laconic than media polished. On the wall, inspiration boards with pages cut from magazines and books indicate that her next collection, for spring 2009, will have a watercolor palette and an island vacation feel.

Nicky’s less expensive line, Chick, is made in a more dingy wing of the factory, which has a dirty gray carpet. Chick consists of brightly colored T-shirts and hoodies aimed at what the fashion industry calls the “junior” market: teenagers and young women. “I come here about four days a week,” Nicky says. “Most celebrity lines, it’s an actress or singer, and the clothing line is their fourth or fifth priority. This is my number one priority. I’m not off promoting a film.” Doesn’t that describe her sister? She shrugs and says, “Paris does licenses.”

Celebrity-fronted apparel lines take either the Paris approach, in which a star licenses his or her name for a cut of sales, usually around 10 percent, or the Nicky approach, in which the star owns all or part of the company and is more hands-on. Few famous people in either category can cut a pattern or sew intricate seams, but that is also the case with a good number of professional clothing makers. By the time designers reach the level of a Donna Karan or a Ralph Lauren, they typically employ design teams and specialists to execute their ideas.

A commonly held notion is that personalities sell the use of their name for a fat check and don’t contribute much to product development or publicity. Jessica Simpson lives up to this stereotype by frequently wearing True Religion jeans instead of denim from Princy or JS by Jessica Simpson, two of the lines for which she was paid $10 million up front. (The company that manufactures the clothing sued Simpson in 2006 for failing to promote the lines and settled out of court.) Increasingly, though, stars are teaming up with fashion companies, or forming them, and throwing themselves into the business. Elle Macpherson, for instance, stopped taking lucrative modeling jobs from lingerie companies to pose in ads for her own. “I took a pay cut because I wanted longevity and creative input,” she says of Elle Macpherson Intimates, which is sold in department stores. “I don’t sit there on the floor cutting fabrics and patterns, but I work profoundly on concepts and the voice of the brand—and of course the fit, color, and palette.”

Other stars see fame as a tool for fashion goals. Amanda Bynes, who launched a line for teenagers last year at the national chain Steve & Barry’s, has always wanted to be a fashion designer. “My dad said, if you get famous, you can sell your art,” she says.

Lines by Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez have taken in more than $200 million each. Jay-Z’s Rocawear wholesaled in the hundreds of millions before the company was sold to a clothing conglomerate for $204 million last year. Russell Simmons sold his Phat Farm to another company for $140 million, and he and ex-wife Kimora Lee stayed on as well-paid executives.

In the past celebrities leveraged their style-icon status by doing endorsements. Today they are showing their own collections on runways alongside pros. The Lauren Conrad Collection debuted in March at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Culver City. Conrad is the centerpiece of the hit reality soap The Hills, and her MTV employers funded the line, a first for the network. Whitney Port, another cast member of the show, sat in the front row, closely watching models walk down the runway in stretchy cotton jersey dresses. Port is introducing her own label later this year. Absent was Heidi Montag, who also appears on The Hills. Was it because she was feuding with Conrad, as the tabloids reported, or because she was busy with Heidiwood, her togs for Anchor Blue stores?

Released this year or planned for fall are lines by Heidi Klum, Rachel Bilson, Avril Lavigne, Luke Wilson, Chloë Sevigny, Mel B of the Spice Girls, Jenna Jameson, the Pussycat Dolls, and Laird Hamilton. Kimora Lee signed on to create Fabulosity for JC Penney, unconcerned that it will compete with her Baby Phat collection, a top seller at Macy’s. All this clothing will fight for shelf space with efforts brought forth last year by Justin Timberlake, Victoria Beckham, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Venus
Williams, Reba McEntire, and Sienna Miller.

Television stars are smart to strike licensing deals. Daisy Fuentes, Alyssa Milano, and Delta Burke may never attain A-list status, but their low-priced clothing can earn them more money and name recognition than a 13-week series. When an Oscar nominee like Penélope Cruz jumps on board, you know the dynamics have changed. Cruz began a collaboration last year with Mango, a global cheap-chic chain based in Spain. “That’s why she’s not here,” her friend Salma Hayek said at a party earlier this year, meaning that Cruz was busy working on the project. Hayek herself is exceptionally positioned to create a line: She is engaged to François-Henri Pinault, owner of the conglomerate that includes Guc-ci and Yves Saint Laurent. “It’s tricky,” Hayek says when asked if her fiancé might back a design effort. “Someone approached me once about doing one, but that was a long time ago, when it was tacky.”

