Who are you wearing? Why, it's a Gwen

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Celebrities are fast moving from Fashion Week's front rows to its back stages as musicians, models and actresses flood the apparel market with their own design labels.

Pop star Gwen Stefani will close a week of New York's Spring 2006 fashion previews Sept. 16 with a highly anticipated debut appearance for her year-old L.A.M.B. line, filling the spot that Jennifer Lopez had last year for her Sweetface line. The House of Dereon line from Destiny's Child singer Beyonce was expected to appear at this week's fashion show lineup, but it's been postponed until the fall 2006 shows. The label, however, will still hit stores this fall amidst a slew of other celeb fashion entries aiming at the mass market, including Jessica Simpson's JS Collection, Sweet Kisses and Princy lines, Justin Timberlake's William Rast and Mariah Carey's underwear line, Mariah Kiss Kiss.

Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group, said celebrities have become the new vehicle for lifestyle products in fragrance, fashion, automotive or home decor, a trend that is being driven both by consumer fascination in all aspects of celebrities' lives and by the desire of celebrities themselves to move beyond one-dimensional success as actors or musicians. "They all want to be a conglomerate, viewing themselves as successful only by the number of businesses they're involved in," Mr. Cohen said.

Close to saturation

But, he said, "there is a saturation point and we're very close to it." Just as the success of J. Lo and Britney Spears have driven a slew of competitors in the booming celebrity-fragrance arena, rappers Russell Simmons and Diddy, with their respective Phat Farm and Sean John lines, have sparked a major glut of celebrity designers over the last few years. The celebrity-label segment three years ago didn't even make up 6% of the $175 billion apparel business. Now it hovers just over 10% and Mr. Cohen expects it will get close to 15% within the next four years. But while probably 100 brands associated with celebrities will be unveiled in the next year, he said likely only a fifth will be remotely successful.

Traditional success measures, such as profitability, however, are not the only measures of celebrity lines. Retailers ranging from luxury purveyor Nordstrom's to mass marketer Wal-Mart (who signed the Olsen twins for an exclusive apparel deal) are using celebrity-backed design lines as marketing tools to lure customers. "When J. Lo goes into Macy's to promote Sweetface, it causes huge excitement," said Jenny B. Fine, associate editor at WWD and editor of WWD's Beauty Biz. Fashion is indeed following in the footsteps of fragrance, a long-struggling category for department stores that Ms. Fine said has been "electrified" by the recent wave of celebrity launches.

NPD Group data show that women's celebrity-fragrance sales grew from $45.3 million in sales in 2000 to $94.9 million in sales in 2004, a trend that shows no signs of abating with coming launches from Sarah Jessica Parker, Beyonce and even Carlos Santana.

The rationale for the celebrity launches is simple, according to Kenneth Hirst, president-creative director of strategic design company Hirst Pacific: celebrities offer a ready-made brand. "Using a celebrity to front a new line is much easier and less expensive than building a new brand from scratch," Mr. Hirst said. From a public-relations standpoint, he added, these celebrities are in the limelight all the time, from The New York Post's Page Six to the covers of tabloids and "Entertainment Tonight," a fact that makes featuring the lines a no-brainer for retailers and fashion-influencing magazine editors.

Susan Kaufman, style director for Time Inc.'s People, said she gets updated weekly on all the celebrity fashion brands and wants to be the first to showcase them to readers, as the celebrity weekly did with Jessica Simpson's line in a preview article last March.

The ubiquity of their celebrity backers also offers a broader array of marketing vehicles for the new lines. By the time Beyonce's House of Dereon line hits shelves in October, for example, consumers will already have seen highlights during concerts and on CDs, outlets certainly not available to every upstart fashion designer. But Raul Martinez, CEO and executive creative director of House of Dereon's ad agency AR, said that, like any fashion designer, it's important that celebrity designers still develop a singular vision and voice so that the line "becomes bigger than the person, it becomes a brand."

Unlike many of the mass celebrity lines, Gwen Stefani's L.A.M.B. is being embraced by the more serious high-fashion arena because of the pop star's notorious personal style, which Vogue fashion news/features director Sally Singer calls "terrifically original and inspirational to women of varying ages." For the most part, however, Ms. Singer said Vogue's more sophisticated fashion buyers might see a celebrity name as a disadvantage. "They might want to look like J. Lo, but they don't want to buy her dress."

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