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Aaaaaaah vagina!" Snooki screams, as a PA accidentally directs a box fan at her, well, vagina. It's a hundred degrees in Los Angeles and at least a hundred-and-ten in the photo studio we're standing in since there's no air conditioning. A small fan has been produced so that the former Jersey Shore star, Nicole "Snooki" LaValle (neé Polizzi), doesn't soak through her glittery, animal-print body-con dress, but apparently the assistant's aim has left something to be desired. And nothing to the imagination.
For what it's worth, LaValle is being a trooper. Most celebrities — and certainly the imperiously insecure B- and C-list ones — would've tossed a shit-fit by now. But the tiny reality TV personality is in great spirits. As she totters across the room to change in an old-timey beach cabana set up off to the side, she makes sure to thank everyone along the way, emerging later in an off-the-shoulder Stevie Nicks-ish blouse and black pleather pants.
Doll-small even perched atop 5-inch platform peep-toes (Snooki's sub-100 pounds and 4'9"), she's set in front of a black backdrop, handed a glass of stunt wine, and daubed with dribbles of fake blood on either side of her mouth. Frequent touch-ups have to be made to the syrupy scarlet rivulets, and she makes use of these breaks by talking about Justin Bieber's penis. "It was soft, you can't tell when it's like that," she says of his recently surfaced nudes.
The hippie-witchy outfit and the blood are intended to convey a Halloween vibe. Elsewhere on set are skeletons, smoke machines, samurai swords, gourds for Thanksgiving, and a bag of Christmas decorations. All gathered for the Snooki Love holiday shoot. It's so patently targeted towards the sort of America that has a yen for seasonal sweatshirts and considers Ritz crackers a valid recipe ingredient that I briefly wonder if Sandra Lee's ill-advised Kwanzaa cake will make an appearance.
Snooki Love is LaValle's clothing line. It's a reflection of Nicole's personal style after two kids and a period of self-reflection. Back in 2009 — when we were all gobsmacked by the goings-on of eight brash mostly Italian-Americans (LaValle is Chilean by birth and was raised by Italians, while Jenni "JWoww" Farley is Irish and Spanish) on the MTV reality show Jersey Shore — Snooki looked very different. Then, it was all sky-high hair poofs, deep fake tans, and scandalously skimpy dayglo outfits, all of which she'd rather the four million of us who routinely tuned in forget.
"The whole Jersey Shore experience was a fashion regret. What was I wearing? My vagina was out. I was a slob. I'd never look like that again."
"The whole Jersey Shore experience was a fashion regret," she says, looking over the photos for her next ensemble. "What was I wearing? My vagina was out. I was a slob. I'd never look like that again." If you can't tell, LaValle talks about her vagina a lot. And also her boobs. Plus, her "skin flap," the slight looseness at her tummy. "I would love to get a boob job and maybe snip my skin. I still want two more kids, so I don't want to do it any time soon."
When we talk about why she was inspired to pursue fashion as a second-chance career, whether or not there was a galvanizing fashion memory — a stylish grandmother or a special-occasion dress — hers is a story of being in the retail shit. "In college, I got a job at Forever 21 at the mall in Poughkeepsie," she says. "I helped as a sales associate and a cashier to set everything up for the store opening. It's a bitch to clean up and to deal with customers sometimes, but that's when I realized I love being around fashion. That was one of my best jobs ever. I got to get new clothes and discounts."
I've scoffed in the past at cashiers at American Apparel labeling themselves as "in fashion," but given my present disillusionment in the wake of designer musical chairs and the ever-increasing popularity of idea-thieving charlatans being posited as Great American Designers, Nicole's straightforwardness is bracingly appealing. She possesses no delusions of grandeur in an industry where pomp, pageantry, and strident exclusionism are par for the course. Asked who her favorite designer is, Nicole's savvy.
"I look up to Jessica Simpson," she says. "It's affordable, good quality, her shoes are comfortable, her bags are cute, and she's killing it. She's literally in every store." I look up to Jessica Simpson too. I respect people with billion-dollar fashion empires and a built-in, enormous, devout following (strange, seemingly slizzard HSN appearances notwithstanding). No one can sneeze at affordability and accessibility when it resonates with most human females in America. When asked what she'd wear to the Met Ball, she's similarly matter-of-fact. "Bebe, probably."
