The Fabulous Empire of Hollywood’s Fashion Guru

Straddling class (dressing Anne Hathaway at the Oscars) with mass (a QVC line), Rachel Zoe brought taste to a style-starved L.A. Now with her brand leveraged into Bravo, books and more, the only stylist with a household name has a fashion plate that’s overflowing.
Douglas Friedman

Five days after the curtain has dropped on the 83rd Academy Awards, the postshow congratulatory orchids are still arriving at Rachel Zoe’s home every few hours. The latest: a 4-footer from Giorgio Armani with a handwritten note thanking the celebrity stylist for showcasing the night’s “most spectacular red-carpet look … on stage.”

The revered designer is referring to Anne Hathaway’s off-the-shoulder cobalt-blue satin Armani Privé gown, No. 5 of eight total looks the actress wore on Oscar night (including a vintage Valentino on the red carpet, a stunning white, strapless Grecian Givenchy Haute Couture for the opening number and a metallic-beaded, flapper-style Oscar de la Renta that begged to be shimmied) all curated by Team Zoe, a seven-member army that tends to their 37-weeks-pregnant commanding officer’s every need.

Today, it’s a Coffee Bean run for iced tea, though Zoe’s third-trimester constant must-have is a liter of sparkling water, which she’ll down in an hour, straight from the bottle. With the extra pounds from her pregnancy, all contained in a tiny soccer ball-like shape that’s easily camouflaged, Zoe’s face is plump and full of color. She doesn’t glow; she radiates a sort of serenity you rarely see on her Bravo TV show, The Rachel Zoe Project, where she is constantly running ragged and under the gun of scheduled glamour.

At 39, her ascent from stylist to star to brand name is nothing short of extraordinary. “I’m not sure that most people can name another stylist,” says Rodger Berman, her husband of 13 years and the president of Rachel Zoe Inc. since July.

Zoe’s success puts her in the company of such expert TV marketers as Donald Trump and Emeril Lagasse. Her knack for affordable elegance brought her Luxe Rachel Zoe outerwear and accessories line to QVC alongside launches by Kiehl’s, NARS Cosmetics and Dyson. Since its September 2009 launch, more than 260,000 units from the Luxe line (priced from $25-$325) have been ordered on QVC. “Its performance has far exceeded our expectations for the first year,” says Doug Howe, QVC’s executive vp strategic multichannel planning and merchandising. And her influence on fashion — from her brand ambassador position at Piperlime to the magazine spreads she styles to the red-carpet fashions she rolls out every awards season and the merch she moves for designers when she uses their clothes — brings to mind Zoe’s idol, Anna Wintour. 

“When you’re a creative person, whether you design clothing or homes, your brain is constantly moving,” Zoe says. “What is beautiful? What gets you going? I have a 99 percent accuracy rate on my gut. I wish I could be that good with people. But projects, I’m pretty right-on about.”

Zoe’s house is all dark-wood floors and clean lines, its shuttered blinds cozy. Off the foyer, an assistant outfitted with full walkie-talkie regalia is circumnavigating a corner of baby shower gifts, which, like the nursery upstairs, are to be left untouched until said child — a boy — arrives. “We’re superstitious,” explains Berman, a former investment banker who met Zoe 19 years ago at a restaurant in Washington, where she worked as a hostess. “It’s a Jewish thing.”

Berman just wrapped a 45-minute weekly check-in call with one of nearly a dozen professional advisers (intellectual property attorneys, labor attorneys, corporate attorneys, transactional attorneys, business managers, agents, PR reps) now on retainer with RZI. The company also employs 14 full-time staffers who manage The Zoe Report, her daily digital newsletter with a readership of 250,000; the Rachel Zoe Collection, a contemporary line launching in the fall with licensing partner Li & Fung at such stores as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman (prices range from $250-$700); The Rachel Zoe Project, her Bravo reality show that drew 1.1 million viewers to its Season 3 finale (up 31 percent from the previous year; the show is due to return in the fall); and her packed schedule. Listed on the calendar for today’s date: THR shoot; pregnancy full-term.

