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Billion-Dollar Babe: Jessica Simpson and the New Age of Celebrity
On a March 2012 episode of Fashion Star, the Tuesday-night NBC reality-show competition featuring unknown designers, celebrity judge Jessica Simpson asked a contestant named Nicholas why his designs had so many zippers. A smug Nicholas told Simpson that if she only understood fashion-forward menswear trends, she would get it, adding, “It’s very hard to understand the girls giving advice about men’s fashion.”
But Simpson, whose fast-growing namesake fashion label was becoming the millennial generation’s answer to Liz Claiborne, wasn’t having it. She snapped back: “I’m a little bit offended. Not a little bit, a lot of bit. To talk down to a woman in this business? We’re running the world right now, okay? I’m trying to help.” She added, chuckling, “I really kind of want to hit you across the face right now.”
Her smackdown drew cheers from the TV audience as Simpson, the face behind her billion-dollar fashion brand, kept smiling.
Who could ever have imagined fifteen years earlier that this former teen backup singer from the outskirts of Dallas would have grown up to become a mainstream force in American fashion, with a footprint in European countries like Greece and Spain as well?
The Virgin Bride
Simpson’s odyssey as a tastemaker had begun in 1997, when the newly signed Sony Music artist met Rachel Zoe, perhaps the most important of the many newcomers who soon would begin entering Simpson’s dramatically changing life. Zoe was one of a new breed of Hollywood image makers known as stylists, who were essentially well-paid fashion fixers, using good taste and designer connections to give their clients arresting, individual looks. In order to have a shot at pop stardom, Simpson would need such a makeover. So Tommy Mottola, the CEO of Sony Music, introduced Zoe and Jessica. “She was seventeen,” Zoe remembered to me in 2012. “She came to me with peroxide long hair and long nails. She couldn’t have been more adorable. She didn’t take herself too seriously.”
Simpson was coming of age as a child of MTV and VH1 videos in the fast-paced era when entertainers started to worry about their on-camera close-ups as much as their singing voices and acting talents. They were particularly attentive to style and to fashion detailing. They had little choice. In the final years of the twentieth century, a convergence of media, social, and marketing trends were evolving a celebrity-centric culture, producing a perpetual parade of famous and infamous characters—bona fide and contrived—that fed a willing public’s burgeoning fixation on living vicariously.
The ubiquitous images of celebrities invaded our homes. They entered our personal spaces on the covers of every magazine and on all our screens: computer, cell phone, and wall-to-wall reality TV. The sheer volume of the exposure was punctuated by the Instagram immediacy of social media, which boosted celebrity scrutiny exponentially. An orgy of year-round celebrity self-celebration ensued. The Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, Emmys, Video Music Awards, Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and assorted red-carpet events fueled celebrity worship for an insatiable global audience. Paparazzi armed with 200-mm lenses stalked in the bushes, recording the most unguarded private moments of celebrity prey, spilling every indiscretion—whether they were closet smokers, who they dated, and how good or bad they looked at a gallery opening, coming from the gym, or on vacation at the beach.
Increasingly, the focus was on what celebrities wore. Of all the things we worshipped in our favorite celebrities—beauty, charm, wit, talent—by far the easiest thing to emulate was their clothes. No matter how much we wanted to “be like Mike,” we weren’t going to acquire a forty-eight-inch vertical leap. But we damn well could buy a pair of Air Jordan sneakers.
Jessica Simpson managed to insert herself at the forefront of such celebrity tastemaking right as the great wave was forming. Simpson was pretty to begin with. The nubile Texan had great legs, gleaming, TV-ready teeth, and big boobs. (“Natural double Ds,” Joe Simpson, Jessica’s father and manager and a former Baptist minister, shamelessly bragged to everybody.) That was enough to get her noticed. When her fledgling singing career flagged just as reality TV was taking off, MTV executives bought into Joe Simpson’s initial proposal, that Jessica, twenty-three—just married to Nick Lachey, twenty-nine, a member of boy band 98 Degrees—could do a reality show modeled after The Osbournes, the MTV reality hit featuring the family of heavy metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne.
In 2003, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica debuted on MTV, following the pop-singing couple at the start of their married life. The hook of the show was the positioning of Jessica as a virgin bride, playing the innocence of the preacher’s daughter.
The first show took place inside the couple’s new Los Angeles home, six months after their wedding. They were eating in front of the TV when Jessica posed a simple question that would forever typecast her as the proverbial dumb blonde.
Jessica stabbed her fork into a chunk in her salad bowl and asked, “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says ‘Chicken by the Sea.’ Ha-huh, is that stupid?”
An incredulous Nick explained, “Chicken of the Sea is the brand. You know, a lot of people eat tuna the way they like to eat chicken.”
Jessica mumbled sheepishly, “Ohhhh. I understand now. I read it wrong.”
TV watchers snickered at her ignorance—was she for real? Yet the plainspoken Jessica was getting over—as an unpretentious, likeable, and very hot-looking babe. Newlyweds thus evolved into one of those quirky hits—so watchable because, apart from how attractive they looked, Nick and Jessica were refreshingly regular. The mindless thirty-minute show went down easy; it was like peering through a keyhole into a Middle America fairy tale.
When they were The Newlyweds: Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson circa 2005.
Newlyweds ran for forty episodes through 2005, building a cult MTV following, as young viewers tuned in to catch Jessica’s latest antics—and watch her be scolded and swept into the arms of her romantic husband, like a blonde Lucy Ricardo. As the eye candy and comic relief of the show, Jessica soon had millions of eyeballs locked on her every move and every curve.
But unschooled beauty wouldn’t be enough to hold up under that kind of scrutiny. This gospel-singing, churchgoing young woman lacked a cosmopolitan edge.
That’s why years before she was on TV, Jessica needed Zoe, and she needed fashion with a capital F. But no one could have guessed back then that over the next decade, fashion would need Jessica Simpson.