New York is considered the heart of American designer fashion, but Los Angeles is the sportswear capital of the nation and where the fashion industry’s dominant influencers—stars—live. Screen icons have long initiated fashion trends: Marlon Brando with white tees and leather jackets, Elizabeth Taylor with Butterfield 8 slip dresses. Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Marilyn Monroe, and Lana Turner lent their names to companies for short-term clothing licenses, but traditionally endorsements have been the preferred route to easy money from the fashion industry. Only now have two of L.A.’s main exports, celebrities and sportswear, gone to market hand in hand. Gwen Stefani, an ever-changing trendsetter, went to a New York company to create her L.A.M.B. line, which retails for up to $400. But for her Harajuku Lovers label, whose items cost less than $100 each, she chose an L.A. company, Jerry Leigh. The 45-year-old firm had never worked with a celebrity, but it knows from licensing: It produces 58 million garments a year, mostly sportswear emblazoned with Disney and Warner Bros. characters.

Stefani’s personal appeal and pop-culture-blender aesthetic are major el-ements of Harajuku Lovers’ popularity. The secret ingredient in the recipe, though, is the manufacturer. Jerry Leigh must ensure that its designers translate the singer’s ideas in ways that make the customer feel a connection to her. It must produce garments with enough quality to justify the price—a tough feat in a competitive global industry—and then fill store orders on time, almost always an issue for a new line. For a star, hooking up with a manufacturer with well-oiled distribution to stores is as important as their own Q rating. In the past, manufacturers pursued stars for licensing deals; today Andrew Leigh, son of Jerry and CEO of the company, fields up to seven pitches a week from celebrities or their representatives.

The Jerry Leigh office park in Panorama City seems almost like an entertainment company’s digs, with pale wood, state-of-the-art animation equipment, and sunlight pouring through walls of glass. Andrew Leigh, who is a lean, youthful 49-year-old with cropped gray hair, sits at his desk in jeans and a white dress shirt. He signs a $93,000 check for blank T-shirts and then rises to lead a walk-through of the 250,000-square-foot space. In a cubicle one of the company’s 65 designers shows sketches for Avril Lavigne’s tween license Abbey Dawn, which will bow in July in Kohl’s stores. (It took a year for Lavigne’s manager to get Leigh’s ear before the deal was struck.) Abbey Dawn will be the second celebrity line for the company. “She owns pink and black,” Leigh says of the Grammy winner’s oft-worn color combination, “and she’s going to own fleece in the midtier.”

On the factory floor a silk-screening machine with 18 spokes rotates T-shirts and spreads colored ink on them. A pallet holds hundreds of tees featuring a space alien illustration and the Harajuku Lovers tag line, A Fatal Attraction to Cuteness.

“The success of Harajuku Lovers is in the consistency of its graphics,” Leigh says. Season after season, the manga-inspired line depicts four characters with different identities. “Gwen Stefani understands branding better than anyone I’ve met in the business.”

The farther down the retail food chain you go, the more money there is to be made because of volume. Also, the younger the customer, retailers say, the more likely he or she is to buy something because a celebrity designed it. (“The customer who is really interested in fashion is sophisticated,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour has said. “She will take a Marc Jacobs over a Jessica Simpson every time.”) Harajuku Lovers sales have increased 20 percent each year since it launched in 2005, Leigh says. Adds Simone Tolifson, junior fashion coordinator for Macy’s West, “I have never seen anything sell like it.”

M.Fredric, a chain of 25 clothing stores in Southern California, carries William Rast, codesigned by Justin Timberlake, and the R Line by Ryan Seacrest. The store seeks out celebrity lines not because of the name on the label, says co-owner Fred Levine, but because celebrities often make good designers. “They are creative people to begin with, and they travel around the world, so they see fashion in Asia, Africa, and Australia,” he says. “Their ideas are fresh and open because they’re not insiders in the garment industry.”

In February sales representatives for Harajuku Lovers—one for the adult line and one for the children’s—bring samples to the Mediterranean-style house in Agoura Hills that serves as M.Fredric headquarters. As the reps unload duffel bags in the conference room, Levine jokes with his sister, Mardi, and his wife, Lisa, who own M.Fredric with him: “I guess Gwen would be here today, but she’s busy having a sonogram.” (The pop star is due to have a second child this summer.)