As the two pose together for a shot, it seems as opportune a moment as any for Zoe to announce the latter to her husband. “Mazel, honey! High five!” marvels the dad-to-be, meeting his wife’s hand halfway and borrowing a slogan made famous by Bravo executive vp Andy Cohen, a key figure in anointing Zoe and her husband to celebrity-couple status, however accidental. “I never wanted to be famous,” Zoe, who grew up in Short Hills, N.J., later declares.

“Rachel is an expert in her field, at the top of her game, and she’s addictive to watch,” Cohen says. He helped persuade Zoe to try television at a time when Project Runway, Top Chef and other trade-based reality shows had viewers buzzing. “The other star of The Rachel Zoe Project is the fashion,” he adds. “But as you go deeper into any reality show, more colors of the rainbow start to come out.” Like her slang, which includes the stupefied “I die” and the exultant “Ah-mazing.” Says Cohen, “The Zoe-isms are bananas.”

Despite finding success among the masses, she still has the respect of fashion elites. “Rachel Zoe has become a great, great star,” Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley says. “She’s as famous, if not more famous, than the people she dresses. I only wish I could have Rachel Zoe’s salary, her house and a TV show.”

Straddling both ends of the fashion spectrum is Zoe’s specialty. “No one wants to stay in the tabloids, but it’s actually not a terrible place to start,” she once said. Indeed, getting her start outfitting the likes of Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan not just for movie premieres and parties but also for their afternoon Starbucks runs handed Zoe an express pass to fashion VIP, where she was met with skepticism. But there’s no doubt tabloid culture had a direct impact on the public’s sense of style. Who can forget the oversized sunglasses every starlet wore circa 2005? Or the Nouveau Boho uniform of hobo bag, maxi dress and wedge platforms?

“The secret to Rachel’s success is the absolute clarity of her taste and her uncynical passion for fashion,” Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Glenda Bailey says. “You can immediately identify a Rachel Zoe look — retro, glamorous, bohemian — but she still makes her clients look like individuals. It comes as no surprise that Rachel has her own brand, because her best advertisement is herself.”

Yards away on her table is a reminder of just how visible she is: a 6-inch-high stack of magazines — People, US Weekly, Life & Style and the like — marked up with colored stickies pointing to Zoe clients. In this line of work, validation still comes in column inches, though having been on the receiving end of her share of gossip items — scrutinizing everything from her weight (too little) to her fee (too much) — a simple credit properly identifying the designer can sometimes be enough. And on page after page, the results of her work are there, from virtually every red carpet, every week.

So does Zoe feel powerful? “No,” she says with an audible snort. “Oprah is power — she is everything. Martha, she can make a house out of a piece of paper. I have incredible respect for women like that because it’s not easy. People fight you every step of the way — they pull you down as soon as you get up. And the reality is, it’s harder for women. It’s like if a girl has fooled around with a lot of guys, she’s a slut. But if guys do it, they’re cool.”

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With that in mind, Zoe has no qualms confessing that she is a “whore for fashion.” Her success is predicated on that most basic tenet, neither fame nor riches but passion. “I’ve never been driven by money; I’m driven by the path,” she says. “And fear. The scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life was start a collection. Being a designer was one of those things where I was, like, ‘Never, never, never!’ Leave it to my heroes. Then I started to itch for it. People would say to me, ‘You’re consulting with designers, giving people your creative, designing gowns … why not?’ ”

Zoe describes the look of her collection with almost a logical purpose. “My mission was to create wonderfully tailored, luxurious clothes — classic suits, tux jackets and faux fur — where they give off the feeling of luxury without having to pay for it,” she says. 

“Retailers are buying it,” says InStyle fashion director Hal Rubenstein, who has known Zoe for eight years. “I think people were expecting to see Rachel open up her closet and have it spill out there, but the collection was not about her. She put together a line that she thought would sell.” Alan Chartash, chief strategy officer at Li & Fung, who is putting no fewer than 50 staffers (in marketing, sales, production and design) to work on the Rachel Zoe Collection, concurs. “Rachel is all about being original,” he says. “She knew exactly what she wanted from the beginning, and we were very much aligned with that.”