Rachel Zoe’s simple transformation of Jessica from bumpkin to fashion icon mutated into a new reality, where the clotheshorse became the rider, a fashion authority every bit as respected as the stylist.
“I worked hard with Jessica,” recalled Zoe. “She is the all-American girl. She was open to playing with her image. We fought hard to keep her fresh and pretty and modern and fashionable. She had a very classy image, a very beautiful image, and the fans worshipped her.”
In the music world the standard formula was sexy—skintight, short minidresses. But Jessica didn’t want that image. So Zoe took another approach. “We did a lot of peasant dresses, white eyelet tops, and really great denim shorts, and great jeans,” says Zoe. “She looked so beautiful in a simple white top and jeans. She is the most beautiful in her natural state.”
Rail-thin, with long, center-parted, wavy blonde hair, Zoe, born in 1971, had begun her career in the early 1990s after graduating from George Washington University, as a fashion assistant and editor at teen fashion bible YM magazine, where she styled models and celebrities like the Backstreet Boys for photo spreads. Zoe’s own eclectic wardrobe—a mélange of furry vests, vintage trinkets, and the long, hippie day dresses—gave her a signature ’70s vibe. She rolled around town with New York swagger—so self-possessed in her huge sunglasses, gesturing with an armload of bangle bracelets. Her clients included people like Nicole Richie, Mischa Barton, and Keira Knightley.
Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe helped Jessica Simpson develop her signature style.
Zoe would become a fixture in Jessica’s retinue. Indeed, professional fashion fixers like Zoe, Phillip Bloch, and Jessica Paster had suddenly found themselves in the vanguard of Hollywood’s hottest profession—stylists—a career that hadn’t even existed before the 1990s. They were among the most enterprising former magazine editors and design assistants who worked their connections to corral exquisite designer gowns and diamond baubles on loan—as well as procure the trendiest jeans, leather jackets, and all the fashion trimmings of everyday living. Initially they toiled behind the scenes; the savviest stylists usually didn’t “dress and tell.” Their discretion permitted stars to claim credit for having such great taste, for looking so “hip, cool, and pulled together,” as stylist Wayne Scot Lukas told me in 1998. For working their fashion magic on celebrities, the stylists back then began earning around $1,500 to—when movie studios footed the bill—$6,000 a day and up.
Meanwhile, as Newlyweds wound to a close in 2005, Jessica now had something more valuable than a good voice: a hot image to take to the big screen in a hurry. But the “dumb blonde” persona meant that she made her Hollywood debut in a C movie—The Dukes of Hazzard—as Daisy Duke, with some forgettable cameos dressed in butt-flashing short-shorts and a bikini. “She and her attire make equally brief appearances,” the Hollywood Reporter smirked.
Yet a funny thing had happened during Simpson’s Newlyweds run. All those intrepid photographers who made their living shooting famous people and their fashions hadn’t been able to get enough of Jessica Simpson. And millions of fans gobbled her up.
When they saw her looking adorable in a midriff top or Daisy Duke cutoffs and boots, they didn’t think of the stylist who might have put together that outfit or the designer who created it. To them, the look was pure Jessica Simpson.
This wasn’t lost on Los Angeles fashion company CEO Gerard Guez of Tarrant Apparel Group. Guez was one of the owners of the 1970s designer jeans sensation Sasson Jeans (launched by his older brother Paul) with their “Oo la la” TV commercial slogan. Guez keenly sensed that the winds of fashion were blowing in a new direction: away from the runways in New York and Paris and Milan and straight toward Hollywood. He wasted no time, racing ahead of other apparel makers to sign Jessica Simpson to launch a new jeans collection, starting at $49, aimed at her fans.
Jessica was no fashion designer, but she didn’t have to be. She wouldn’t have to create the look or do the heavy lifting. In her licensing contract with Tarrant, she was basically responsible for being the public face of her namesake brand, for a minimum guaranteed royalty payment of $4 million in the first year, Guez told me.
While Guez was pivotal as Jessica’s launchpad into fashion, she would soon leave Tarrant behind as she soared to unexpected heights.
By 2012, her cursive Jessica Simpson signature would become a coveted label at stores like Macy’s, for the trendiest platform shoes and handbags, sporty dresses, off-the-shoulder tops, and denim cutoffs—twenty-two product categories and counting that pulled in $1 billion in retail revenue a year, according to the Camuto Group. Her estimated annual cut of the booty: probably more than $20 million. Not bad, reflecting how her brand had mushroomed into a well-oiled fashion machine like any other on Seventh Avenue, using design teams and marketing experts enlisted to interpret Jessica’s trendy look.
Jessica’s inventive take on the lace-trimmed tops, zip-front jumpsuits, bustier maxi-dresses, and her famous wardrobe of high-heeled boots, were the building blocks of the look that Rachel Zoe helped her hone over the years. When teen shoppers headed to the mall, they asked for “you know, those Jessica Simpson–style boots.” As for the booty, well that was Jessica’s. In 2005, in a People magazine survey of 80,000 readers, Jessica Simpson’s shapely rear outpolled the most famous butts in the business: Jennifer Lopez’s and Beyoncé’s. She could WEAR those tight jeans—and her fans lusted for them too.
Riding the Wave of Blurred Lines
“Brands matter more than ever—the consumer perceives greater value, higher quality, and greater status—but the definition of brands has broadened immensely,” said Richard Jaffe, an analyst who follows retail stocks for Stifel, Nicolaus & Company. He told me in 2012, “A brand can be a fashion designer who has been making high-quality merchandise for a long time, or it can also be Alex Rodriguez or Donald Trump.” A celebrity’s name on a label effectively fast-tracks a new fashion brand—shaving off as much as ten years to develop widespread recognition.
