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It’s September of 2016, but by the time most of the pieces shown actually hit stores, they’ll have already been copied ad infinitum by cheaper, lightening-fast fast-fashion brands, and therefore woefully passé. It’s why some designers have adopted the "see now, buy now" philosophy of making clothes available as soon as they march down the runway (which makes a whole lot of sense), and others are shirking the fashion calendar altogether, presenting new collections when it’s right for the brand and not when tradition dictates.
But none of that matters, really. All they need are the Kardashians.
Humor me for a moment, and allow "the Kardashians" to be a metaphor for the business of fashion in 2016 in general. Like how a single extended family’s (and the entire class of famouses to which they belong) overexposure arguably has a bigger influence on the way non-famouses dress than actual fashion designers. Or how something as broad and complex as one’s "lifestyle" is increasingly becoming a quantifiable and commoditized concept. Or how when you think about it, every quintessentially Kardashian look pretty much boils down to an algorithm.
So some weird things are happening in fashion right now. One of these weird things is the Kardashian effect, otherwise known as "Monica Rose is very, very good at her job." Rose is the stylist for the sisters Kardasho-Jenner and the blonder of the Hadids, as well as the mother Teigen and the daughter Crawford (technically Gerber, although you might not know her name yet. Don’t worry, you will). Rose is the person responsible for the equation "thigh-high boot + nude bodycon + choker = the only outfit you’ll ever need," and the reason the closest thing America has to a royal family have traded Hervé Leger for Balmain and beachy maxidresses for neutral robe coats.
The Kardashian effect, or the Kardashians’ ability to influence consumer habits, manifests itself in many ways, but the general idea is that whatever the Kardashian women wear, magazines and fashion blogs like this one will generally consider it news. And it is, technically! In the interest of servicing her readers, the writer will often include information on which brand made said outfit, as well as a link to buy it for yourself, almost as though you were the one harnessing the power of a high-profile celebrity stylist. (Fashion media: you get it!)
Take, for instance, Kendall Jenner’s almost comically unassuming gray sweatshirt in the photograph above, which was the inspiration for the equally hilarious Elle.com headline, "Only Kendall Jenner Could Make Me Want a $350 Sweatshirt." There’s nothing particularly unusual about the look: walk around in the colder months in any city and you’re likely to see the exact same pairing replicated multiple times over. But what’s novel is that the sweatshirt in question is by Unravel Project, a brand that you, well-informed yet non-famous reader, have almost definitely never heard of, and that didn’t even exist until last year. But against the odds, Unravel Project is now a wardrobe staple of the world’s most famous and least accessible people. And it’s not the only one.
Bubbling up in the space between legacy fashion houses and fast fashion e-commerce sites are brands that are celebrity-level expensive — just much, much quieter. They do little, if any, traditional marketing, fashion presentations aren’t in their DNA, and the general public hasn’t heard of them. And yet celebrities can’t get enough.
Enter Unravel. Launched in 2015 by Ben Taverniti, the idea was to create "timeless essentials," if your version of timeless essentials are a $2,238 pair of leather lace-up leggings and a $578 cropped cashmere hoodie. This is not an insult. For some, i.e. the very thin and the very wealthy and the professionally cool, these things are both timeless and essential.
But according to Taverniti, the end goal was never to swath celebrity royalty in his clothing. In fact, in the early stages of Unravel, he actively avoided it. But when your then-girlfriend, now-fiancée is Joyce Bonelli, the Kardashians’ extremely famous makeup artist, it was fated to happen eventually.
"I was very scared at first," Taverniti tells Racked. "She’s best friends with the [Kardashian] crew, so she started wearing it, and very quickly people wanted it. I wanted it to be organic, and I don’t think I was ready for celebrities, since they had such a stronger influence. I wanted to make sure the brand was ready to absorb whatever consequences would come from it."
About six months later, Taverniti told Bonelli that it was time. "I told her ‘Okay, I think I’m ready.' Sure enough, it was a tornado that came our way. It was crazy. People would contact Joyce left and right. We’re an amazing team because that’s her world, not mine. People love her, and I’m the more introverted guy. So we have a perfect balance." Today, Unravel is in the process of expanding to more stores, building an online store, and launching traditional collection presentations as soon as January.
And then there is the case of House of CB, the six-year-old UK-based brand founded by now-23-year-old (let that sink in) Conna Walker. After years of selling items on eBay, a 2014 rebrand gave way to Walker dressing virtually every single Hollywood A-lister (including, yes, Beyoncé) in her signature highish-end latex bodycon dresses, sexy two-piece sets, and any hypertrendy silhouette. What’s more, Walker, who opened her fourth store in Los Angeles this summer, has no formal fashion nor business education.
In a time when plenty of brands are churning out similar aesthetics, it’s difficult not to wonder how House of CB was the breakout — and lots of people did, from Teen Vogue to Elle. In a lengthy interview with the latter, Walker explains that through social media (i.e. DM-ing celebrities and reality TV stars for years, sending gifts, and "flooding everyone’s inboxes"), she eventually spotted one of her bodysuits on Kylie Jenner in an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Later, J. Lo wore House of CB on the cover of her album AKA.