It's sort of a brilliant answer. Compulsively quotable, down-to-earth, self-aware, and a little funny. It's easy to see why LaValle's had her own successful spin-off show and written a few books (a New York Times bestseller among them) with a new one on the way chronicling her weight loss, and why she was able to pivot to a new audience as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. "With Dancing, I gained a lot of older women fans, which is cool," she says. "They come up to me, like, I hated you on Jersey Shore, but fell in love with you on Dancing with the Stars. So I feel like my fans are a range."
It's this consistent interaction at meet-and-greets and on social media (which she runs herself) that allows her to tailor her clothes; Snooki Love also features an affordable plus-size line called Curve. "I always knew that I needed to cater to my thicker girls," she says. "I know this from meeting my fans and a majority of them are bigger. I was heavier at one point, so I know what's loose but cute. I know a lot of girls are insecure about their arms — I hated my arms — so I did cute sleeved tops."
"I don't want a pricy line because my fans can't afford it. I'm a bargain shopper myself. I shop at Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe."
"Butt crack!" There's a light-up skull on set that will repeat whatever you say to it, and for LaValle, it's absolute Snapchat bait. In many ways, it's the same ol' Snooki, but tonsorially and sartorially, there's a cultivated demureness. Or maybe kawaii-demure with a lashing of mania — an off-brand Ariana Grande. Wavy auburn layers to the shoulders. Peplums. Skirts. Bows. Sweetheart necklines. Rompers. Flounce. It's reflected in the over 350 Snooki Love items available exclusively on TheSnookiShop.com, ranging from $9 sailor striped T-shirt dresses to $28 cardigans. "I don't want a pricy line because my fans can't afford it," she explains. "I'm a bargain shopper myself. I shop at Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe."
LaValle also has another clothing line on the way: Lovanna, a portmanteau of her kids' names, Lorenzo and Giovanna. It'll be released next spring. "I think my mother came up with the name," she says. Lovanna is intended to be more expensive. The Snooki Collection, if you will. Or Nicole LaValle Purple Label. I haven't seen them, but I expect cursive on the hang-tags. Or a beveled type treatment in rose gold. Still, the 60 to 90 pieces in the first run will remain assiduously affordable.
"Lovanna's from $49 to $100 for, like, a jacket," she continues. "That's like pushing it for me, but I just feel like every line needs that high-end line." Lovanna's fabric is just a little nicer. The hand a tad softer. The trims are different, grommets slightly heavier. There are pockets on rompers, where in the regular collection there may not be, and the linings feel comparatively more natural, even if both lines are comprised of that inscrutable swirl of extrusion fibers that most fast-fashion garments use.
Both Snooki Love and Lovanna are produced by LA-based white-label manufacturer Double Zero, a company that whips up contemporary women's clothing at multiple price-points for different companies (lines carried at Macy's and Nordstrom's on the high end, TJ Maxx and Ross on the low). And much like Forever 21, they're Korean-owned. This last bit is obvious. Everyone in the overheated, all-white industrial space with covered-up windows, except Nicole and her publicist Jordyn, is Korean. I'm not going to lie (biases aside), it makes me believe that Snooki Love and Lovanna could win. I just wish my people had sprung for AC.
Double Zero clothes are on-point for what they are. If you've spent any time shopping in fast-fashion stores, or those "party dress" shops where Soho hits Canal in New York, or even in Santee Alley in LA where you buy direct from wholesalers in brick-and-mortar stores, you'll know what this implies. The sizing runs S, M, L; the clothes are in the $15 to $70 region, the colors are safe and wearable for the most part, summer dresses tend to be the sweet-spot, and you'll see the same prints on onesies, palazzo pants, miniskirts, dresses, and button-down shirts, enticing you to, maybe, cop a whole matching outfit so you never have to put any more thought into how you dress ever again.
"You can wear this shit forever." It's clothing that's trendy in such broad strokes that it can never convincingly go out of style.
Clothing lines are a no-brainer for a certain breed of celebrity, especially those that resonate so noisily and spectacularly in the 18-24 market. For LaValle, it was an obvious choice. She was approached by Double Zero three years ago, but not until she'd already signed a deal with the company that produced Lindsay Lohan's leggings line, 6126. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on whose side you're on), the company went bankrupt. "6126 was more like gowns," she says. "It was too high-end. Then I went to Double Zero and thought, ‘Shit, I picked the wrong guy.' Double Zero was all normal clothes."
