For the last few years, celebrity names have been landing on clothing labels almost as often as they land on Page Six.
The perennially shirtless Matthew McConaughey launched J.K. Livin beachwear, octogenarian Cloris Leachman unspooled her flowy Clorisline and Donald Trump tied his name to neckties.
Then, earlier this summer, fashion industry bible Women's Wear Daily declared that celebrity lines had lost their luster, citing Jennifer Lopez's Sweetface label, Heidi Montag's Heidiwood and Mandy Moore's Mblem T-shirt line as the most recent casualties.
But don't write off Leachman's muumuus just yet. Though experts agree that the competition is getting tougher, the public's interest in celebrities is at an all-time high. And some suggest celebrity currency may even rise in the apparel market, now that designer currency is diminishing.
The celebrity clothing business is "a lot more selective than it used to be," said Andy Cohan, co-chief executive of Los Angeles-based licensing firm ACI Licensing, which has brokered deals for Daisy Fuentes, Mariah Carey, Kristin Davis and others. "But it's still viable, particularly in the mid-tier and mass-market level."
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y., agrees. "It used to be if you were a celeb you only wanted to go upscale, that was the perception," Cohen said. "And four or five years ago, when Martha Stewart went to Kmart, everyone went, 'Huh?' But now there is this movement of celebrities being more in touch with the masses. It's countercultural nouveau chic to go down market. It's no longer about the car you drive or the jet you have. It's Angelina Jolie driving a Prius. It's being one with the world."
Even now, in the midst of the economic downturn, new celebrity brands are launching at all price points. Miley Cyrus and designer Max Azria teamed up for a new line of casual separates starting at $6 in Wal-Mart stores. Gwyneth Paltrow's upscale line of jersey separates for Zoe Tees ($225 for a cotton tank top) just landed in Matches in London. Lindsay Lohan is joining Ungaro as its "artistic advisor," a newly created position. Nicole Richie, who gave birth to her second child Wednesday, has a new Nicole line of maternity wear for A Pea in the Pod that features $58 leggings and $148 smocked maxi-dresses.
Lauren Conrad's LC for Kohl's line launches in October with drapey tops, blazers and jeans from $20 to $60. Exclusive to the mass retailer, the line replaces Conrad's more expensive contemporary brand that flopped with prices in the $250 range.
"She has high awareness and fashion credibility with the younger fashion consumer because of her MTV show and having been at Teen Vogue," said Julie Gardner, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Kohl's. "Her fan base is loyal. She is well-suited to those who recognize and seek a California lifestyle."
Thanks to weekly tabloid magazines and up-to-the-minute blog commentary, the whole world is a red carpet. With paparazzi documenting celebrities dashing out for lattes while wearing Ugg boots or shopping in the latest sharp-shouldered Balmain jacket, what celebrities wear on the street is even more influential than what they wear to award shows.
Though Conrad's style may not be immediately recognizable, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen's is; they have parlayed their signature brand of boyfriend chic into not one label but two -- the upscale line the Row and the more moderately priced Elizabeth and James.
Since launching in 2007, Elizabeth and James has seen more than 500% growth in apparel sales, according to marketing director Kristen Walsh. Shoe sales alone are expected to exceed $6 million in 2009, she said, and eyewear, handbags and fragrance will be added in 2010.
The actress-designers were recently admitted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a select industry group, and this fall they are expanding their brand to include menswear.
"We have had tremendous success with Elizabeth and James," said Kate Ciepluch, fashion director for online retailer Shopbop.com, who also said that the line -- which ranges from $265 romantic blouses to $595 "dagger" necklaces to $725 cropped fur vests -- is among the site's top sellers. "I think it's because the Olsens live and breathe fashion. . . . It's not just something people are doing on the side. I give them credit for bringing back the boyfriend jacket and the oversized shirt. The styles are so on point, and that's what's driving their success."
Shopbop also carries L.A.M.B (Gwen Stefani), William Rast (Justin Timberlake) and House of Harlow jewelry by Nicole Richie -- all of which are notable for not including the celebrity name as part of the brand. "Obviously, they have the resources to get great PR for their brands," Ciepluch said. "But at the end of the day it's all about the product."
Loretta Soffe, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women's apparel at Nordstrom, agrees. "Celebrity lines are viable to a small group of consumers, but the person cannot preclude the product." At Nordstrom, Timberlake's line does well, she said, but Stefani's has been "inconsistent."
The store flirted with Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz's Clandestine Industries clothing line last year but hasn't continued it. "The consumer is more interested in finding great product that is like what a celebrity wears, not necessarily what they manufacture. They see what they are wearing and want a version of it, or sometimes the exact same thing. That's where celebrities dominate fashion, more so than the runways even."