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The Kardashians: Cashing in with a capital K

There are Kardashian boutiques, fragrances, jewelry, apparel, bikinis, skin-care products and candles. And the reality-TV family says it's just getting started. But with a less-than-wholesome image, will the brand have staying power?

April 24, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Sarah Mansfield, 16, of West Newbury, Mass., tries on merchandise at the Dash boutique in Calabasas in February. The Kardashian sisters opened the store before becoming tabloid fixtures. Khloe Kardashian says it's no longer possible to swing by and work the cash register or greet customers  "it almost causes a scene where people cant shop."
Sarah Mansfield, 16, of West Newbury, Mass., tries on merchandise at the… (Bret Hartman, Bret Hartman/…)

Having conquered reality television, the Kardashians are fashioning a celebrity retail powerhouse.

Beyond the glittery red carpets and steamy tabloid fodder, the famous family has transformed itself into a branding machine, quickly leveraging the hype into a retail empire worth tens of millions of dollars.

Unlike other reality-stars-turned-entrepreneurs such as Snooki of "Jersey Shore" fame or Lauren Conrad of "The Hills," the Kardashians are in a class by themselves and unfazed by skeptics who doubt they can keep it up for the long haul.

There are Kardashian boutiques, fragrances, jewelry, apparel, bikinis, self-tanner, skin-care products, candles — even bottled water, if you're willing to shell out $10 for it.

Whether it's business savvy or shameless self-promotion, it's paid off: Kardashian Inc. raked in an estimated $65 million last year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication. And with the family signing on to a slew of new projects, it's poised to make even more in 2011.

This year alone, sisters Kourtney, Kim and Khloe released their own "glam pack" of Silly Bandz, the wildly popular rubber-band shapes that kids trade and wear as bracelets. They're also opening Kardashian Khaos, a celebrity retail store at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Kim has been promoting her jewelry line Belle Noel and touting Midori liqueur as a company spokeswoman; she and mother Kris are also the new faces of Skechers Shape-Ups sneakers. Khloe and Laker husband Lamar Odom, who are starring in their own spin-off series on E!, recently released a unisex fragrance called Unbreakable.

The sisters' biggest project this year is the launch of the Kardashian Kollection, an ambitious "shop-within-a-shop" concept that will launch at Sears stores in late August and in international markets.

The global lifestyle brand is Sears' biggest celebrity deal ever. The line will span categories including dresses, outerwear, T-shirts, denim, footwear, jewelry, handbags and lingerie, and will reflect the sisters' individual styles: classic red-carpet glamour for Kim, bohemian chic for Kourtney and edgy rocker for Khloe.

"It's new and exciting and different, and they're going to be a big part of that change," said John Goodman, executive vice president of apparel and home for parent company Sears Holdings Corp. "In order to evolve and move forward, you're going to have to step out of the comfort zone."

Not everything the Kardashians have lent their name to has been a success. In November, the sisters were forced to pull their prepaid debit card, called the Kardashian Kard, amid slow sales and an outcry about high fees. After releasing "JAM (Turn It Up)," a dance-pop-infused single last month, Kim was criticized as having an uneven voice and talking her way through the song.

But for the most part, strong sales have followed their many pursuits. Kim's eponymous perfume was Sephora's No. 1-selling fragrance last year and the sisters' exclusive Bebe collection was a huge success, a company spokeswoman said. Their memoir and style guide, "Kardashian Konfidential," debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list in December. Unbreakable, available exclusively at Perfumania, has sold out twice since its February launch.

In recent interviews with The Times, the Kardashians said they're just getting started.

"There's some days we definitely go crazy," Khloe said during a recent appearance at the Beverly Center, where hundreds of hysterical fans lined up for photos and autographs. Added Kourtney: "There's no way I could do this alone.... We all kind of pick up the pieces for each other."

The Kardashians became household names in 2007 with the debut of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" on the E! channel, which was conceived of by Kris as a modern-day Brady Bunch-esque reality show.

At the time, Kim Kardashian, still the most well-known of the brood, had already made a name for herself as Paris Hilton's sidekick and fellow socialite. And like Hilton, Kim was also facing notoriety over the release of a sex tape made with her then-boyfriend.

The family's less-than-wholesome reputation has earned the Kardashians a fair amount of criticism that retail experts say could hinder the family's long-term viability as a brand.

"The Kardashians are a great example of, in my mind, talentless celebrities or celebrity for celebrity's sake who took advantage of their looks, a sex tape, a lot of pretty raw and low-level stuff that titillated and fascinated the American public," said Eli Portnoy, a marketing and branding expert in Los Angeles.

Led by Kris, who describes herself as the family's "momager," the Kardashian brood includes Kourtney, 32, Kim, 30, Khloe, 26, and Rob, 24, her children with her first husband, former O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Kardashian, who died of esophageal cancer in 2003.

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