It’s not just Jessica Simpson. Brands like The Row by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Victoria Beckham, Tory Burch, Donald Trump, Air Jordan by Michael Jordan, Sean John by Sean Combs, Selena Gomez, Carlos Santana, and Daisy Fuentes are increasingly outstripping those of traditional fashion designers.
This is the brave new world we find ourselves in, one where the lines between celebrity and fashion designer have become blurred. How we got here—and what this means for the future of fashion—will be the story that unfolds in this book.
We start where else but in Paris.
• • • •
Old Hollywood and the Roots of Fashion’s Celebrity Obsessions
Fashion designers came into being in the nineteenth century, because the emperor of France wanted a trophy wife.
In 1858, Napoléon III hired an innovative English tailor, Charles Frederick Worth, to create a magnificent wardrobe suitable for the new age of mass media—for his beautiful young wife, Eugénie.
Thus, the blue-eyed redhead, Empress Eugénie, became the world’s first supermodel. As she carried out her public duties, she became a celebrity icon—and a walking advertisement for Worth’s exquisite creations, like his bustle gowns, which rendered all those cumbersome hoopskirts of the era obsolete. Worth painstakingly confected one hundred innovative new gowns for her to wear for the official opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869. Her appearances at “the great State balls, the more intimate receptions at the Tuileries, the races at Longchamp served the same function as today’s runway fashion shows,” wrote historian Olivier Corteaux. Drawings of Eugénie were displayed in shop windows across Europe and America, as legions of well-to-do women started wearing her signature “empress blue,” and her “à l’Imperatrice” coiffure.
The talented Mr. Worth—who was said to have taught himself the art of dressmaking by studying portraits at the National Gallery in London—deftly parlayed his invaluable Eugénie connection into a lucrative branding opportunity. Worth attached his signature and the royal crest to his creations, inventing the first fashion label sewn in clothes. He would be heralded as the preferred dressmaker of the crowned heads of Austria, Italy, and Russia.
“Worth was the father of fashion,” observes Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre in Paris. “He invented fashion shows; he invented seasonal collections and fashion models—and most importantly, he invented the persona of a designer as an artist,” she says, as he posed in a jaunty beret and affected a “painterly pose” in his best-known portrait.
Empress Eugénie of France (1826–1920), by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1854.
Worth’s “Eugénie moment” begins the symbiosis between fashion designers and celebrities, which established the very foundation on which high fashion was built.
As for Napoléon III, his trophy wife (along with his mistresses, who Worth diplomatically outfitted at the same time) amounted to far more than arm candy, for the emperor shrewdly accomplished his foremost commercial motive: triggering the demand for all the homegrown silk textiles, embroideries, and finery that France would come to export throughout Europe, as fashion grew to become the second-largest industry in France.
Paris dazzled as the fashion capital of the world, where discerning rich women bought the best: expensive, one-of-a-kind, handmade ensembles created by the legendary haute couturiers, including Worth, Jeanne Lanvin, Paul Poiret, Jean Patou, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel. Such fashion houses assiduously courted celebrity clients—European royalty and American socialites and stage actresses—whose photographs would circulate in the women’s pages in newspapers and the leading fashion magazines, which were Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
Hollywood Calling: A Fashion Extravaganza
Countesses and society hostesses were fine as far as they went, but there was a new kind of celebrity, a fast-lane, higher-wattage form flickering on an ever-increasing number of screens around the world. As motion pictures pulled in millions of starstruck fans from all levels of society, the beautiful people who appeared larger than life in those dark theaters (and looked better in their clothes than anyone sitting in the cheap seats) became a new kind of ideal.
A collision of old fashion icons and new was inevitable. The Hollywood movie studios and the Paris fashion establishment ultimately locked horns in 1929. The stock market suddenly dropped—and so did hemlines—leaving Hollywood movies set to be released featuring actresses in straight flapper dresses instead of the newest midcalf to ankle-length day dresses with fitted waistlines, just introduced in Paris by Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Lanvin.
The now-dated flapper fashions just wouldn’t fly with discerning moviegoers who paid “twenty-five cents apiece to be entertained with ‘the latest,’” wrote Edith Head and Paddy Calistro in Edith Head’s Hollywood.
The imperious movie moguls weren’t about to forgive and forget. Their solution: Establish Hollywood, not Paris, as the fashion capital of the world. They banned French couture from the movies, as the studio costume departments took over producing original designs for all actresses. Head and Calistro wrote: “The studios were determined never again to be at the mercy of a small group of fey French designers.”
The movie publicists launched a full-court press, promoting every major picture as a “fashion extravaganza,” while courting influential fashion editors and gossip columnists, “all to establish Hollywood’s chic new image.” Studio costume designers also whipped up offscreen wardrobes for actresses who were hot on the social circuit—ensuring they would always be photographed in fashions that conformed to what was shown in the movies. It worked. The exotic Dorothy Lamour was costumed by Edith Head in her movie roles as a South Sea island beauty. “The sarong dress became Dorothy Lamour’s trademark and everybody talked about it,” remembered costume designer Bob Mackie, who worked under Head at Paramount. “Edith used to come on Art Linkletter’s radio program and tell the ladies what to wear.”
Throughout the 1930s and well into the 1950s, dressmakers, furriers, milliners, and beauty salons displayed stacks of the latest movie magazines so that “customers could ask for a dress like Carole Lombard’s or a fur like Joan Crawford’s or a hairdo like Dietrich’s,” observed Head and Calistro. “Discussions of whether Hollywood was a more important style center than New York began to occur along with these comparing New York to Paris,” wrote historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank in New York Fashion.
On the front line of Hollywood’s fashion takeover was the famed Gilbert Adrian—listed in movie credits as “Gowns by Adrian”—the costume designer who studied at the New School of Fine and Applied Art and began his career in the 1920s and ran the MGM costume department for sixteen years. In more than two hundred movies, he dressed all the great leading ladies, such as Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, as well as Janet Gaynor, whom he married.