By "normal" she means trendy, fast-fashion, trickle-down separates. On the rolling rack, pulled and steamed for the shoot, are Balmain-inspired skinny jeans (the ones with all those seams and zippers that Beyoncé wore a few years ago), heathered mock-turtleneck babydolls, surprisingly well-cut, shrunken pleather blazers with narrow peak lapels, a faux-fur vest that doesn't immediately feel plasticky, olive military jackets without the tiresome extra flair that typically accompanies a Forever 21 or H&M version, high-waisted shorts, and jewel-toned sweaters.
"You can wear this shit forever," she says when I subconsciously start shopping her shoot and pluck a turtleneck dress to hang against myself. "They're not expensive, but they're not cheap." She's right. It's clothing that's trendy in such broad strokes that it can never convincingly go out of style. Much like that one, thousand-year-old Zara floral blouse that you suspect to be flammable and maybe even carcinogenic, but can't seem to give up because it goes with everything.
There are enough flattering details to massage the margin of error on the sizing (daintily ruched elastic waists on dresses or hidden smocking in the back) and make both Snooki Love and Lovanna eminently adoptable. And with such a low barrier to entry price-wise, proliferation is key. It's crucial for Nicole to get herself in stores. A feat she's yet to accomplish, though a recent trip to the Magic tradeshow in Las Vegas showed promise. "They had a bunch of ads of me," she says. "We got them for free."
Later, as we break for lunch, LaValle changes into sweats and a T-shirt and we talk about her aspirations, and naturally this turns into a conversation about branding. "Jersey Shore is not my brand anymore," she says, kicking off her shoes to tuck her feet under her as we sit on a small loveseat. "We have to introduce me as the mom and the wife. It's the hardest transition."
"I'm way more relaxed now. Having kids makes you stop partying, and partying stresses you out."
We're handed Caesar salads with grilled chicken that she takes gratefully and dismantles to eat with her hands (the romaine is uncut and undressed). "I'm way more relaxed now," she continues, crunching her way through a leaf. "Having kids makes you stop partying, and partying stresses you out." The only thing she insists on is not being called Snooki. "I'm trying to be Nicole because that's, like, my real name."
This is why Lovanna makes no mention of her former moniker. "It's hard because when you're a reality star, they don't take you seriously. You're trying to get into stores and people are like, ‘I don't want Snooki in my store.' It's not to my face. but they hint at it, so it's Lovanna by Nicole Polizzi."
You can't help but feel for the girl. Not just because she's so disarming and genuinely likable, but because if you look at the Jersey Shore cast as the first pancake, they got short-shrifted in the mega-celebrity reality game. Unlike the Kardashians whose backlash to the backlash to the backlash has spawned a multi-billion dollar empire of games, apps, curling irons, clothing lines, hair extensions, contouring kits, and the like, Jersey supernova'd as a group.
Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino's vitamins are dunzo. Vinny Guadagnino's IHAV T-shirt line is defunct, and even if, according to Forbes, Pauly D made $11 million DJing in 2012 and JWoww has a tanning products line, Nicole's the dark horse. "I could have taken so many deals and made quick money," she says. "I'm looking more long-term, so I missed out on all of that to build this. A lot of my castmates don't want to be in the spotlight anymore. They want their normal lives back."
After lunch, LaValle asks to have her eyebrows "toned down" for a few Instagram selfies and portraits. And she obsessively checks the app Shopify to see how each individual item on her store is doing. Or else she looks at clothing web sites that she admires. "I don't look at fashion editorials and runway," she says. "They're too high-end. I more go to clothing web sites from Europe."
By Europe, she means UK fast-fashion behemoth ASOS and the rapidly growing upstart Boohoo. "I go to other country's web sites 'cause they're ahead of us," she explains. For each new season (Snooki Love ships about five times a year) LaValle compiles mood boards and journals. "I print out what I like and go through the weeklies for outfits that celebrities wear. I just get inspiration and put it together. Then I give them the book and they work off that."
LaValle describes her preferred look as "comfy and chic." And then after some thought, she adds, "grunge." I ask her if she thinks it's harder to be taken seriously as a celebrity as she pursues fashion. Sort of like how presidential hopeful Kanye West complains that the fashion world discriminates against him for not being gay. I ask her if she harbors any fantasies of going to Paris or Milan and sitting front row.
"I'm not that kinda girl," she says. "I'm basic. I really am." I believe her. Nicole LaValle knows her lane and stays in it happily. It's positively zen. And while she doesn't consider herself part of the high fashion cognoscenti, she does have an opinion on Yeezy Season 2. "It looks like garbage bags," she says. "It's awful." Not for nothing, Cathy Horyn agrees with her.
Editor: Julia Rubin