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Veteran Reporter Teri Agins on How Celebrities Have Stolen the Fashion Spotlight

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The WSJ fashion writer talks about her new book, Hijacking the Runway.

Teri Agins with Venus Williams at the tennis star's spring 2013 Fashion Week presentation. Photo: Getty Images
Teri Agins with Venus Williams at the tennis star's spring 2013 Fashion Week presentation. Photo: Getty Images

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Between brick-and-mortar challenges, the changing e-commerce landscape, and competition from fast fashion, designers have a lot to think about these days. But as veteran Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Teri Agins notes in her new book, Hijacking the Runway, designers are also in the throngs of another battle—with celebrities.

While stars used to serve as mere walking billboards for brands, Agins's book, which hits shelves October 9th, explains how they're taking over the fashion world. "Covering the industry since 1989, I watched celebrities evolve from being a part of culture to being the spokesmen for everything, " Agins told Racked. "Celebrities used to be the ultimate surrogates for designers, but today they are in direct competition with them. Celebrities are supposed to just wear the clothing, but they've stepped out of their lane to compete."

The complicated relationship between designers and celebrities—what is gifted, who gets paid to sit front row, endorsements of all kinds—is a hazy subject most publicists fight to keep under the radar. Agins attempts to pull this curtain back in her book, which took some 15 years to research and write. Weaving history lessons, like how tennis player René Lacoste built a retail empire and why Tommy Hilfiger was so influential in the hip-hop industry, into the narrative, Agins provides a true insider's look.

Today, celebrity clothing lines are par for the course. Though some (like Dollhouse by Paris Hilton, Te Casan by Natalie Portman, and 6126 by Lindsay Lohan) have faded out, people like Victoria Beckham and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have parlayed their fame into entirely new careers in fashion. Agins attributes much of their success to the shifting nature of media.

Photo: Getty Images

"Technology has been the catalyst for how we got to where we are today," she said. "I grew up with three TV stations; now, there's an infinite amount. Plus, the internet has far-reaching tentacles into every area of pop culture to the point where we know everything about celebrities. We see them at the grocery store, on the way to the gym, at the beach, taking their kids to school. They've become a part of our lives where we feel like we know them and trust them more than actual fashion designers."

But it's not just high-fashion that celebrities have infiltrated, of course. Case in point: Jessica Simpson. Agins dedicates several chapters to the pop princess-turned-reality star-turned-fashion mogul. While for a time Simpson was best known as a clueless MTV housewife who didn't know the difference between chicken and fish, a little help from stylist Rachel Zoe and some funding from retail tycoon Vince Camuto put her at the helm of a billion-dollar brand. With a personal net worth of $100 million, Simpson's line keeps on growing, and now includes a plethora of product categories from handbags to baby clothes.

"Jessica Simpson won't reach the level of the Olsens or Beckhams, nor does she need to," Agins said. "There's still an elitism, a snob appeal that exists in the fashion industry. There are a lot of designers who have great businesses, but will never be accepted by the powers. That doesn't mean they aren't part of the industry. Simpson has really cute shoes that sell, and at this point, most consumers don't even know the origins of her brand. She's filling a certain space and has become the Liz Claiborne of the industry today. She's transcended."

What turns a celebrity fashion line to gold? According to Agins, the right amount of personal connection. For someone like Simpson, Agins notes in the book, the "biggest fashion achievement is having become invisible." Still, there needs to be enough of the star in the line for consumers to find the clothing appealing. Take Elizabeth Taylor, who launched her blockbuster fragrance, White Diamonds, in 1987 after she ran out of cash. All it took was a clever commercial and a few publicity appearances for Taylor, who hadn't been in a movie in years, to earn back her fortune. Other celebrity fragrances may have crashed and burned when the names behind them didn't translate, but Taylor resonated with shoppers.

Even the Kardashian-branded lines do well because the reality stars put just enough involvement into the brand. Agins attended a Sears event promoting the latest Kardashian launch when researching her book to speak with shoppers. When she told them that Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney didn't actually design the items, fans still insisted the line felt closely associated with the reality stars.

Agins with Tom Ford. Photo: Getty Images

"There's that generic something that gets the consumer," Agins laughed. "People think celebrities wouldn't put their name on something they didn't believe in, and in the case of the Kardashians or someone like Selena Gomez, the clothing in their lines looks like something they would wear and that they approve of."

And what about celebrity endorsements? While designers have always dressed stars in their clothes, designers themselves were, for the most part, "the gods, the arbiters of fashion." Agins explained: "People were enamored with designers like Pierre Cardin, Dior, and Chanel and consumed these big brands because of their fascination. In the '70s, they told you what to wear because then you'd feel like a part of Paris. That mystique has now transferred to celebrities."

Celebs used to clamor for in-demand designers. Now it's precisely the opposite: Brands turn to gold after they're endorsed by Hollywood stars. That said, it's still a give and take. Among the examples Agins gives is that of Charlize Theron, who had to pay an undisclosed (but reportedly large) amount of money for wearing a Dior watch after violating an exclusive contract she had with Raymond Weil.

Agins believes one way fashion designers can attempt to steal back the spotlight from celebrities is to become celebrities themselves. Brands like Tory Burch, Alexander Wang, Michael Kors, and Altuzarra are built around names and faces that are familiar to shoppers; their personal cachet helps lure consumers. Even a brand like Banana Republic is catching on. Though the role of creative director at the company was previously all but anonymous, the company is now using fresh hire Marissa Webb to promote its new look.

"We're seeing designers become more front and center," Agins added. "People need to connect with them in a real way that resonates, so shoppers can go into a store and feel an emotional tie with a designer, the way they do with a celebrity. Designers will have to be out and about in a way that we have never seen before because, like celebrities, they know they have to create a persona, an image, a lifestyle to connect.