Adrian’s favorite movie-star muse—his own Empress Eugénie—was none other than the famous and fabulous Joan Crawford, whom Adrian outfitted in thirty-one movies from 1929 to 1941, during the peak of her movie career. It was Adrian who put her in shoulder pads—and who else but La Crawford, with her sultry, not-so-subtly sexual gaze, could have turned such an unlikely and mannish style innovation into a global trend that captivated millions of women through the 1940s?
In 1932, Macy’s experienced a bull run, selling fifty thousand knockoffs of Adrian’s ruffled white organdy dress that Joan Crawford wore like a fairy princess in Letty Lynton. Copies of the dress caught fire. Vogue reported how “every little girl, all over the country, within two weeks of the release of Joan Crawford’s picture, felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that.”
Joan Crawford as Letty Lynton in 1932. More than 50,000 copies of her Adrian gown sold at Macy’s.
The significant distinction, whose full implications would not be appreciated for decades to come, was that the reason moviegoers worked up such a lather for the fashion was Joan Crawford, not the dress. But even then, the Hollywood fashion coup reminded designers that actresses were the queens—the real movers of style and fashion.
Different Strokes: Rene Lacoste’s Winning Design
For most celebrities, popularizing fashion trends was about as far as they could ever imagine going. Creating fashion themselves would have never occurred to them. But there were a few celebrities who had the chops and the ambition to design fashions that could attract attention in their own right. The first celebrity to do it was French, of course: Tennis champion René Lacoste, who won seven Grand Slam singles titles, was one of the Four Musketeers, the French Davis Cup team, which dominated men’s tennis in the 1920s and 1930s.
René Lacoste, lanky and elegant—and known for stylish strokes—was the Roger Federer of his time. He was obsessed with promoting tennis as well as looking magnifique. In 1927, he wrote an acclaimed book, Tennis, full of technical tips. His patented inventions included the first metal tennis racquet (1963)—a breakthrough that turned tennis into a faster, power game (he sold it to Wilson Sporting Goods, where it became the T2000, made famous by Jimmy Connors)—as well as the first tennis-ball machine designed for practice.
Lacoste was nicknamed “Le Crocodile” after a bet he made with the Davis Cup team captain. If Lacoste won a certain match, the captain promised to buy him a beautiful crocodile suitcase the two had admired together at a fancy Boston shop. Alas, Lacoste lost that match, but a sportswriter for the Boston Evening Transcript heard about the wager and began calling Lacoste “The Crocodile”—and the nickname stuck.
1920s French tennis champ René Lacoste created his own crocodile logo, and a sport-shirt style was born.
Lacoste, who loved the attention, designed a natty white blazer that he had embroidered with a crocodile on the chest pocket and wore to all his matches. In 1927, Lacoste took up designing so he could finally stop playing in sweaty long-sleeved dress shirts—which to that point had been the uniform of all players. He created a series of attractive and comfortable short-sleeved knit shirts with a ribbed collar, in a breathable cotton waffle-knit fabric.
All that was left was for Lacoste to brand his practical shirts with his embroidered crocodile logo, which he did in 1927—fashion’s very first logo. He teamed up with the largest French knitwear producer to make the shirts commercially in 1933. The Chemise Lacoste shirts caught on immediately with tennis players and by 1952 were imported to America and advertised as “the status symbol of the competent sportsman,” says the Lacoste.com website.
Call it beginner’s luck. Lacoste’s Chemise Lacoste shirt revolutionized men’s wardrobes, creating a staple for guys to wear for tennis, golf, polo, or just knocking around. The Chemise Lacoste became a status symbol—the uniform of Ivy League preppies—that spawned countless knockoffs, with and without their own logos.
Guys couldn’t resist popping up the Lacoste’s ribbed collar—it just looked cooler that way. All it took was a star athlete who combined good design with his natural flair for marketing himself to create Lacoste, distinguished as the longest-running, bestselling celebrity fashion brand in the history of clothing, reporting 2011 sales of about $2.1 billion.
Gloria Swanson, Forever Young
Another early celebrity-turned-designer also had something of a sporty angle to her clothing. After nailing the role of the unforgettable Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in 1950, silent-film siren Gloria Swanson retired from the movies and pivoted into the rag trade, a natural direction for someone who had had a penchant for stylish clothes since she was a teenager. Still fetching in her fifties, Swanson promoted her own line of dresses, manufactured by Puritan Dress Company, a leading New York firm. How fortuitous that Swanson’s own image dovetailed with her marketing angle: Gloria Swanson was renowned in Hollywood as a health nut, a longtime practitioner of yoga (she liked to stand on her head) who swore by a macrobiotic diet and lived until she was eighty-six.
In 1951, her dress collection debuted: “Gloria Swanson by Forever Young,” a nod to both her own indestructible looks and to every woman’s desire to look youthful. Who knew—or even cared—if Swanson had anything to do with designing her signature silk-blend dresses created for churchgoing and cocktail parties? It hardly mattered. Puritan Dress was on the ball, with its own skilled in-house designers. Swanson upheld her end of the bargain: narrating department-store fashion shows featuring Forever Young dresses. She didn’t even have to shill for her own fashions.
Yet Hollywood leading ladies of the day like Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, and Anne Baxter, who thought nothing of seeing their likenesses in print ads among the “nine out of ten movie stars” who use Lux toilet soap, would have considered it beneath themselves to hawk ordinary merchandise—especially when it came to doing TV commercials, “which were considered lower-class media, because it interrupted what you were watching,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. TV actors, however, could get away with doing commercials selling cigarettes, for example, because they were already considered second-class citizens in the acting profession. “All they wanted was to be discovered by Hollywood and be in movies.”
Swanson did them all one better. She proved she had a second act: Her fashion label endured for thirty years, until 1981.