“We’re hoping for a girl,” says Shayna Masino, the children’s rep. She spreads out garments on the floor. Some have skulls and others have the word fatal (from the tag line), two things a traditional children’s company would avoid and that Stefani had to persuade Jerry Leigh executives to agree to. Both sold well.

The rep for the adult line, Tina Bernardi, hangs preppy, athletic, and Hawaiian-inspired garments on a rack. She holds up a horizontal-striped polo shirt with a heart appliqué. “I know you didn’t like this before,” she says to Levine, “but Gwen wears a polo in the Hewlett-Packard commercial.” Levine taps on a keyboard, calling up sales records on a wall-mounted screen. “When I first saw the line, I didn’t buy it,” he says. “It was too radical and extreme. But I tested it, and it flew out.”

Stefani doesn’t promote Harajuku Lovers in person. “We asked, and the answer was a flat no,” Levine says with a smile. But Stefani wears items from the line in public and used its name for a concert tour and a fragrance and a limited-edition digital camera. She was filmed for the HP commercial, still viewable on YouTube, walking through the Harajuku District of Tokyo. This is celebrity licensing 2.0, in which the star is a globe-trotting creative director who cross-promotes the line in ways unimaginable a decade ago.

Lauren Conrad, whose clothing line is not licensed, helps sell it piece by piece. In February she flew from a trade show in New York to one in Las Vegas. In her small, bare-bones booth set up to show samples and write store orders, she is facing the corner, changing her clothes. It’s a moment MTV might have loved for The Hills, except the network is not taping Conrad working on this endeavor. Even for reality TV, it’s too meta. Now outfitted in a green shirt and a black miniskirt, she is accessorized with dainty necklaces, rings, and bracelets. Her makeup is lip gloss and black eyeliner, and her hair is in her signature straight style with two locks rolled into a sort of headband. “I love trade shows because the spring collection is getting into stores and I get to hear feedback,” Conrad says. Chelso Blackwell, who owns a boutique in Whitefish, Montana, looks over dresses and tops in solid colors and floral and butterfly prints. “I didn’t watch the show, but my girlfriend did, and she adores Lauren,” she says. “So I came by.”

Conrad gently tugs at the fabric of a top and says, “It’s stretch, so it has give. It’s not so tight.” Blackwell buys 12 dresses, 4 shirts, and 16 skirts.

The name most associated with celebrity fashion design is Jaclyn Smith. Her licensed collections take in a reported $300 million a year for Kmart. The trade paper Women’s Wear Daily calls it one of the most recognized sportswear brands, on par with the Gap. Launched in 1985, after Smith left the TV series Charlie’s Angels, the collection has been around so long that secondhand pieces sell in vintage stores, where hipsters have started buying them for their kitsch value. On an April visit to a Kmart, cheap-looking velour tunics from the line marked down to $3.99 hung near chic linen sleeveless dresses with braided belts going for $29.99.

Kmart was hoping to upgrade its apparel offerings when it proposed the licensing deal to Smith. “At first I turned it down,” Smith says on the set of her Bravo show, Shear Genius. “I was under contract with Max Factor at the time and they said, ‘Don’t do it,’ that it wasn’t in my image. But I met with Kmart and was fascinated with what I saw.” What she saw was what every celebrity designer says is the core of her line: a quality product at a reasonable price. Smith communicates regularly with the store’s in-house design team and has an assistant who makes sketches. “When I said I wanted to put in a black suit, they said, ‘Whoa, we only do pastels,’?” Smith says. “It was all sort of foufou, and I wanted more tailored, classic clothes.”

The Jaclyn Smith line has found a market that seems insatiable. The chain has recently increased promotions for it and added new categories such as handbags and jewelry, and it devotes up to 25 percent of its stores’ apparel real estate to it.

Wal-Mart has a similarly evergreen line, Mary-Kate and Ashley. The clothing for preteen girls debuted in 2000, and though the Olsen twins have grown up, DVDs of their movies and reruns of their TV show Full House have extended their influence on girls’ fashion choices. The staying power of this label taught other celebrities a lesson: Think niche, get rich. Victoria Beckham limited her dVb brand to premium jeans and sunglasses; Elizabeth Hurley Beach, a swimwear company, trades on the actress’s famous figure. Apple Bottoms jeans for full-figured women, by rapper Nelly, are a hit at Macy’s. “First it was about Nelly and the name,” says Simone Tolifson. “Now people just want the fit and the jeans.” It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that songs on the radio name-check the brand.

