Thu, Jun 14, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Celebrities steal the show and the customers

A decade ago the fashion industry welcomed Hollywood stars into their business with open arms, but now, many young designers feel they are being squeezed

By Eric Wilson  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

On Monday night, the 33-year-old designer Phillip Lim, who worked quietly behind the scenes in other designers’ studios for a decade before putting his name on a label that is now sold at Neiman Marcus, won the fashion industry’s highest award for emerging talent. Yet his obvious pleasure at being recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at its annual ceremony must have been tempered by the fact that he was handed his statuette by two women who also call themselves young designers — Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

The ubiquitous celebrity twins, who turn 21 next week, had been invited by the fashion industry to present awards for rising stars at the New York Public Library. This fall, the Olsens are introducing a collection that will compete with Lim’s, and they would not mind someday being nominated for the award he won.

“You think, ‘Wow, how unfair,’” Lim said last week before the awards, after reading an article in Women’s Wear Daily about the Olsens’ plans to expand their marketing, fashion and lip-gloss empire — estimated by Forbes in 2003 to have sales of US$1.4 billion — into the contemporary clothing market, the industry’s catch-all term for trendy sportswear lines like Vince and Theory, as well as that of Lim.

While sewing his own tuxedo for the awards ceremony in his garment district loft, Lim described a growing frustration among his peers as they face an onslaught of competing labels from celebrities. The Olsen twins, whose earlier merchandise was aimed at tweens and sold in mass stores like Wal-Mart, have grown up and moved on to try the adult market. They have a high-end designer line called the Row, which is sold at Barneys New York. On Monday night, they wore their new label, Elizabeth and James (named for their unfamous siblings), whereas not long ago they might have worn the designs of someone like Lim.

There is a great paradox here. For decades fashion has courted celebrities. It encouraged pop stars who moonlighted as designers, like Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani, to stage runway shows for flashy jeans and confectionery hot-pants ensembles. Combs, partly for his oversize personality and courtship of key players like Anna Wintour and Tom Ford, was nominated for awards for years and won for best men’s wear in 2004. It seemed harmless fun.

But now a number of designers are not so sure. Lim, who expects his collection to reach US$30 million in sales this year and plans to open a store in SoHo next month, said the chances of a young designer surviving in the business today are “slim to none.” By contrast, celebrity lines like those of Combs and Lopez typically break the US$100 million mark in sales in their first or second year, thanks to the power of a star name hitched to a huge marketing campaign. And they almost always begin with a lucrative fragrance deal, whereas it takes years for traditional designers to get the attention of companies like Estee Lauder or Coty.

“Celebrities have made it harder for real designers,” said Vera Wang, who won the top fashion council award for women’s design in 2005 and has designed for more than three decades.

“It’s a big open field out there now, like the Wild, Wild West,” Wang said. “You could be competing against a television or movie star for a fragrance deal, and that’s an added pressure for designers. We’re working really hard to keep our heads above water, and does the public differentiate, or care? Those are big questions. The most obvious impact is in fragrance, but certainly in apparel we’re feeling it now as well.”

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