Audrey Hepburn and the Little Black Dress
The divine black sheath gown that Hubert de Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, in the opening scene on Fifth Avenue in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, sold at auction for $923,187 in 2006, at Christie’s in London. While it was often cited by fashion historians as perhaps the most famous little black dress of all time, it was the enchanting Audrey Hepburn—Hollywood’s most recognized fashion plate—who cast a spell on the dress—and on most ensembles she wore.
She began her close, lifelong friendship with Givenchy after he dressed her in the 1954 Billy Wilder romantic comedy Sabrina. It was the fashion-savvy Hepburn who, at twenty-four, insisted that she be dressed by the tall and talented twenty-six-year-old French creative sensation, who had recently opened his couture salon after leaving his senior position at the house of Schiaparelli. For Sabrina, Givenchy created another stunner: a superb black cocktail frock featuring carved-out armholes and a severe horizontal boat neckline—formerly known as a décolleté bateau, which after Hepburn made it famous would be referred to as the décolleté Sabrina, becoming one of fashion’s most timeless silhouettes.
After Sabrina, which won the 1954 Oscar for best costume design, Hepburn chose to wear Givenchy exclusively, including for many of her film roles. “In a very real sense, Audrey Hepburn was the muse that inspired the house of Givenchy. In return, he helped make her the trademark of everything young, elegant and rare,” wrote her biographer Alexander Walker in Audrey: Her Real Story.
In 1957, Givenchy introduced his first perfume, L’Interdit, which he dedicated to Hepburn and used her picture to advertise. He made a special concentration of L’Interdit for her exclusive use. She never dreamed of exploiting what she still considered a personal relationship for commercial purposes, though clearly that largesse was not returned by Givenchy. “Hepburn never received any money for the way she promoted the house of Givenchy. She even bought the perfume and paid for it at retail price too!” wrote Walker, citing his source as Henry Rogers, Hepburn’s publicist at the time.
Audrey Hepburn in the wedding gown for Funny Face with its creator, Hubert de Givenchy, in 1956. They conquered fashion and fragrance together—and she didn’t demand a dime.
In fact, Hepburn’s chic image was worth inestimable millions—far more than she ever collected as an actress. And over the years, their casual arrangement would change after Rogers convinced Givenchy’s brother and business partner that “Audrey should derive some financial return for the close liaison that had developed over the years with the couturier and his creations and his products.” According to Rogers, “it was all settled very cordially,” Walker wrote.
Michael Jordan: Big Shoes to Fill
In the 1980s, the first inkling that the power of celebrity in fashion could transcend Hollywood turned up in the most unlikely of places: on the professional basketball court. Nike Inc. made an astoundingly prescient move when it signed up a skinny, six-foot-six African American college star from the University of North Carolina, the third NBA draft pick, who had just joined the Chicago Bulls. His name was Michael Jordan.
Founded in the 1970s, Nike was an elite running-shoe brand that had failed to make a footprint on the surging NBA circuit in its first decade, all but shut out by Converse sneakers, which were the rage among top players. So Nike did an end around on the NBA ranks by harnessing star college players through endorsement deals with college coaches. In 1984, Nike signed Jordan, who was headed to the Chicago Bulls. Nike’s plans for the talented rookie were to create a signature basketball shoe around him—a first in sneaker marketing.
It was a risky strategy in early 1984, a time when there were no crossover black stars in America—the pivotal Cosby Show hadn’t even come on TV yet. “The idea of having a young black man sell shoes to white America was absurd. Let alone a young black man no one had ever met,” wrote sportswriter Dan Wetzel in a 2009 profile on Jordan.
But the powers at Nike trusted the revered sports marketing genius Sonny Vaccaro, who chose the low-key Jordan. Vaccaro, like most of the rest of the country, had never even met the young ballplayer. As Vaccaro told Wetzel when asked how he knew Jordan would succeed, “I wish I could give you something. I just knew he was the guy.” (Vaccaro’s sixth sense would deliver again: For Adidas basketball shoes, Vaccaro picked Kobe Bryant, straight out of high school, who would become an enduring superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers.)
Ironically, Jordan’s celebrity stature rose—he became known for his style in his very first season—before he became famous as a great player. It was Nike’s edgy design that did it. For the 1984–85 season, Nike’s designers created a distinctive—if clunky—basketball shoe in the Bulls signature red and black for Jordan. But NBA commissioner David Stern banned the flashy shoes designed exclusively for Jordan for violating the league’s “uniformity of uniform rule.” Jordan was fined $5,000 for every game he wore the shoes—which Nike gladly paid, further stoking the controversy and garnering even more attention. The outlawed shoe now carried the ultimate cachet—and sales exploded. Before Jordan got anywhere near a championship ring, he had a full-fledged fashion trend to his credit. Nike turned the Jordan brand into its most lucrative franchise, starting with Air Jordan sneakers (twenty-six official models—not counting variations—as of 2013) and Jumpman logo sportswear. By 1997, as Jordan was closing in on his fifth of six NBA titles, Nike’s sales had multiplied tenfold to $9.19 billion, up from $900 million in 1984.
Jordan’s original five-year deal with Nike was worth $500,000 plus royalties. The terms of his current deal are a closely guarded secret, but royalties now generate more than $60 million annually for Jordan according to sources, Forbes reported in February 2013.
In 2013 Jordan turned fifty. And in 2012—ten years after his last NBA game—Jordan earned an estimated $80 million from corporate partners, including Nike, Gatorade, and Hanes. He is the second-highest-paid athlete in the world. (Champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. topped the Forbes 2012 list, with estimated earnings of $85 million.)
The Jordan brand is doing “exceptionally well,” said Susquehanna financial analyst Christopher Svezia. He estimated to Forbes that the brand grew from 25 percent to 30 percent in 2012 over 2011. At the time, the Jordan brand, including apparel, generated more than $1.75 billion globally and controlled a commanding 58 percent of the US basketball shoe market.
