Reality's Fashion Cash Machine
What's as uneven as a bad hem? The fate of style stars post-show, as real designers from TV struggle while Jessica Simpson nears $1 billion in sales.
Despite the continued popularity of shows like Lifetime's Project Runway and Bravo's The Fashion Show, fashion-competition reality shows have yet to provide a profitable launch pad for aspiring designers (as, say, Bravo's Top Chef has for restaurateurs). With the exception of fan-favorite Christian Siriano, who once dressed the likes of Victoria Beckham and launched a short-lived collection at online store Spiegel, not one contestant has designed a collection that, after 10 seasons of Project Runway, has been distributed through a national retailer. Compare that to Jessica Simpson, from Newlyweds, a reality show that hasn't aired since early 2005, whose collection of apparel, footwear, jewelry and accessories has generated an estimated half- billion dollars in revenue. Barneys creative consultant Simon Doonan says, "Gals like Jessica Simpson have massive, adoring fan bases. In terms of name recognition, the Project Runway kids don't stand a chance, no matter how talented they are. Simpson is always going to sell more halter tops. It's a marketing thing."
In March, NBC attempted to remake the fashion-competition mold with Ben Silverman's Fashion Star by using representatives of such retail partners as H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue as judges on the show. The day after each episode -- starring Simpson and another reality veteran, Nicole Richie, as well as fashion expert Elle Macpherson and designer John Varvatos -- viewers can purchase winning designs at the three stores. "Fashion Star transformed viewers into consumers," says Women's Wear Daily West Coast bureau chief Marcy Medina. "There's no lag time like with shows where the winner might need months to get a collection into stores. By then, the world could have forgotten about them."
While the H&M and Macy's collections have sold out, NBC took its time renewing the series, what with modest but steady ratings and an average of 4.9 million viewers. The show's retail partners, the backbone of its unique format, have signed on for another round. NBC calls the show "the No. 4 most upscale unscripted series" on major networks, but a network consultant says: "The show has failed to carry any real cultural significance; its lack of buzz is evidence."
Meanwhile, the landscape continues to be dominated by reality stars-turned designers who sell tons of fashion product. Here's a look at the most successful.
Newlyweds: Jessica Simpson
Shoes, accessories, jewelry, apparel
Jessica Simpson may have trouble differentiating chicken from tuna fish, but she's got great mass-market business instincts. The celebrity mentor on NBC's Fashion Star is the face and name behind the fashion industry's most successful celebrity clothing and accessory line; since its launch in 2005, its products have generated an estimated half-billion dollars in sales. A modern contemporary showcase of the star's own style of feminine frocks and platform pumps, the Jessica Simpson Collection began with a footwear line (average price: $90) in 2005 and was leveraged to the hilt by the popularity of MTV's Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica reality series, on which Simpson shined as the ditzy but lovable wife of 98 Degrees' frontman Nick Lachey. The bubbly blonde, also known for playing Daisy Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard movie, launched her collection in conjunction with Camuto Group, which paid her a reported $15 million likeness fee plus a percent of sales for use of her name and photo on products and marketing. The seven-year-old brand is now represented in 23 categories, having rolled out sunglasses, handbags and jewelry and then lingerie and apparel, and the merchandise can be purchased at national retailers such as Macy's and Nordstrom. "Viewers find celebrities like Jessica Simpson relatable yet inspirational," says Medina. "There's a familiarity and a trust, and the customers want to feel that they can actually own a little piece of their style." In 2011, it was widely reported that the 31-year-old Simpson -- who, along with fiance Eric Johnson, welcomed daughter Maxwell on May 1 -- would take home a staggering $750 million in profits for 2010 sales, but Forbes estimated that her deal would mean she more likely yielded $20 million. Today, the day-to-day machinations of the lifestyle label are overseen by Vince Camuto, leaving the celebrity designer to ponder more pressing questions, such as how to make Fashion Star more of an unequivocal success, just like her celebrity brand.
► ESTIMATED TOTAL SALES BY 2013: $1 billion
A Simple Life: Nicole Richie
Jewelry, accessories, apparel
As the quick-witted sidekick to Paris Hilton, Richie, 30, hit the reality zeitgeist in 2003 with Fox's A Simple Life. Five seasons later, she launched with renowned jeweler Pascal Mouawad her House of Harlow 1960 collection, with vintage-meets-rocker statement pieces including Art Deco cocktail rings with leather trim. Recently, Richie introduced Harlow shoes, like gold leather boots for $158, and handbags, such as reptile-print clutches for $195, sold at L.A.-area boutiques, Nordstrom and Shopbop.com. In early 2011, Richie launched a second line of clothing called Winter Kate (both lines are named after her daughter, Harlow Winter Kate). Featuring fringed suede jackets at $495, the line, sold in high-end department stores, embraces the '70s-inspired boho chic for which the former reality star is known. According to a branding expert, Richie's lines combined are estimated to have made about $55 million in sales -- though the designer has only seen 5 percent, equal to a $2.75 million take-home.