Adds Rubenstein: “In the end, the public decides whose taste they want to emulate, not magazine editors or people sitting in the front rows. And the public has decided that they like Rachel.”

So how did she get here, to the top of her trade and earning as much as $10,000 per job, according to one commercial client, while rubbing elbows with the likes of Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs? Striking a pose in a vintage Halston gown and 5-inch Brian Atwood pumps as TV cameras document her every wobbly move? Presenting her own line to the highly critical fashion industry and then the world, where she stands to make as much as $20 million?

Like the Cinderella stories Zoe hopes to tell when she puts a movie star like Cameron Diaz in Chanel or when she gets free rein over the Valentino archives to find that perfect red-carpet look for Hathaway, hers has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. After her first job as a fashion assistant in New York at the now-defunct YM magazine (her salary: $18,000), Zoe went freelance at 25 and began styling for the likes of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys from a one-bedroom West Village apartment. “I worked 20-something hours a day, seven days a week,” Zoe says. “I was completely obsessed with fashion and spent all my money flying to Paris to go to couture because that was the dream. I crashed shows, stood in line for Marc Jacobs. Designers were my heroes and my celebrities. It hasn’t really worn off.”

Zoe’s music-heavy résumé eventually led her to Jessica Simpson, whom she styled during her 2003-05 Newlyweds era. Zoe even made an appearance on the MTV reality series, foreshadowing her own future on television. (Worth noting: Simpson’s fashion line did $750 million in retail in 2010. “Everyone was saying whatever about Jessica and her Daisy Dukes,” Zoe snaps, “and Jessica is laughing all the way to the bank.”)

“A stylist is a behind-the-scenes job,” she says. “I’m never a star when I’m with a star — ever. Back then, I was very insecure about that. Even now, if you watch me on a red carpet, I’m physically uncomfortable. I can’t strike a good pose to save my life. Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s a part of brand-building. It’s just part of my job.”

When Zoe moved to Los Angeles in 2002, she did so with a clear purpose: “to merge the worlds of Hollywood and fashion. … Because I felt that there was this huge disconnect,” she says. “I didn’t understand why the most glamorous place in the world wasn’t using the most glamorous clothes.” She stops short of calling the L.A. fashion scene a joke but describes it as “very different. Ten years ago, you couldn’t find a fashion photographer or couture anywhere around here,” she says. “Coming out, I was fascinated by the red carpet and Old Hollywood in particular, so I was like, ‘You’ve gotta mix things up. You need to give some edge, some glamour, take some chances.’ ”

The first celebrity to gamble on Zoe was Jennifer Garner. A last-minute Emmy emergency precipitated the call, which Zoe answered with a custom Narciso Rodriguez dress. “It was so much work, and I was so nervous, but it was incredible making a woman feel that beautiful,” Zoe recalls. “Jen and I started this love affair after that.” Kate Hudson, Demi Moore, Diaz, Kate Beckinsale and Debra Messing followed, raising Zoe’s profile.

These days, Zoe’s job description also includes author (her 2008 book, Style A to Zoe was a New York Times best-seller); executive producer (Zoe retains the credit on The Rachel Zoe Project); and editor in chief and publisher (the aforementioned The Zoe Report, which runs “like a magazine,” Berman says).

Take her TV show salary (a Bravolebrity typically makes about $50,000 an episode), revenue from her product lines and add her styling earnings, and Zoe is easily clearing seven figures, but Berman says he’s only recently felt like he can breathe a little easier. “Last year was the first time when I felt like, ‘OK, we’re not gonna go bankrupt.’ But, ‘Mo’ money, mo’ problems.’ To my wife, it just means she can spend more.”

Styling celebrities and a few private clients (says Zoe, “Sometimes princesses will fly in for three days from Dubai or Russia or London — that’s always fun”) remains RZI’s bread and butter, but she’s not looking to expand the roster anytime soon. “That’s not to say I wouldn’t take on new clients,” Zoe says, “if I was really excited about someone and if it was the right fit.” And if that person were, say, Snooki waving a $10,000 fee? “I don’t have time,” coos Zoe, who says she’s never seen an episode of Jersey Shore. “No really, because she’s so out there right now, that’s like a full-time job. It’s nothing against Snooki.”