But Jordan became about so much more than sneakers. He personified the influential celebrity who kept making his mark on men’s style trends. Macho Hollywood actor Yul Brynner’s shaved head in the 1960s was considered the exotic exception. But under Jordan, shaved heads became a sexy mainstream style that was first copied by young black men, and eventually won over white men, including corporate businessmen.
Jordan didn’t need a Milan runway to introduce knee-length baggy shorts to the world. He started his NBA career wearing the shorts of his beloved University of North Carolina uniform underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts—which then had to be baggier and longer in order to fit properly. Jordan had also said that he preferred the longer shorts, which were comfortable, allowing him to move aggressively, especially bending at the waist. Other NBA players wanted to “be like Mike” and followed his fashion lead. And now vintage pictures of stars like “Dr. J” (Julius Erving) and Magic Johnson slam-dunking in uniforms with tight short-shorts look comical as well as retro. Today it’s just a given—all men wear longer, looser shorts for sports and leisure.
So Jordan evolved, becoming ever more fashionable over the years, a transcendent athlete who ushered in the rise of basketball cool and urban cool, a mega-celebrity such as we had never seen before, one with enough star power and universal appeal to bridge what had been seen as incompatible realms of interest: sports and fashion.
“Athletes are the most stylish, in having the chutzpah to try new things,” says Jim Moore, the longtime GQ creative director and men’s fashion authority. Moore marvels at the rabid young “sneakerheads” who devotedly collect the latest Air Jordans every season—even though Jordan as a basketball player came and went long before their time. “I have all these stylish kids who work for me who will only wear Air Jordans, that are so back in style,” Moore told me in November 2012. “The sneaker is more iconic than the man.”
Moore flashed back to 1988, when he first styled Jordan in a broad-shouldered suit for the cover of GQ—and also noted the popularity of Pat Riley, the dapper NBA coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat whom designer Giorgio Armani picked to be the billboard for his signature relaxed-look suits around the same time. “Jordan raised the bar,” said Moore. “A more style-conscious generation of men have spawned from that moment.”
Jordan didn’t just change the way consumers thought of fashion, he changed the way fashion thought of celebrity. Yes, designers and manufacturers had long used celebrities as billboards and models, but with Jordan’s supernova of crossover success, for the first time the fashion world truly began to glimpse the power—and as-yet-untapped selling potential—of celebrity in and of itself.
This realization was deliciously embodied by Giorgio Beverly Hills, the perfume that became a celebrity.
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L’Eau de Celebrity
Whether you know it or not, you’re a part of my family—and I thank you for unleashing the family secret of Passion to every woman and every man you meet. I’m counting on you to unlock the beauty and emotion of our passion in women. . . . I would like to share with you the creation of Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion.
—Elizabeth Taylor, in a 1987 TV commercial
Ever since the 1960s, when TV hillbilly Jed Clampett trucked his kinfolk to reside in Beverly Hills, the fabled enclave of “swimming pools, movie stars,” the celebrity myth about the city adjacent to Hollywood has loomed large and luxurious in American pop culture, reeking of the riches and hedonism under the California sun.
Amid the roaring consumerism of the 1980s, the Beverly Hills mythology became glossier—and racier—stoked by the slick bestselling novel Scruples by first-time novelist Judith Krantz. Her sophisticated tale focused on the lush lives of beautiful people who worked in an exclusive Beverly Hills boutique of the same name. Scruples was a sex-filled chick-lit sensation that sold more than thirty million copies in twenty-two languages and became a hit TV miniseries starring Lindsay Wagner.
The notoriety of Scruples beckoned out-of-town tourists to the tony Rodeo Drive, past Cartier, Gucci, and I. Magnin, in search of the striped yellow awning that marked Giorgio Beverly Hills, the clubby, avant-garde designer boutique where stars like Barbra Streisand and Ali MacGraw shopped. Krantz spent a lot of time studying Giorgio in order to accurately paint her fictitious Scruples boutique as a fabulous facsimile. So the gawkers marched into Giorgio for a souvenir that captured the Hollywood mystique of it all: a $35 bottle of Giorgio Beverly Hills fragrance. For five years running, Giorgio sold more than $100 million worth of those three-ounce bottles each year—a demand so steady that stores around America couldn’t keep Giorgio in stock.
The movie-star lifestyle in a bottle: a Giorgio Beverly Hills 1982 advertisement.
The executives at fragrance giants like Estée Lauder, Coty, Revlon, and Elizabeth Arden were flummoxed. Other than Chanel No. 5, the action at the perfume counter had always been theirs—the New York establishment—until it shifted to Beverly Hills, where Giorgio owners Fred Hayman, a former hotel manager, and his fashion-stylist wife, Gale, exploited the reflected glory of their storied boutique. The Haymans were undercapitalized too—with reportedly only a $300,000 initial investment in the scent. But they wisely capitalized on the excitement and allure surrounding the Hollywood lifestyle, treating Giorgio the fragrance just like it was a celebrity. It seemed like a crazy idea. But it worked.
Giorgio was all swagger: a bodacious, original blend of florals, spiked with patchouli and musky vanilla, that lasted for hours and marked a woman as soon as she entered a room. It felt very 1980s: Stylish women were channeling actress Joan Collins on TV’s Dynasty in wearing big hair, tight leather pants, and mink coats—and the scents they liked to spritz were heavy and cloying like Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and Poison by Christian Dior. But Giorgio—with no designer pedigree or celebrity mascot—was still the most coveted, garnering the most buzz.
Women everywhere swallowed the hype—and joined the cult. For Giorgio’s rollout in Cleveland in 1984, a white stretch limousine whisked a gigantic perfume bottle from the airport to the Halle Brothers department store downtown, where crowds waited behind velvet ropes. Also that year, when shipments of the perfume finally arrived at Dayton’s department store in downtown Minneapolis, a skywriting plane above the city replied, THANK YOU, GIORGIO.
