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Photo: Michael Thompson
Photo: Michael Thompson

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Jessica Simpson, America’s Retail Queen

How the pop star wound up with a billion-dollar empire

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The 10th anniversary party for the Jessica Simpson Collection is like any other big-budget event celebrating a billion-dollar brand's somewhat significant milestone — except for the fact that a large, and particularly vocal, portion of the crowd at Central Park's famed Tavern on the Green is pissed.

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In one corner, there are stacked televisions playing B-roll of the pop-star-turned-fashion-mogul, next to a photo area where you can pose in front of framed pictures of the guest of honor (Simpson in a cowboy hat, Simpson in a tunic, Simpson in Daisy Dukes, Simpson on the cover of New York Magazine). A 12-piece cover band is playing Top 40 hits, while guests are encouraged to play with iPads showing off the brand's new e-commerce site as they eat guacamole bites and sip chilled champagne.

And then there are the 50-plus journalists with notepads, recorders, and video cameras standing angrily near the designated red carpet. We've been waiting several hours in the sweltering heat for Simpson to make an appearance, shoving and yelling at each other during the process. Judging by the sheer number of media outlets present, it's clear to those of us who were promised "an exclusive interview with Jessica" that this is probably not going to happen.

Finally, the 35-year-old Texan emerges in a plunging jumpsuit. She's beautiful, with her long, shiny hair and her blindingly white teeth. She poses for the cameras and makes nice with shouting reporters for less than 15 minutes before she's whisked away, once again out of sight.

Jessica Simpson with her parents at her brand's 10th anniversary party. Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage

The angry press corps is directed to wait in line in order to get into a curtained-off room where Simpson is cooling off. While we stand there, scores of people make their way in and out of the room without being stopped. When some reporters protest, a publicist responds, "This party is a celebration of the 10 years of the Jessica Simpson brand, and they all made it possible."

"There are hundreds of people here who all worked very hard for the brand," she continues. "There are people here from Camuto, from Sequential, and then from all the licensees of the Jessica Simpson label. They're all really excited to see her and be a part of this, so we have to accommodate everyone."

This party — with swarms of corporate representatives populating the space, with Simpson's name on every available surface while she herself is tucked away — mirrors how the whole Jessica Simpson entity operates. This is exactly how it came to be the world's biggest celebrity brand.

America first got to know Jessica Simpson through her music. After bombing an audition for the Mickey Mouse Club — which would go on to launch the careers of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake — she was signed to a gospel record label. The daughter of a pastor, Simpson had grown up singing in local church choirs. She toured the country on a Christian rock tour before her label went bankrupt.

She didn't do any of the designing, but had final approval over all of the products. This would set a precedent for the next decade of Simpson's retail career.

She ultimately landed at Sony and released two albums (Sweet Kisses in 1999 and Irresistible in 2001), never quite reaching Britney or Christina levels of success. It was during this time that she met Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees. The two married in 2002, and a year later, starred in MTV's proto-celeb reality show Newlyweds. For three seasons, America watched Simpson play up the "dumb blonde" housewife role that catapulted her to fame in a way her music never did. She split from Lachey just after she scored her first starring film role, in the 2005 remake of The Dukes of Hazzard.

As Simpson began to see her star rise, she signed a licensing deal with Tarrant Apparel Group to create a fashion line to help promote the movie. She didn't do any of the designing, the Wall Street Journal noted in 2005, but had final approval over all of the products. This would set a precedent for the next decade of Simpson's retail career.

Tarrant put out two lines. JS by Jessica Simpson was a collection of cheap jeans and prairie tops sold at budget-friendly retailer Fashion Bug; Princy, a reference to Simpson's childhood nickname, was a slightly higher-end denim line sold at department stores like Macy's and Lord & Taylor.

In 2006, Tarrant sued Simpson for breach of contract. The company was angry Simpson had told press that her favorite brand of jeans was True Religion, instead of Princy. Tarrant also complained the star didn't promote the brand as promised, alleging Simpson refused to be photographed wearing the clothes.

But Tarrant wasn't the only company with a vested interest in Simpson. Vince Camuto, the accessories mogul who turned Nine West into a footwear empire, had signed on as a shoe licensee for Simpson in 2005. The shoes were sold under the Jessica Simpson Collection label. After a court dismissed Tarrant's case against Simpson, The Camuto Group bought out Tarrant and became the star's sole licensee.

The Jessica Simpson Collection on display at a Kansas Dillard's. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

"Jessica really is America's sweetheart and I think her fans will grow with her," Camuto told WWD in 2005. "I don't think customers have an attachment to the ready-to-wear firms that are currently in existence. We really think there is an opportunity to make this the hottest brand out there. If this is not a $1 billion or $2 billion brand, I'll be shocked."

