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Nicole Richie's designs on a star brand

Nicole Richie sets her sights on building a fashion empire.

October 23, 2011|By Booth Moore, Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic
  • Nicole Richie is shown in her home office surrounded by personal and vintage pieces, including a tribal headdress given to her by husband Joel Madden.
Nicole Richie is shown in her home office surrounded by personal and vintage… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

She hosted the kickoff festivities for L.A.'s Fashion's Night Out in September and sat front row at the Louis Vuitton runway show in Paris this month. Come February, she'll be in our living rooms every week, as a mentor on NBC's new "Fashion Star" designer competition series. Is tabloid sensation-turned-designer Nicole Richie poised to become the next big celebrity fashion brand?

Following in the footsteps of Jessica Simpson and Rachel Zoe, Richie, 30 — whose adoptive father is Lionel Richie — launched her House of Harlow 1960 jewelry line in late 2007, adding shoes in 2009 and bags in June 2011. Last spring, she debuted ready-to-wear under the label Winter Kate.

Her designs are an extension of her paparazzi-ready personal style — witchy woman, rock goddess, '60s and '70s vintage princess. The Winter Kate collection ($78 to $700) features fringed velvet kimonos (inspired by vintage pieces Richie has collected for years), firefly-print maxi dresses, silk camisoles and short-shorts (but not a lot of pants).

House of Harlow 1960 accessories ($195 to $695) include beaded moccasins, velvet booties and pony skin bags, and jewelry with antler, evil eye, arrow and stud motifs.

Her labels have received modest attention in fashion bible Women's Wear Daily and in glossy women's magazines. In 2010, she won Entrepreneur of the Year for her House of Harlow 1960 brand at the British Glamour Women of the Year Awards.

"We won the jackpot when we partnered with her," says Rick Cytrynbaum, who co-owns Montreal-based Majestic Mills along with his brother, Brian. The Canadian manufacturing company produces House of Harlow 1960, Winter Kate and several other labels, including Modern Vintage footwear, Heidi Klum footwear and Earnest Sewn denim. "She's on the ball. She works with her design team every day."

Rick Cytrynbaum declined to give sales figures, saying instead that Richie's clothing and accessories are available in more than 700 stores in 23 countries. But in this country, at least, they have low visibility in stores, compared with the Zoe and Simpson brands.

That may be why Richie herself has been more visible over the last few months, wearing her hippie headbands and flowy tops to events and "selling" her earthy Hollywood mom lifestyle.

Her Los Angeles house — which she shares with husband Joel Madden of the band Good Charlotte, and their two kids, Harlow, 3, and Sparrow, 2 — is canyon cool with natural wood floors, a sunken living room, big brick fireplace, kilim rugs, fur throw pillows, a terrarium and two taxidermy chickens dressed in aristocratic finery.

On this day there is incense burning, Hendrix on the sound system and a family cat, an Abyssinian named Gypsy, snuggling with his mistress. Befitting a rock 'n' roll household, the bar cart is well stocked, but there's also a miniature stove for the kids, near the adult-sized one in the kitchen.

Stevie Nicks would feel at home in Richie's office, which looks out over the treetops. Her antique desk is covered with line sheets and sketches, and there is a red-feathered tribal headdress (a gift from Madden) sitting on a side table. (Richie also has a downtown studio, where her five-person design team works.)

Nicole Richie landed on the public stage in 2003 at age 21, when she starred with Paris Hilton in the reality show "The Simple Life," which chronicled the celebutantes' adventures "roughing it" on an Arkansas farm and other places. Earlier that year, Richie had been arrested for heroin possession and driving with a suspended license.

The show, on TV for five seasons, turned her into a tabloid fixture, known for her boho style, her on-again, off-again friendships with Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Zoe, and her battles with eating disorders and substance abuse, for which she went to rehab.

In December 2006, she was charged with a DUI after being arrested by the California Highway Patrol for driving the wrong way on the 134 Freeway. Pleading guilty, she was sentenced to four days in jail, but released after just 82 minutes due to overcrowding.

"I was first approached to do a self-help book at 21, and I passed," says Richie, sitting barefoot on her office floor, dressed in a cream blouse from her line and a pair of black Balenciaga pants. "I said I was too young, and who knows what the next few years will be like? And really, who knew? It's a good thing I passed!"

Since then, she has kept a lower profile, having two children with Madden, marrying him in 2010, and publishing two novels, "The Truth About Diamonds" and "Priceless." (One review of "Priceless" concluded: "A clichéd fairy tale, about as original as the TV movie it will inevitably become.")

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