More than a decade before designer Giorgio Armani began hosting his own star-studded parties, the other Giorgio—this one that existed solely in a bottle—had its own “very black-tie” coming-out party on November 22, 1981, hosted by the Haymans—held under a yellow circus tent, where their 1952 Rolls-Royce with a GIORGIO vanity license plate was parked. Champagne and caviar flowed as TV camera crews captured all the stars who were there, such as Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Mark Harmon, Loretta Swit, Stella Stevens, Hugh O’Brian, Hal Linden, and Lorne Green. Merv Griffin crooned “You Know Who Wears It,” a new song created for Giorgio perfume.
Actress Pamela Mason assumed she’d be hobnobbing with stars and jet-setters, who already treated the Giorgio Beverly Hills boutique like their own private club. Imagine her amusement—to put it mildly—when she discovered the true nature of the Giorgio soiree. “It was a nightmare of a night, what we call a rat fuck,” she told author Steve Ginsberg in Reeking Havoc: The Unauthorized Story of Giorgio. “By that, I mean it’s just a crowd of so many people and the press. . . . [Fred Hayman] was exploiting that fragrance fantastically.”
Giorgio succeeded by such a ridiculous degree that at some point an alarm went off. If fake celebrity could be so potent, what would happen if you did a perfume with a real celebrity? And not just “a” celebrity. The celebrity. The most famous, the most glamorous, the most outrageous star in the Hollywood firmament: Elizabeth Taylor.
Elizabeth Taylor: Diamonds and Passion
It happened one night in 1987 at Spago, the swank Wolfgang Puck Beverly Hills hangout. Stepping out of a stretch limousine was the glorious Elizabeth Taylor, tanned and magnificent, those dazzling violet eyes set off by her teased black coiffure and diamond teardrop earrings. Her plunging décolletage was set off by a gown of spangled lavender satin with puffed sleeves, designed by Dynasty costumer Nolan Miller. It was the black-tie launch party for Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion, her first perfume, which came in a purple art deco bottle, packaged inside a lilac box.
Just what was a “celebrity perfume”? And why had the luminous Hollywood legend deigned to slap her name on some cheesy cologne, as if she needed to panhandle for dollars? Posing the question that was on everybody’s minds that night, a newswoman ventured tactfully to Taylor on the red carpet: “Why are you taking such a risk?”
La Taylor cocked her head jauntily, then volleyed back, grinning: “I’ve always taken risks, and perfume is something I’ve always adored. . . . I don’t know, it was just time to do something new. I had definite ideas about what I wanted—a floral, oriental—and I had all kinds of scents to play around with. I felt like a chemist gone mad, and it took about a year and a half and it was great fun.”
Was the violet packaging created to match her famous eyes? No, no, she countered playfully: “Purple is my favorite color. I don’t think I have purple eyes; I have red.”
The two-time best actress Oscar winner, with seven of her eight marriages behind her, hadn’t made a movie in years. She played the moment with grace and nonchalance. But Taylor was acting. Just like countless celebrities who would follow her in the future, she agreed to do a perfume with one objective: to make money. Unbeknownst to most people, the star who dripped in the world’s finest diamonds needed cold cash.
The Liz of the 1980s was a Hollywood legend—a coveted TV talk-show guest who hobnobbed with moguls like Malcolm Forbes. But with her movie career behind her, she’d had no steady source of income for years. The former child actress, whose film career was largely controlled by the powerful Hollywood studios, never knew the $20-million-a-picture free-agent paydays of a Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts.
In 1960, Taylor made headlines when she commanded a stunning $1 million ($7.6 million in today’s dollars) to star in Cleopatra. But by the ’80s, that was ancient history. Her main assets were a modest art collection that included a Matisse and all the diamond jewelry from her husbands and chums like Michael Jackson. Taylor lived large, with servants and employees enabling habits that burned through a lot of cash.
“Liz wasn’t liquid; she had no cash flow,” says Joe Spellman, a former executive vice president at cosmetics marketer Elizabeth Arden who directed the creative development of the Elizabeth Taylor fragrances and worked closely with Liz to develop White Diamonds. “She signed on because she needed the money.” So when she was approached to earn a tidy sum from her own perfume, Liz was ready to learn her lines for TV commercials and to make personal appearances at stores like Macy’s. In one TV spot for Passion, a luminous Liz cooed breathlessly: “Whether you know it or not, you’re a part of my family—and I thank you for unleashing the family secret of Passion to every woman and every man you meet.”
The terms of her deal—the first celebrity fragrance since Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Zig Zag from 1969—weren’t disclosed. But industry experts believe the terms today are in line with similar contracts for top celebrities, typically structured with a $3 million to $5 million initial payout, with royalty on sales, ranging from 1 to 5 percent. In any event, Passion came out of the gate as a bestseller, with estimated sales of more than $40 million at wholesale in its second year, when it was sold at fewer than two thousand retail locations, according to the fashion trade paper WWD.
What made Taylor so appealing to fragrance shoppers was the fact that she was larger than life, while still mired in the kinds of difficulties all women faced. “Elizabeth Taylor has had more problems—with men, with drugs and alcohol, with weight—that so many women can relate to,” says Spellman. “It’s like ‘I crash, I have to pick myself up. I’m vulnerable, I make mistakes, but I’m still here and I’m doing the best I can.’ That’s what makes for the empathy toward her.”
Elizabeth Taylor signing a poster for her first fragrance, Passion by Elizabeth Taylor, launched in 1987.
And because they felt empathy, even sympathy, for this preternaturally gorgeous, superglam celebrity, it allowed women to be genuinely happy for her when she fought back through her myriad troubles and appeared to be ascendant again.