Other designers desire a broader reach. The Web site for the Sean John clothing company features two images: one of P. Diddy in a $495 pin-striped suit and another of a $30 T-shirt that says, in giant letters, no bitch assness. P. Diddy is the only celebrity designer to win an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In 2004, he won Menswear Designer of the Year, the fashion equivalent of Best Actor in a Leading Role. That year he also became the first star turned designer to open a freestanding U.S. boutique. With a team of helpers and a $100 million cash infusion from Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Companies, Diddy designs the Sean John men’s suit and sportswear lines. Licenses for shirts, underwear, sunglasses, and shoes ensure that fans of the performer, actor, and Bad Boy Entertainment CEO can wear the label head to toe. Diddy broke into fashion in 1999 with a hat and a baggy T-shirt, using his first two (real) names in cursive script as a logo. He was inspired by Fubu, a blockbuster in the emerging hip-hop-inspired “urban” market.

“He didn’t do this because he needed another check,” says Jeff Tweedy, vice president of branding and licensing for Sean John. “He embraced designers and went to fashion shows and learned. He started wearing cashmere sweaters. Instead of bling, it was Harry Winston sophisticated.” Tweedy’s experience at other celebrity lines—Beyoncé’s House of Dereon and Shaq’s short-lived TWISM—was less interesting to Diddy than his stints at Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren. “We called Sean John an ‘urban young men’s sophisticated line with a touch of contemporary,’?” Tweedy says. “We knew we’d be put in the urban category, but we had a cleaner and more mature look.” Still, the line showed baggy jeans and logo T-shirts in the beginning, as it does today. It branched out into slimmer silhouettes, though, and clothes you could wear to an office job. Sales climbed to a reported $450 million a year. There were failures: It was once the second-best-selling line at Blooming-dale’s, but the department store dropped it five years ago; the suit line languished on Macy’s floors; a women’s division flopped less than a year after its 2005 launch. Yet “Diddy has kept himself relevant in the media,” says Durand Guion, men’s fashion director of Macy’s West. “The exposure makes the consumer keep coming back to his line.”

Jennifer Lopez, Diddy’s former girlfriend, watched him build the apparel empire. She, too, would improve the reputation of the celebrity designer category when she and Andy Hilfiger, brother of Tommy, teamed up on JLO by Jennifer Lopez in 2001. But the enterprise, initially a success, has faltered. JLO by Jennifer Lopez only sells outside the United States; the additional lines justsweet and Sweetface don’t feature Lopez on their Web sites. “I am not sure that the customer understood the role that Jennifer played,” says Simone Tolifson, who stopped ordering justsweet for Macy’s West. “Her name was not on the label. There have been quality issues. She owns the company but doesn’t design the line. It’s as if she doesn’t want to be affiliated with it.” Lopez’s focus on family life could edge her lines onto the scrap heap along with duds by Pamela Anderson, Thalia Sodi, Snoop Dogg, model Eva Herzigova, and rappers Eve and Foxy Brown. Even John Malkovich tried his hand and gave up.

The success that fashion companies and retailers have enjoyed lately with guest-designer collaborations has led more of them to extend invitations to celebrities. In turn, “collabs” have allowed stars to dip their toes in the business with minimal risk. Madonna used H&M as a research lab last year, testing a tracksuit-based collection and later a more tailored group of basics. Only in this decade have celebrities crossed the threshold of selective high-end stores. L.A.M.B., Chloë Sevigny, the Row (by the Olsens), and William Rast sell at top-tier boutiques. Elle Macpherson Intimates released a luxury “Boudoir” collection two years ago. It’s the only lingerie line carried in the posh Melrose Avenue shop Maxfield. In the past, a star had to choose between mass-market clothing with a whiff of tackiness or image-enhancing vanity projects. Now they can have both. Milla Jovovich’s pricey designer line, Jovovich-Hawk, operated at a loss for years. That’s not a problem today, since her new low-priced collaborations with Target and Mango ensure she’s got money for fabric and thread. She needn’t worry that her films do well for her lines to keep attracting attention. Movie flops, bad albums, and even scandal are more detrimental to a star’s fashion label than run-ins with the law. Paris Hilton’s sportswear line arrived in stores just as she was being locked up for violating DUI-related probation. “We were a little concerned,” says Tolifson. “But she was wearing jeans from the line when she exited jail, and it boosted sales.”

Illustration by Chip Wass