► ESTIMATED TOTAL SALES: $55 million
The Rachel Zoe Project: Rachel Zoe
Jewelry, apparel, accessories
"I would never call myself a celebrity designer," Says Zoe, 40, who shot to fame as a stylist to such stars as Simpson, Richie and Britney Spears before catching the attention of Bravo execs. In 2008, The Rachel Zoe Project premiered, garnering her an average of 1.4 million viewers by season four and enabling Zoe to design and launch her Luxe jewelry line for QVC (which has since expanded into apparel and accessories). The boho-glam line sold $35,000 in the first minute and pulled in $2 million, of which Zoe saw a small percentage. However, the collection acted as a gateway for her self-titled Rachel Zoe contemporary line of apparel. Backed by Li & Fung Ltd., the 65-piece debut appeared in 210 department stores in 2011 with an impressive 85 percent sell-through and $4 million in sales, says a branding expert, though it's likely Zoe has only seen about $500,000 in profits. "The show helped," says Zoe, "but I hope the clothes speak for themselves."
► ESTIMATED TOTAL SALES: $6 million
The Hills: Lauren Conrad
Jewelry, apparel, accessories, shoes
Lauren Conrad hasn't been on television since 2009, but the star of MTV's docudrama The Hills has managed to transition from soapy reality star to fashion-brand head with the success of her two apparel lines: the recession-friendly LC for Lauren Conrad, featuring vintage-inspired jewelry and flowery garments, which launched in fall 2009 at Kohl's, and her self-backed Paper Crown collection, which bowed last fall. The latter, a classically feminine contemporary line, is sold at high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Conrad's line at Kohl's, with its mass-market consumer appeal, has proved lucrative: She receives a 4 percent backend on annual sales of roughly $60 million. According to a branding expert, that's an estimated $2.4 million a year. (Kohl's has posted a double-digit sales increase in 2011 for all its celebrity or priority lines; the chain also works with Jennifer Lopez and skateboarder Tony Hawk.) Unlike some other reality designers, the 25-year-old Laguna Beach, Calif., native actually studied fashion: She spent four semesters at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (which doubled as a plotline on her MTV series, as did the made-for-TV internship she held at Teen Vogue). "The relatability of the star enables selling to the mass market," says Medina, "which, because it includes a wider range of customers, is the key to success."
► TOTAL SALES: $60 million
Real Housewives: 10+ Housewives
Apparel, accessories, shoes
The Housewives franchise has doubled as an unparalleled business platform for Bravo's stars. Case in point: Former New York City housewife Bethenny Frankel sold her Skinnygirl cocktails line, including premade low-cal margaritas, for $120 million last year; she has since ventured into shapewear and skin care. Today, nearly every Housewives star has looked to monetize their newfound celebrity -- and that includes the fast-growing network itself, which now receives a percentage of its talent's business revenue; insiders estimate the value of the Housewives franchise alone at $500 million. At least 10 stars have developed their own burgeoning fashion labels that may have as much as $10 million in sales, says a branding expert. From Orange County's Gretchen Rossi, who designs the Gretchen Christine handbag collection, which sold nearly 1,000 units at $129 to $279 a pop in the first 50 minutes of sales on Shop NBC; to New York City's Jill Zarin, who heads Skweez Couture shapewear, which may see $1 million in first-year sales; to Beverly Hills' Adrienne Maloof, who launched a popular line of footwear, priced from $199, at Macy's and Lord & Taylor, these Housewives define mompreneurialism.
► ESTIMATED TOTAL SALES: $10 million
Keeping Up with the Kardashians: The Kardashians
Apparel, jewelry, accessories
The Kardashian kollection appeared in more than 400 Sears department stores in August and, despite MSNBC reporting that the retailer was dissatisfied with the performance of the casual, formfitting, oft-animal-printed clothing and accessories priced at $20 to $99 per piece, the collection recently has expanded into the home category. "It's one of the absolute priority lines for Sears in terms of positioning and performance," says Brian Dow, head of the branded lifestyle department at the APA agency. "It's well known in licensing circles to be doing extremely well. It's rocking." The brand is estimated to have posted upward of $200 million in sales in its first 12 months, including additional revenue from the collection's presence in more than 300 stores in Australia, where viewership of Keeping Up With the Kardashians has increased more than 900 percent since its season-one debut. Despite controversy over authenticity -- both handbag designer Monica Botkier and jeweler Alexis Bittar claimed the Kardashians copied some of their designs -- sales of the line have met the company's expectations. "Sears never would have expanded into 72 additional SKUs in linens and bath accessories," says Dow, "if the fashion lifestyle collection wasn't doing well."
► ESTIMATED TOTAL SALES: $200 million