Frock Stars: If celebrity clothing ranges are the death knell of cool – why do we still buy into them?

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The power of celebrity is undeniable, but do we still care about their clothing ranges?

On the publicity trail for her new book of memoirs last week, American Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington was asked what she thought of celebrity fashion. Her  response? “Don’t get me started.”

It’s something of a consensus now, isn’t it, that celebrity clothing is pretty much the death knell of cool – and if the  flame-haired oracle says so, we need to listen up. But apparently, we continue to buy into it – in the past year, we’ve had The X Factor judge and ladette loudmouth Tulisa Contostavlos for the high-street chain Bank; Madonna designing with her daughter Lourdes; Lauren Pope and Gemma Collins of The Only Way is Essex, the latter  presenting a range of plus-size clothing for the website Simplybe.co.uk, and from the one-time “star” and “singer/songwriter” Caggie Dunlop of Made in Chelsea.

Yoko Ono – arguably more celebrity than artist ever since the Beatles split – has also just showcased a men’s fashion range for the LA concept store Opening Ceremony. It features hand prints on crotches, sleeves in mismatched colours and a naïve illustration that looks for all the world like a pair of unmentionables.

If the former personages don’t strike you as  particularly famous, perhaps that’s an answer in itself. According to Mintel, only one in 20 adults admit to shopping with the intention of dressing themselves or their children like their favourite stars. Gone are the days when customers queued all day and almost all night to get their hands on Kate Moss’s first collection for Topshop in 2007. That, surely, was the nadir of the celebrity fashion designer: an icon, if you will, that everyone then wanted to look and dress like, presenting for us an affordable version of her own wardrobe. And if that was the recipe for success, no wonder Lily Allen’s collection for New Look – graffitied prom dresses and trainers – released a month later bombed.

So whither the Mossy effect? Celeb ranges that aimed to inherit the mantle she set aside in 2010 include DJ Fearne Cotton’s line for Very.co.uk, and Emma Watson’s foray into ethical fashion for the brand People Tree, but the former has not garnered the same widespread hysteria and the latter, well, that project folded back in March.

Perhaps the reason is that now we’re inured to the power of celebrity when it comes to our wardrobes. Thanks to the internet and social media, we the public are far more fashion literate than five years ago: we watch catwalk shows live-streamed; we read tweets from backstage; we buy into collaborations with real, even avant-garde, designers in our droves – just witness Versace and Maison Martin Margiela for H&M this year, JW Anderson for Topshop last September, and Pierre Hardy’s repeated successes with winter boots and summer sandals at Gap. If we’re going to spend money, then we want our labels to be made by people who know what they’re doing – which is one reason Moss did so well at Topshop. Because she isn’t a celebrity in the true sense of the word; she was created by the fashion industry, has worn some of the most amazing clothes ever created and, presumably, knows a thing or two about what she likes and doesn’t like. Dunlop on the other hand (the one from Made in Chelsea, keep up) doesn’t.

Similarly, a much-hyped collection for River Island by Rihanna is set to launch early next year. This feels ever-so-slightly less spurious or contrived, because the singer has actually been spotted wearing the label in the past and  is recognised as a star with serious fashion points, whether in high street or haute couture.

“Rihanna is the ultimate street styler,” Katherine Ormerod, Grazia’s fashion news  editor, says. “She seems more authentic than many other starlets. The fact she chooses to wear the brand, when luxury labels are falling over  themselves to dress her, is no mean feat.” It’s for this reason that brands are still backing celebs: choose a personality well, someone with real  credentials, and people will want a piece of it.

The perennially glamorous Kardashians released a capsule for Dorothy Perkins last month; Selfridges has brought on board collections by the rapper Tinie Tempah and ex-Take That bad boy Robbie Williams. So maybe our appetite for famous fashion isn’t on the wane after all. “Shoppers are smart,” Ryan Crisp, a menswear buyer at Selfridges, says. “They understand when a collection is being sold to them in a cynically driven way. In order to resonate properly, celebrity-endorsed products shouldn’t be positioned as mass-market – it needs to feel premium. It’s about buying into something special.”

Certainly, this is the direction that Victoria Beckham has taken with her fashion empire (she has a main line, a diffusion range, accessories and a denim line), as have former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, whose luxury womenswear label The Row has  become a brand beloved by fearsomely high-earning and prestigious New York execs – who very rarely realise the names behind the name. “Very few celebrities are either so fascinating or appalling that they manage to get under our skins,” wrote fashion editor Cathy Horyn of the pair in The New York Times in 2009. “Yet their success in the field of fashion is impossible to deny.”

Beckham, meanwhile, boasts rave reviews, sell-out collections, some of the most prestigious stockists and glamorous customers in the world, and as of spring 2013, a footwear collaboration with Manolo Blahnik – if that isn’t industry  acceptance, nothing is. She is credited with  creating a mode of dressing that is all her own: part minimal, part luxe, entirely chic. Fashion editors go mad for it and the fact she once had a plastic catsuit and a backcombed bob is entirely forgotten. Mind you, she’s tried very hard to leave that behind – as have the Olsens their cutesy past. To be a serious celebrity designer these days,  customers need to forget that they knew you  before you were part of the industry.

It’s a far cry from when we used to walk, literally, in our idols’ shoes – these days, we’re just after their approval. The Mobama effect, for example, or the Kate Middleton phenomenon has meant that shops frequented by the two most photographed women in the world, such as J Crew and Reiss, have experienced a sustained up-surge in sales quite beyond people looking merely to buy copy-cat pieces.

“At Asos, we’ve come full circle on the celebrity front,” the head of press Annette Burke says. “Having started as a site where versions of celebrity outfits were sold at accessible price points, we’ve now launched our own brand, which is worn consistently by high-profile personalities, from Michelle Obama to Lana del Rey.

“The customer can relate more when [celebrities] mix these pieces in with the high-end ranges that they have access to, rather than solely wearing brands they design or are paid to endorse.”

The conclusion seems to be then, while we  initially wanted to dress up as celebrities, now we only wish to dress in a similar way; we’ve become less literal and our tastes have matured.

Or so we hope. Let that be your watchword: it’s OK to buy a coat like Tulisa’s (or even Caggie Dunlop’s, if you must) but don’t buy a coat that purports to have been made by her. Because crooked seams will be the last of your worries.

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