"Vince Camuto had a good hunch about the possibilities for Jessica as a brand," former Wall Street Journal reporter Teri Agins wrote in her 2014 book, Hijacking the Runway. "His first order of business was to sever Jessica's association with the failed jeans line, which had begun to tarnish her image. Being Camuto, he naturally redirected her into the business he knew best: shoes. It just so happened that footwear also was the fashion category with the buzz of the moment and the healthiest profit margins, so the timing was fortuitous."

Simpson's shoe line proved to be immensely popular. It initially sold cowboy boots to build off the hype of The Dukes of Hazzard, also turning out cork platforms, similar to the ones Simpson was frequently spotted in. The footwear brought in $50 million in wholesale volume in its first year alone. In 2006, Camuto took the Jessica Simpson Collection into apparel, introducing a mid-priced contemporary line of tops, denim, and dresses.

"She's wholesome and has Middle America-ness. She doesn't drink to excess, gamble, devil worship, or snort cocaine of off Terry Richardson."

The fashion world was quick to turn its nose up at Simpson's line. "Consumers aren't dumb. The customer who is really interested in fashion is sophisticated. She will take a Marc Jacobs over a Jessica Simpson, every time," Anna Wintour said in 2005. "Jessica Simpson is not a fashion designer," the Costume Institute's Harold Koda told Agins.

The rest of the country begged to differ. By 2008, the Jessica Simpson Collection moved into handbags, jewelry, and sunglasses, bringing in $300 million in sales. By 2010, sales climbed to $750 million.

Celebrities starting their own brands is nothing new; it's long been a way for stars to extend their time in the public eye. From Elizabeth Taylor to Madonna to Jennifer Lopez, many have tried (and almost as many have failed) to build out profitable fashion and beauty lines. Jessica Simpson is at the very top of the celebrity brand heap.

Many credit Camuto as the mastermind behind the whole operation. It was his idea to lean on third-party vendors instead of producing the Jessica Simpson Collection in-house. This allowed the Jessica Simpson name to be licensed out to partners all around the globe and enter into various categories and markets in exchange for royalties. Today, the Jessica Simpson Collection has over 22 license partners.

Simpson in her brand's fall campaign. Photo: Michael Thompson

"The Jessica Simpson brand became possible only by the efforts of Vince Camuto," says Andy Jassin, managing director of brand management agency Jassin Consulting Group. "He was able to build a product, and then a business. That's not to discredit Jessica's presence in TV or music, but her existence in that zone today is modest at best, and he transformed her into a sustainable, global name."

Alex DelCielo, CEO of The Camuto Group, notes that while Simpson has never been directly involved with the brand's creative process, her team (which includes her mother, Tina) signs off on the designs. From the beginning, it was understood that anything produced under the Jessica Simpson umbrella would have to adhere to a specific, Simpson-centric aesthetic.

"You either go into these things having a vision for a brand, or you just slap a name onto different products," he says. "Our approach, from day one, was to work with Jessica's organization to build a brand — one that would reflect the Jessica Simpson lifestyle. Everything had to look and feel like Jessica. I think that we've maintained that over the years, regardless of bringing in the new licensees and categories, and that's why it continues to move forward and grow."

While Simpson is only marginally involved with her namesake brand, her personal appeal is important to the label's success story. She's considered "the most convincing celebrity brand in the market," according to investment site Market News Forum. As Ruth Chapple, the head of content at fashion advisory service Stylus Fashion, explains, "Jessica herself represents an all-American girl. She's wholesome and has Middle America-ness. Also, she's never photographed falling out of a nightclub; she doesn't drink to excess, gamble, devil worship, or snort cocaine of off Terry Richardson."

Thomas Knapp, an associate business professor at the University of Southern California, adds, "Jessica Simpson, historically, has been known to be attainable." Pointing to Simpson's public struggles with body image (Simpson signed a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Weight Watchers in 2012) and her love life, Knapp explains that, "women in America look at her and think, ‘Hey, I understand her, I know what she's going through,' and that translates into relating to her clothing line."

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

"Other celebrities with fashion lines, like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, are too much like fashion gurus," says Knapp. "Women buy Jessica Simpson clothing because they connect with her."

The timing of the Jessica Simpson Collection launch was also essential to the company's impressive outcome, posits Sidney Morgan-Petro, a retail editor at trend-forecasting firm WGSN. Simpson's line hit the market at a time when the space wasn't particularly crowded.

"The entry point to succeed in fashion has changed, and the customer today is a harder sell," says Morgan-Petro. "With so many celebrities making fashion lines today, the market is so saturated and it's hard to achieve hype the way Simpson's line did."

Then there's the strategic pricing. With $70 jeans, $100 pumps, and $150 dresses that are sold at mall department stores, the line is accessible, but not cheap.

"The country is dominated by Macy's and Dillard's, which is where the Jessica Simpson brand is best sold. It's a moderate brand and most of America is a moderate consumer."

"The country is dominated by Macy's and Dillard's, which is where the Jessica Simpson brand is best sold," Jassin says. "It's a moderate brand and most of America is a moderate consumer. The key here is moderate pricing in moderate stores, offering good fashion on a consistent basis. It sells to the middle-class consumer in Middle America that is looking to the department store to tell them which brands are fashionable."

