February 12, 2013
By Michael Stone
In a recent interview with MSN’s “The Grio,” Kimora Lee Simmons stated she and former husband Russell Simmons “laid the blueprint” for celebrity designed clothing lines. I think I speak for others when I say, really? Ms. Simmons has definitely carved out a place for herself in the fashion world, and I applaud her for that, but to proclaim she is a founding father of sorts in celebrity fashion is a bit presumptuous.
To give credit where credit is due, Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm, that’s right, “Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm,” has had very successful years since it launched in 1992. Not to discount Ms. Simmons’ contribution to the brand after her work began, but it was Russell Simmons’ original vision and design that made Phat Farm such a unique style in the marketplace. In truth, there are a number of celebrities who ventured into fashion long before Kimora and Russell Simmons. More importantly, there are other individuals who simply played a heavier hand in shaping the celebrity fashion industry.
From a purely chronological point-of-view, Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm was not the first celebrity foray into fashion. In fact, dating back much further, Esther Williams, a promising swimmer who would have competed in the 1940 Olympics if not for the outbreak of WWII and who later became a movie star, launched her own swimsuit collection in the 1950s. Also, Gloria Vanderbilt, part of the well-known Vanderbilt family and a Broadway actress, was one of the earliest developers of designer blue jeans in 1970s when she licensed her name. Over the years, there have been a number of successful, groundbreaking predecessors, and Sears, the leading store of its day, was one of the most out-of-the-box thinking retailers. Cheryl Tiegs, one of Sports Illustrated’s longest running super models, launched a line of clothing for women exclusively at Sears (then Sears Roebuck & Co.) in 1981, followed by Evonne Goolagong, the world’s No.1 tennis player in the early 1980s, who launched a line of apparel in 1983, also exclusively at Sears. They may not be Sears’ anchor brands today (both are gone from retail shelves, but they both had successful runs), but they did lay the foundation for future lines, like the Kardashian Kollection, which is currently at Sears. In 1985, former “Charlie’s Angels” television star Jaclyn Smith broke ground on her own line of women’s clothing with Kmart, and in the 25+ years since (the brand is still running strong at Kmart), more than 100 million women have purchased items from her collection, according to Success. Today, Kmart continues to partner with celebrities in hopes to recreate such success, most recently adding Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine to its roster.
Celebrities have come to realize that a well-designed line has a lot of potential to elevate one’s brand. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who in the interest of full disclosure are former clients, helped illustrate that premise when they launched their clothing line at Walmart in 2000. The line was very successful, and the strong connection it built with consumers allowed others to understand the value of celebrity licensing (as well as paved the way for the Olsens to establish their credibility as fashion icons and designers of future lines, The Row, Elizabeth and James, and Olsenboye at JC Penny.)
Kimora Lee Simmons has done well to maintain relevancy without the support of successful new movies or record releases, which she points out in her interview. Not an unfair assessment, although she has used reality TV. However, if there is anyone who epitomizes a self-made celebrity designer, without using film, music or another talent, it’s Kathy Ireland. In the middle of her career as a supermodel for Sports Illustrated, Ms. Ireland launched a line of socks at Walmart in 1993, which led to her own apparel line in 1994, all of which became top sellers. Today, Kathy Ireland has moved beyond socks to home design, bridal and outdoor, and has turned her licensing program into a $2 billion dollar empire, Kathy Ireland Worldwide. Now that’s a “blueprint” that any celebrity can aspire to follow.
Should Ms. Simmons be paying homage to every celebrity that ever designed clothes? No. The past is littered with failures. She should, however, tip her hat to a few that not only came before her, but also to those who truly defined celebrity fashion.