June 29, 2009 — -- The empresses have no clothes ... or fewer clothes, anyway.
At least three celebrities have temporarily halted or altogether closed their fashion lines in recent months. Jennifer Lopez's Sweetface brand said last week it was putting itself "on hiatus," reality TV star Lauren Conrad's first collection was put on hold in March, and singer Mandy Moore's line hit its last note in February.
"Sex and the City" style icon Sarah Jessica Parker might have unwittingly started the trend in November, when the only store selling her line, retailer Steve & Barry's, filed for bankruptcy. It's unclear if Parker's low-cost Bitten brand will find a new home.
It just goes to show, experts say, that a famous name isn't always enough to stay afloat in the fierce world of fashion, especially in a killer economy.
"It's a tough industry, and you're kind of only as good as your last season," said Lori Wachs, a portfolio manager specializing in retail at Delaware Investments.
The recession has taken a toll on the fashion industry worldwide, with apparel retailers and department stores ranging from Abercrombie & Fitch to Neiman Marcus reporting continued declines in sales.
"This has been one of the most difficult retail environments that we've ever seen," Wachs said. "It's becoming survival of the fittest."
But the slumping economy isn't the only challenge facing celebrity designers.
Jenise Uehara, a blogger for CelebrityClothingLine.com, said, "Success depends on how well the celebrity's persona, or personal style actually reconciles with the line they are hawking."
Lauren Conrad Goes in Another Direction
Parker's discount Bitten line, Uehara said in an e-mail, is a great example.
"Who could picture Carrie Bradshaw wearing $40 heels?" she said.
The line's target customers should also match the celebrity's fan base, Uehara said. Kanye West, she said, got that right with his "Air Yeezy" sneakers, which the rapper put out in collaboration with Nike.
"Kanye's fans think of themselves as fashion-forward streetwear aficionados," she said. "The Air Yeezy's retail price was in the mid $200 range, but they are already going for over $1,000 on eBay, and you cannot get them in stores without waiting in line overnight."
Conrad may have had her young fans' budgets mind when she decided to halt her upscale brand, which had been on sale at Bloomingdale's, as well as various boutiques.
A representative for "The Hills" alum said Conrad opted to put the collection on hold because she's busy launching a lower-priced line, LC Lauren Conrad, with Kohl's.
"I think that Lauren does listen to her fans, and I think that was a really important reason for her to team up with Kohl's in that it is a great outlet, and it is clothing that is very affordable in this economy," the representative said.
The Kohl's collaboration may, indeed, be a smart move on Conrad's part. Analyst Wachs said that stars generally have more success when they partner with big retailers because retailers have the infrastructure necessary to develop and sell a line.
Follow Jay-Z's Lead
Of course, even joining forces with a retailer isn't foolproof -- as Parker's experience with now-bankrupt Steve & Barry's has shown -- but Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman said that for many celebs, flirting with the fashion business is worth the risk.
Bragman said that while there have been plenty of failed celebrity lines -- even before the recession struck -- those that do succeed can bring windfalls to their star backers. In 2007, for instance, rapper Jay-Z sold his Rocawear line for $204 million to the fashion company Iconix. The rapper kept a stake in Rocawear and continues to market the brand.
The ultimate celeb fashion success story may belong to former "Charlie's Angel" star Jaclyn Smith. She started her fashion line in 1985 and, nearly 25 years later, clothes bearing her name still line the racks at discount retailer K-Mart. More than 100 million women have purchased clothing or accessories from Smith's brand, according to her Web site.
"She targeted a mass audience, she was smart," Bragman said of Smith. "A celebrity doesn't guarantee success and they're not recession-proof but when you go into a store and there's hundreds of lines. It's a name you know."
When celeb designers don't find sartorial success, experts say there's still a light at the end of the tunnel, possibly from a paparazzi's flash bulb.
"It allows you to expand your brand and gets you known for something other than just acting, if that's your goal," Bragman said. "It's a chance for more attention and publicity."
Publicity Is Fleeting
How long that publicity lasts is another story.
"Celeb-backed lines are great for an instant flash of publicity. It's almost a guarantee of getting that blip on the public's radar," blogger Uehara said, "but staying there is the tricky part."