Just days ago, comedienne and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres debuted her new clothing line, ED, and website, joining a crowded field of celebrity retail sites spearheaded by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Blake Lively, and Reese Witherspoon.
At about the same time of the launch, Martha Stewart, whose empire at the dawn of the new century was worth some $2 billion, sold her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, to brand management and licensing deal company Sequential Brands Group for $353 million in cash. And in a recent turn of events, both Macy's and PVH have discontinued lines of Donald Trump-branded merchandise in reaction to disparaging remarks the billionaire made about immigrants from Mexico.
Enter in the new era of celebrity retail. From cultivating and maintaining a unique look, to growing a dedicated following, here are some lessons other celebrities, and maybe even traditional retailers, can learn from these famous new entrepreneurs.
How Martha Stewart unraveled
In Stewart's retail efforts, which included branded signature home goods sold at Kmart, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Staples, the name Martha Stewart lent a sense of precision in good taste, even when the items weren’t necessarily of good quality. Stewart became famous for her strict application of taste and her recognizable color palette of pale browns, seafoams, and robin’s egg blue.
Gluttons for punishment subscribed to her magazine, and her painstaking approach invited parody. But she helped usher in a renewed appreciation of hand-made and home-made items and meals, and spurred interest in activities like knitting, probably paving the way for artisanal marketplace Etsy.
But it wasn’t the stint in prison that Stewart served for insider trading in the early aughts that undid her empire. (It actually may have only solidified her reputation for strength and stick-to-it-iveness.) Rather, it was her inability to transfer her formidable skills to a world that began to shift to the web and social media to both communicate and conduct business.
Cultivate a lifestyle
Martha Stewart made her name through her media and retail efforts, while Paltrow, Witherspoon, Lively, and DeGeneres already enjoyed fame and leveraged it to launch their retail companies.
Still, it’s clear that they have likely taken a page from Stewart’s approach. That word “Living” in the title of Stewart’s magazine and company is no accident. It telegraphs that all those how-to chapters, guidance in choosing paint colors, and complicated recipes add up to an overall primer on how to achieve a certain cohesive lifestyle. And that is also what Paltrow, Witherspoon, and DeGeneres are selling.
Gwyneth Paltrow, a celebrity that some people love to hate, is eager to share the steps to bliss — or at least righteous meaningfulness through the right face cream, just-right recipes, and even divorce.
Witherspoon and DeGeneres furnish sensibilities that come through their identities and what seems to be their own genuine interest in their own American niche. Witherspoon plays up her Southern roots and DeGeneres showcases in her good design within her comfortable, no-nonsense, and what she calls “non-gender specific” choices in apparel and other goods.
"Draper James was built on the backdrop of Reese's Southern past which is both timely and relevant. Not only is the South having a cultural surge, but it has a rich ecosystem that we tapped into on every level," says Draper James CEO Andrea Hyde, formerly president of now-defunct C Wonder.
Chris Burch, the C Wonder founder who was also once Tory Burch’s husband, is also a founding partner in DeGeneres’ brand.
“I set out to fill a void in the marketplace of high quality, comfortable yet chic and easy-to-wear pieces with impeccable detailing,” DeGeneres said upon ED’s launch. “I am so excited I partnered with Chris Burch who shares my passion for good design and amazing product. Today my ED line has finally launched and everyone can now have a piece of me… You know what I mean.”
Share, don't preach, the lifestyle
Though Paltrow’s somewhat bossy cool-girl approach grates on some, these celebrities by and large have presented their retail efforts as an invitation to an exclusive club or a gathering of like-minded individuals, rather than a system of preachy “shoulds” that Martha Stewart’s fans were subjected to — and, for a while at least — actually wanted and appreciated.
That, no doubt, comes from the democratic power just about everyone enjoys thanks to the web. On Pinterest, Instagram, even Facebook, not to mention all kinds of blogs, the consumer can also be the curator; the follower can also lead — in general, participation is power.
Maintain a point of view, no matter the outlet
It’s no accident that these new sites have started in e-commerce, with some dabbling in brick-and-mortar. Paltrow has experimented with pop-up boutiques, DeGeneres plans to partner with third-party retailers, as Stewart did, and Witherspoon’s Draper James plans a physical flagship store in Nashville to open this fall.
The key to these sites is that they are able to maintain their point of view, while also preserving that participatory feeling. Some of them may be still figuring out some fundamentals, like what their ideal price points are. But to survive the parallel ridicule they often invite, not to mention the very real challenges of today’s retail environment, these celebrity brands must, above all, somehow maintain a sense of authenticity.
Stay authentic — but still keep a retail edge
Blake Lively, whose site Preserve is touted as a source for made-in-the-USA goods and all good things Americana, has become the poster child of the struggle to offer a clean, simple reason to buy things there, in part because Lively herself seems unsure of herself.
“I’m no editor, no artisan, no expert,” Lively wrote in a statement that has since been scrubbed from the site (but, of course, survives on the web). “And certainly no arbiter of what you should buy, wear, or eat. I am hungry, though… not just for enchiladas. I’m hungry for experience.”
That may actually be the most authentic statement of all of the statements coming from these would-be retailers. But it’s not much of a sales pitch.
“Blake’s statement is actually the most heartfelt, but the connection with the product falls through,” designer Erin Harp-LeForce told Digiday. “It comes off like she doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
That "connection with the product" is what all retailers are trying to forge with their customers. While celebrities may seem like they have an advantage in that department, the successful ones will probably have seasoned retail experts on board to give them the real edge.