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Relationships mean everything in fashion, but they can often be tricky to navigate: from the A-list hierarchy that competes for first pick at designers’ off-the-runway looks to assistants who leave under dubious circumstances (Zoe’s breakup with Taylor Jacobsen provided much of the TV drama that solidified Rach and Rodg’s reality careers) to ex-clients who have seen their status diminish (of former muse Lohan’s legal woes, Zoe says: “We had a great run. I wish her the best and hope that everything works out.”). Even designers at the top of their game can be ostracized in an instant. Look no further than John Galliano, whose recent “I love Hitler” remarks resulted in his swift firing from Dior.

What does Zoe (born Rachel Zoe Rosenzweig) make of the spate of anti-Semitic remarks? “It’s a little insane and super-sad,” she says. “Anti-Semitism, racism or any prejudice is not something I tolerate. I’ve fired clients because they were anti-Semitic, or anti-everything, except what they were. … I’ve known John Galliano and his boyfriend for years. I don’t know enough about it to make a clear statement, but if it’s true, it’s tragic.”

Such affiliations can hurt the bottom line. In the early days of her styling business, working with such reputed party girls as Richie and Mischa Barton invited the sting of the press, who accused Zoe of plying her clients with drugs to keep them skinny. Zoe, an admitted hippie who walked down the aisle to the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” swears she’s never touched a drug in her life. As for the 30 Dead shows she attended (compared with Berman’s 91), she was no doubt the only girl at Washington’s RFK Stadium wearing heeled wedges under her kaftan — and under the influence of nothing more than a wine cooler.  “One of the main reasons we decided to do the show was because she had such negative press,” Berman says. “It was almost like, ‘Well, we should probably just show how you really are.’ ”

The strategy worked, and Berman remembers the shift distinctly. “Before the show aired, if you saw a picture of Rachel, the comment might say, ‘I hate that skinny bitch.’ After the first episode, it changed to, ‘I really wanted to hate her, but she seems so nice.’ ” Now, Zoe notes with relief and glee, “Knock wood, people have been pretty kind. The thing that always upset me is that the negative press was never based on anything factual. If it was true, I might have been like, ‘Shit, you figured me out. Busted!’”

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As Zoe prepares for the arrival of baby boy Berman, she’s slowing down for the first time since, well, ever. She skipped the shows in Paris and Milan this year, opting to stay close to home, where she’s usually in bed by 9:45 watching one of the three Twilight movies. Her client list has mellowed, too, and now includes moms (Garner, Moore) and mostly scandal-free actresses (Eva Mendes, Liv Tyler). It’s no coincidence. “I can say in all honesty that being pregnant, working with the kind of people I work with and being this businesswoman has been a really wonderful, drama-free time in my life,” Zoe says.

And she’s looking ahead, too. “I have this visual of me and Rodg living in this amazing house that’s not too big in the south of France, where we go for four months and just sit on the beach and make jewelry. Not to sell, just for fun and therapy. Like literally, take rocks and shells and glue them.”

But distant daydreams of her future as a beach bum are interrupted by a business thought that requires immediate attention. “My next tier rollout with Li & Fung will definitely be jewelry,” she says, eyes widening with anticipation.

With reporting by Rebecca Leffler.           

WHAT THE INDUSTRY IS SAING ABOUT RACHEL ZOE

Rachel has so much knowledge. People need that kind of advice, and she does it with style. Plus, she’s a nice lady.” — Andre Leon Talley, Vogue

At my runway show, a good stylist who has an ongoing relationship with a celebrity, they know when the right outfit is walking down the runway. Rachel certainly knows. And she orders it quickly. She trusts her instincts.” — Michael Kors

With every awards show, there’s always that inevitable question: Who looked awful? That question gets asked less and less and less because celebrities have gotten smart — they know the right stylists to go to. And Rachel was one of those people.” — Hal Rubenstein, InStyle

Rachel is a one-of-a-kind character, and the only language she speaks
is fashion. Before Rachel Zoe, styling was something people didn’t really understand. Now they do.” — Andy Cohen, Bravo

 

 

 

 

 

 

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