That’s partially why her second fragrance, White Diamonds, the scent she introduced in 1991, had the promise to be far more lucrative even than Passion. The ’90s dawned as the best of times for Taylor—a moment when her fans rallied around her like never before. She was happy, healthy, and svelte again. Taylor had just completed treatment for the second time at the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse in Rancho Mirage, California, where she met and fell in love with a fellow patient, a construction worker named Larry Fortensky. Handsome and rugged—and twenty years her junior—Fortensky was her seventh husband and eighth marriage (counting twice with Richard Burton). He provided another sequel to Taylor’s storied life—one that the public cheered when the two recovering alcoholics got hitched in October 1991.
“She had lost weight, she was being attractive for him. It was the perfect storm, the sweet spot. What could be better than the wedding, Elizabeth Taylor and white diamonds?” says Spellman.
Arden executives were psyched about White Diamonds. “We really thought that it could be big,” Spellman says. “With White Diamonds, we did some tricks with the juice. Just like Giorgio, we used a twenty-five-percent concentration of oil, instead of twelve percent. It was heavier, it smelled beautiful. It was the recognition of the power of fragrance. A woman will say ‘I’ve gotten more compliments when I wear this fragrance,’ and she goes back and buys it again.”
The White Diamonds TV commercial, shot in grainy black-and-white like an art house film, would be referred to in-house by Arden executives as “Elizabeth Taylor’s last movie.”
Spellman says: “It was always important for us to treat this as a movie. We didn’t think of it as a commercial. This was also important for Taylor—this sense of scope. We were selling the movie that you bought as a bottle of fragrance.”
Filmed in Acapulco, the thirty-second spot was designed to look like a movie location on the beach—with snippets from scenes in front and behind the camera. It began with a private plane landing on a beach, paparazzi cameras aimed at Taylor, with fast cuts of handsome, tanned men in the middle of a card game. Taylor, splendid in off-the-shoulder white, ambles over, cooing, “Not so fast, comrade,” as she snatches off a diamond drop earring, then tosses it onto a pile of money on the game table. “These have always brought me luck,” she says. Then the announcer says, “White Diamonds, the intriguing fragrance from Elizabeth Taylor.”
The commercial was a huge hit, including a longer version that played before the trailers at movie theaters until the end of the year. Sales of White Diamonds soared that Christmas and every year since, always with the backdrop of that same commercial. It so perfectly fit the fragrance and showed a mature Liz Taylor at her prettiest, Arden executives agreed.
The fragrance royalties provided Taylor with security for the rest of her life. Says Spellman: “Elizabeth Taylor made more money from White Diamonds than from any other movie she had ever made in Hollywood.”
Elizabeth Taylor, who had moved audiences for generations, had moved a major market. She had conferred legitimacy and even prestige on a new category—celebrity fragrances—putting White Diamonds right up there in the big leagues with designer perfumes like Chanel No. 5.
After Liz, a number of celebrities tried to cash in at the fragrance counter, but they fizzled in a hurry, proving that Liz had something they lacked. But what was it?
What’s That Smell? Herb Alpert, Cher, and Joan Collins Storm the Perfume Counter
A good place to begin the search for an answer is the comical scramble of celebrities at the perfume counter, especially at Christmastime, back when fragrances were coveted holiday gifts that many women put near the top of their wish lists. Among the novelties were all those first-time fragrances by actresses, singers, athletes, and other celebrities that department stores promoted to the hilt. I spent a Saturday morning in November 1989 at Macy’s Herald Square watching Leonard Clinton, a dapper and determined young man in a tuxedo, who was one of the many professional spritzers canvassing the fragrance counters. His perfume bottle was cocked, aimed, and ready to spray the first outstretched wrist. “Ladies,” he recited his lines with brio, “stop and Listen.” Mostly women averted their eyes and scurried past him. Unfazed, Clinton pressed on. “They were dazzled and entertained by the excitement before they even smelled it,” he told me, staying heroically on message.
Somewhere in America, pop trumpeter Herb Alpert was hoping that spritzers like Clinton were connecting shoppers to Listen, his new fragrance, described as a “nose-tingling blend of grapefruit and eucalyptus,” formulated by experts inspired—according to the PR release—by listening to the sounds of Alpert.
And the celebrity scents just kept coming: Uninhibited by Cher, Spectacular by Joan Collins, Undeniable by Billy Dee Williams, Misha by Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as scents from French actress Catherine Deneuve, Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, Regine the international disco queen, Argentine tennis star Gabriela Sabatini, and Julio Iglesias. There was even Moments by Priscilla Presley—Elvis’s wife. The maker of Moments told me in an interview: “She remains in the minds of women in America as a fourteen-year-old who was involved in a great romance.”
But all too soon, these copycat celebrity fragrances began to stink up the joint—especially when the stars didn’t show up for photo ops. How many people could a store expect to turn out when a life-size cardboard cutout of Jaclyn Smith served as her stand-in when the former Charlie’s Angel couldn’t appear in person to promote her signature scent? Likewise, Dionne Warwick’s eponymous fragrance became famous only as the prize for the dancers on TV’s Soul Train.
Now we know in hindsight that the celebrity fragrances of the early 1990s were ahead of their time. People were still fascinated by designer fragrances from Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent, among others. Designer scents still made up more than 90 percent of the market, and that’s what people still wanted. The allure of celebrity had proven itself powerful, but not quite powerful enough to turn the established world of fashion upside down.
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The Stars of Dress-Down Nation
There used to be a time when a white shirt went with your intelligence. But there’s no reason to do this anymore.
—Ronald Hoffman, executive vice president of Alcoa Inc., the first US corporation to shift to everyday casual dress codes in 1992
By the early 1990s, winds of fashion had blown way past Paris and New York, all the way out to the West Coast. But it wasn’t the costume designers in Hollywood setting fashion trends again. It was three big apparel brands out West. Gap, Dockers, and Nike—all headquartered on the West Coast—were among the leading companies cashing in on the casual togs that everybody had now shifted to wearing all the time. As was now the pattern: The more famous the people who were identified wearing those brands, the more golden those and other casual labels became to consumers.