Celebrity Fashion Brand Founders From Nicole Richie to Drew Barrymore Talk Strategy

Nicole Richie DNTE9312
Courtesy of Nicole Richie

Hollywood is a town filled with labels, some more literal than others. With so much attention placed on street style, thanks to paparazzi photos and social media, the inevitable “who are you wearing?” is no longer limited to the red carpet. So it should come as little surprise that many stars have taken matters into their own hands by creating their own, often eponymous, clothing lines. The Olsen twins’ and Jaclyn Smith’s are among the most successful actor-fronted fashion labels, but newcomers like Reese Witherspoon, Melissa McCarthy and Nikki Reed are waiting in the wings.

When Witherspoon’s Southern lifestyle brand Draper James launched in May, the e-commerce site — which features apparel, accessories and home decor — reportedly sold out of cotton tote bags (at $165 a pop) thanks to an appearance on the Oscar winner’s Instagram account. That doesn’t mean investors were initially eager to get involved.

Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green was apprehensive about financing a celebrity-owned company, but changed her mind after film executives vouched for Witherspoon’s work ethic, and invested $10 million (adding to the previous $7 million the brand had raised). Draper James opened its first retail store last month in Nashville, and has plans to branch into Dallas; Charleston, S.C.; and Atlanta over the next couple years. “We want to be very disciplined in our approach to a retail rollout,” Draper James chief executive officer Andrea Hyde told WWD.

Few brands have had as much longevity as “Charlie’s Angels” star Jaclyn Smith, whose namesake label, “The Jaclyn Smith Collection,” recently celebrated 30 years. She believes the key to success is listening to customers and taking a hands-on approach. “It’s not just about lending your name, it’s the day-to-day contact and work you do with your team,” she says, noting that over 100 million women have purchased her clothes. Still a Kmart favorite, her line encompasses three departments: apparel, seasonal/outdoor living and home.

Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen’s the Row is also still going strong, and has contributed to the sisters’ estimated $300 million combined net worth. The duo, who got their start working with Walmart on their first clothing line when they were 12, launched the label in 2006, with a minimalist 19-look collection of luxurious basics. It’s since grown to include ready-to-wear, eyewear and handbags. The twins also operate contemporary collection Elizabeth & James, and the teen-targeted Olsenboye label available exclusively at JCPenney.

Founded six years ago, Nicole Richie’s House of Harlow 1960 is also alive and well. What began as a jewelry line has since expanded to include ready-to-wear, eyewear, footwear and handbags. In 2012, Richie’s success led to a more accessible, boho chic line called the Nicole Richie Collection for QVC. “I design things that I truly want to wear or want in my home,” says Richie, who next wants to design for a younger generation. “I find that if you follow your own compass, it usually leads you in the right direction.”

Newer to the game is Kate Hudson’s Fabletics — an active-wear, yoga and workout clothing subscription service founded two years ago, which just expanded into retail stores in California, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey and Ohio. (“I’m excited to make our activewear designs even more accessible to customers,” Hudson told Variety.) Another debut project, Drew Barrymore’s Flower Eyewear, launched this year as an offshoot of her previously established Flower Beauty collection, with both available nationwide at Walmart. “It’s my OCD love-child,” joked Barrymore of the brand.

And then there’s Jessica Alba’s the Honest Company. It’s hardly a fashion brand, but looks are at the forefront — “Today, people live every part of their lives with style,” Alba says. Having debuted four years ago as a chic diaper and nontoxic baby product-deliv- ery service, the company is now valued at around $1.7 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“I wanted effective, safe, beautifully designed products that are convenient to get,” said Alba when honoring leading entrepreneur and Honest Company backer Brian Lee at this year’s Alliance Impact Awards. “He made my vision into a sustainable business that would change the way people approach their everyday needs.” Her company has since expanded to include trendy baby carriers and diaper bags, and Alba notes that packaging and design are just as important as a quality product.

The allure of fashion is obvious: Show them the money. In an age when films and television projects don’t necessarily pay what they once did, brand-building is another potential source of revenue. According to WWD, “Rates for apparel licenses can range from 5% of sales at a mass-market retailer, to 8% for a mid-tier department store, to 12% for a high-end shop.”

Meanwhile, some opt for an equity stake in a brand’s parent company, like Cameron Diaz, who acts as artistic director for footwear and accessories label Pour La Victoire.

Some projects may be born out of vanity or the desire for a big payday, but for McCarthy, it was a matter of necessity. She recently launched Melissa McCarthy Seven7 after seeing a need for stylish plus-sized clothing. The collection comes in sizes 4 to 28, and is sold at Lane Bryant, Macy’s, HSN and on her website.

Reed’s new line of vegan purses proved equally personal. As a longtime animal advocate, the actress wanted fashionable, cruelty-free choices, so she turned to Freedom of Animals to lend her support. “It’s not a temporary collaboration or a capsule collection. This is a lifelong partnership,” she says of her new collection made from recycled plastics, and available at freedomofanimals.com.

And Reed defends the brand’s price point (ranging from $280-$420). “I get a lot of open comments on social media about price points and people wondering why $280 is what you sell something for,” she says. “It gives me an opportunity to go, ‘Do you realize that it costs five times the amount to produce in this country as it would to mass produce overseas?’ ”

Spoken like a fashion mogul in the making.

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