The styles pay homage to Simpson's curvy figure, bubbly personality, and Texas roots. The dresses are fit-and-flare, the sunglasses big and bold, the platforms tall and girly. The Jessica Simpson cowboy boots are a perennial bestseller. When Simpson became pregnant with her first child in 2012, the Jessica Simpson Collection expanded into maternity. By 2014, the brand was selling in 32 categories with $1 billion in sales.

At this point, execs at Sequential Brands Group, which bought a majority stake in the Jessica Simpson Collection from Camuto last year, scoff at the $1 billion figure. Jameel Spencer, the president of Sequential's fashion and entertainment division, estimates the dawn of a new Jessica Simpson era will bring in $2 to $3 billion.

"We're pretty well-penetrated, but of course we'd like to be in more doors," says Spencer. "We think the opportunity with Jessica is above and beyond."

The most concentrated group of Jessica Simpson shoppers, according to Spencer, is in the Midwest; now that its e-commerce operation is live, the company is focusing on opening brick-and-mortar stores in that area of the country. Simpson's team is currently brainstorming what a Jessica Simpson store could look like, and Sequential will likely roll out the first locations over the next year.

"We're designing the stores right now and are looking for partners to help execute that," he says. "Brick-and-mortar is the next necessary step. To a certain extent, when you wholesale to other retailers, for good or bad, they get to tell the story of the product offering you show to customers. We want it to come from Jessica."

Simpson rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Brent N. Clarke/Getty Images

Sequential is also planning to take the brand into even more categories, as well as grow its international presence. In October, it will debut athleisure, arguably retail's most popular sector. Next, there are plans to unveil both a home collection and a full beauty line.

"Jessica's a wife and a mom that keeps a beautiful home that she designs, so we want to parlay that expertise into commerce," Spencer says. "And 70 percent of the beauty market is skincare, so we're not exactly utilizing that by just having fragrance."

While the Camuto Group and Sequential would like shoppers to believe Simpson has a real hand in her brand — Spencer tells me she flies to New York three to four times a year to meet with business partners, and that "two, three, four products are being presented to Jessica and her team every single day for approval" — not everyone buys it.

"She's had great partners," says Knapp. "She was built by a clothing manufacturer who understands how to make quality goods. They know distribution channels, imports, and exports."

"She's had great partners. She was built by a clothing manufacturer who understands how to make quality goods."

Most customers, of course, don't think about the behind-the-scenes machinations. They just really like Jessica.

"I love your shoes, your accessories, and your clothes!" gushes one fan on Simpson's Instagram, going on to proclaim that the star didn't disappoint with "styles for both my pregnancies with your maternity line!"

"Just bought a pair of your jeans the other day!" writes another fan over on Facebook. "It's very hard to find jeans that fit me and are stylish and affordable as I am on a tight budget for new fall clothes this year. I love your style and so happy for your beautiful family and how you've become such a beautiful person."

The Camuto Group's DelCielo admits that keeping Simpson front and center in the brand's ad campaigns helps: "It lays it all out for the customer that she's actually involved with her company." Or gives that impression, at least.

Even though I've been waiting for close to three hours in a mob of furious reporters (some of whom have been there for double that time), I'm suddenly anxious when my promised "exclusive interview" materializes. I grew up listening to Simpson's music and watching her TV show; I'm used to interviewing business executives, not bona fide celebrities.

I'm ushered into the curtained-off area where Simpson stands — petite, glowing, pleasantly perfumed. She leans forward to greet me, and I'm so eager that I find myself kissing her on the cheek, a gesture she accepts with polite surprise.

"Making things affordable is really important to me," she says, her honey eyes peering out beneath heavily lined lids. "We couldn't afford much growing up, but I never wanted to wear the same thing twice. And I'm the daughter of a pastor! So I think affordable fashion is what every woman in America wants and that's what I want to give her."

Photo: Michael Thompson

I ask her how she feels in this very moment, a $1 billion fashion label tied to her name, throngs of people clawing at each other just to get close.

"It's a very emotional, very proud moment for me. To think that it all started with cowboy boots is pretty hilarious!" she laughs.

I have lots of other questions: Is she going to launch a lifestyle site like Gwyneth did? Does she miss making music? Does she still feel insecure about being compared to Britney?

I don't get an opportunity to ask any of these though. After a full 45 seconds with Simpson, I'm abruptly cut off and escorted out of the room into an empty courtyard that leads back to the party. All that's left for me to do is douse myself with her new fragrance, Jessica Simpson Ten, which was released in conjunction with the anniversary and is displayed on tables all around the party. Then I leave, simultaneously star-struck and annoyed by false PR promises.

But later that night I find myself trawling the Jessica Simpson site in hopes of finding the jumpsuit Simpson wore to the party. She looked so great in it — maybe if I buy it, I will too? Oh right, this is how you build a billion-dollar brand.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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