"For business, it's amazing," Walker tells the magazine. "It has given us a lot of credibility that could have taken a lot longer to gain. I think that it kind of makes us more desired as a brand. In terms of numbers, I mean, the Kardashian Effect is very real, so whenever they wear anything it sells out immediately."
But newish brands aren’t the only ones who have experienced the strange, often unexpected upside of the Kardashian effect. Since 2003, Israeli-American designer Nili Lotan has been creating minimalist, often loose-fitting, high-end clothing beloved by ‘90s era It-girls like Gwyneth Paltrow and the Christy/ies, both Turlington and Brinkley. With just two stores in Tribeca and East Hampton, the brand had built a reputation among its core cult following as a reliable go-to for wardrobe-building items like modest white blouses, slip dresses, and military-style pants in muted colors.
But since last summer, they’ve noticed a new kind of customer: It-girls of the next generation. It started, a Nili Lotan representative tells Racked, when Monica Rose dressed Gigi Hadid in a pair of military pants. It then snowballed from there, with other young stars like Selena Gomez, Martha Hunt, Jennifer Lawrence, and just last month, both Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner wearing Nili Lotan — more often than not, her popular slip dress. In the year since, nearly every time the brand comes out with a new collection, Rose requests tons of items for her clients. Website traffic, too, has increased.
And yet all three brands’ stories demand the same questions: How? And why now? The cynical presumption among nearly every fashion editor and writer I spoke to about this piece was that somehow, money was being exchanged. Or at least that all three parties involved — celebrities, stylists, and designers — were gaining something from the all-too-suspicious influx of a new or lesser-known designer on the most photographed women in the world.
The real story, however, is a lot less salacious.
The TLDR is that everything comes down to product and circumstance. For Nili Lotan, it’s simple: slip dresses, loose-fitting, well-tailored basics, and all things ‘90s and early ‘00s — in other words, the Nili Lotan aesthetic — are cool right now. It’s also a brand that’s been around long enough so that celebrity stylists are well-versed in its products, and know to think "Nili Lotan" when they’re looking for a certain item.
Conna Walker of House of CB credits her success not only to her aforementioned social media strategy, but the uniqueness of her product. She explains to Elle, "It's funny, because I was speaking to Rob, who is one of J. Lo's stylists, when we were in Vegas, and he said that [he loves it] because it's a sexy brand that not's cheap, if that makes sense. Like, the fit and the fabrics are really good. And he said that they find it difficult to find brands that strike that balance."
Ben Taverniti of Unravel Project addresses the presupposed "creepiness" even before I ask him. "It’s so organic, the relationship with celebrities, and that’s what’s amazing," he says. "They’re friends. It’s nothing creepy about it." While some designers may consider one’s fiancée being a bonafide member of the Kardashian clan an unfair advantage, it’s hard to label what Unravel does as exploiting the relationship.
Taverniti also explains that the Kardashian effect sometimes makes life harder for designers — specifically, determining when exposure turns to overexposure. "That’s part of the strategy," he says when I ask whether it’s difficult to keep up with stylists’ demands. "I don’t want it to be everywhere; I don’t want everybody to have it, because then it’s not special anymore. There’s a special relationship with these pieces that create that need from people. With celebrities, it’s the same thing. They know the power that they have — they don’t want to wear what everybody else has, either. So it’s a respect thing, I think."
Newheart Ohanian, the lead stylist for Lemonade’s cast of celebrity cameos, echoes Tavernti, explaining that generally, when celebrities repeatedly wear brands that seemingly came from nowhere, nothing "creepy," to use Taverniti’s term, is going on. "It hasn’t happened in my experience. That could be something that happens, I don’t know," she says. "But I think they pay in different ways. I’d say they pay in products and gifting," specifying items like a bottle of perfume or a jacket that essentially translate to ‘Hey, we saw you wore one of our shirts, thanks!’
It’s important to note, however, celebrities borrowing or receiving gifted clothing and then wearing them is wildly different from a publicist and a stylist exchanging money and contracts so that said celebrity is required to wear said item. See: Jennifer Lawrence’s contract that requires her to wear Dior exclusively at most high-profile red carpet events until it runs out in 2017.
So why do we tend to assume everything the Kardashians wear is a "hashtag ad," like the ones on their Instagrams of laxative tea? It's likely in part because assuming everything in the world of the uber-famous is a corporate shill makes us feel like we're in on the joke — we couldn't possibly be seduced to buy anything Kendall Jenner wears, because we assume she's getting paid to do so.
But much like when we discovered the Kardashians don't get paid any more than regular people to sell their clothes on the internet, sometimes the truth is much less scandalous than an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians might lead us to believe.
Because after all, sometimes a $350 cashmere sweatshirt is just a sweatshirt. And you can buy it here.