Frock Stars

When designers build an empire—or a home—with a single item


Several magazines that published paparazzi photos of Jennifer Lopez and Ashlee Simpson in 2005 wearing similar short-sleeved baby-doll minidresses didn’t mention the label. Geren Lockhart was grateful for the oversight. As the designer of the Geren Ford silk “Kimono” dress, which became a staple for young actresses, she knew that tabloid attention could overwhelm her fledgling company. “I wanted us not to peak too early,” she says. Customers found the frocks anyway and bought every one. Although fashion is all about change, Ford offered the dress for the next two years and continues to sell variations of it. Typically her company reproduces a single design 50 to 1,500 times. The “Kimono” dress sold more than 5,000 copies, which allowed Lockhart to put a down payment on a 1954 post-and-beam house in Nichols Canyon.

It wasn’t the first time a single piece unexpectedly catapulted a designer’s fortunes. Robert Rodriguez, who creates upscale basics, was able to maintain half ownership of his company rather than sell the lion’s share to an investor, thanks to a pencil skirt he introduced in fall 2006. About 10,000 units of the snug, high-waisted, below-the-knee garment sold. “I’m surprised it’s still hot,” he says. “Like every designer, I want to be on to the next thing, but the sales team wants me to keep bringing it back.” Nathalie Seaver, another L.A. designer, sleeps in her own Larchmont Village cottage instead of an apartment as a result of a skirt that grossed about $5 million in the past decade. She stocks the reversible, bias-cut “Reva” in her West 3rd Street boutique and, despite a preference to stop wholesaling it, still fields requests from specialty shops. What the three designers’ best-sellers have in common are a flattering fit and a price below $300. Seaver’s original “Reva,” which was a maxi, was a dud until a customer suggested a shorter hem. “Had that customer not come in,” Seaver says, “I might still be a renter.”

Illustration by Paul Blow