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Headline aside, there’s nothing aw-shucks about Ellen DeGeneres. She is a formidable conversationalist, direct and thoughtful. Over a vegetarian lunch at New York’s Candle 79, the focus was DeGeneres’ ambitious E.D. launch, but the discussion wended through ongoing cultural intolerance, why the red carpet is less welcoming to her than to her wife, Portia de Rossi, and her first, failed foray into fashion years ago. The world just wasn’t ready for ass-less pants.
Ellen DeGeneres: I’m really excited. I have a tendency to not remember things vividly. I have abstract memories of things, but not concrete, so I’m trying to remember this time. I was remembering when we were all sitting at lunch [Ellen, Portia, members of Ellen’s L.A.-based team of advisers, Marisa Gardini and several prospective design-team members] in our Santa Barbara home and I thought, “We’re going to remember this day. We’re going to look back and think, ‘This is the beginning of a big, big business.’”
WWD: How big can E.D. become?
Ellen: As big as it gets. How big can it get? Bigger. I’m not trying to launch a little boutique situation. This is my next phase. The show is the show and when I someday decide to stop doing the show, my entire focus is going to be design.
WWD: Do you think about the show ending?
Ellen: Of course. I mean, I have three more years on my contract and of course, that’s a discussion: “Do I keep going or don’t I? What do I do?” Everyone obviously wants it to keep going and as long as I’m having fun and as long as I’m doing well, I’ll keep going. I am having fun now and the show keeps growing and growing, which is amazing.
WWD: Yet you’re planning your “next phase.”
Ellen: This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. We’ve been very, very picky about how to do it and who to do it with. It’s not that after all of these [celebrities] have come out with all of these lines I go, “Oh, me too!” I think that’s important. And I think it’s important that I’m not licensing my name, that this is me, every decision on design, everything I’m putting out there. No one is going, “And this is what we’re doing.” They’re not telling me what to do. We’re partners and we’re all working together.
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WWD: Explain the name E.D.
Ellen: People will call it what they will, but it is “Ed.” It’s obviously my initials, but Ed is also what Portia has called me for a long time. It’s just a nickname. We wanted it to be my name without it being my name because it should represent much more than just Ellen. I like Ed and we loved the way it looks. The periods are just a design thing.
WWD: Is Portia involved at all? Does she casually tell you, ‘You should do this, you should do that?’
Ellen: She definitely has opinions and she’s in meetings with us because she’s a part of it, but it’s me and we pretty much have the same aesthetic as far as what we like.
WWD: I’ve read about your passion for real estate, for buying homes, redoing them thinking that you’re settled, and then finding another. What speaks to you?
Ellen: I shop all of the time. I love houses and every month I look at every design magazine, I buy every latest design book and architecture book. So I’m always learning and educating myself with new ideas, new inspirations. So when I see something — a new chair or something — I think “Where is that going to go?” I have to move because I have no place for it and I don’t want to put anything in storage.
I know so many people who buy things and then they move things out and into storage. It’s like, you’re not going to use it anymore — sell it. I feel the same way about a home. If you grow out of it.…I’m lucky enough that when I do sell homes, I make money because I improve their value and I know how to do that, though I never do it intentionally. I never look at it as I’m flipping houses.
WWD: And you love the makeover process.
Ellen: I just love aesthetic; I love design. I always have, since I was a little girl. We moved every year and a half and I had to redo a new bedroom each time, so I think that’s where it started. They were apartments because we never owned a home, which also made me want to own a home. And as soon as I had enough money, I bought a house. And then I started making a little more money and I built a house and then I made money on each house. I made more money in real estate early on than my entertainment career.
WWD: When you were young and on the stand-up circuit, did the real estate help support you?
Ellen: I had to first make enough money to buy a house and then it just [moved from there].…I didn’t start out thinking, “I’m going to move and make money and move and make money.” It just turned out that when I lived in a place, what I did to it made it more appealing, and each house was better than the last. Obviously, you’re moving up and I thought, “For sure I’ll stay here.” And then it just became a joke and everybody laughed at me when I said, “This is it, I’m not moving again.” And I really meant it, [until] I realized that I just can’t say that anymore.
WWD: You’re on to yourself.
Ellen: Yes I’m on to myself. And that’s fine. I’ve just always loved design in every area. I just like aesthetic — it’s important to me.
WWD: How you characterize your aesthetic?
Ellen: I don’t think there is one. I think style is beauty and beauty comes in many forms. The only thing that I will stick with as far as what I’m attracted to is my wife. I don’t think I’ll change on that; she’s my favorite. But as far as a home, I love so many different styles. Our place in Santa Barbara is an Italian stone farmhouse, and it’s a whole different vibe than our contemporary house in the city. I like having [both], and if I knew how to live that way I would have a lot of other types of homes. I would have a Spanish home, I would have a Tudor, I would have an East Coast. But I don’t like to live that way. I like simplicity.
WWD: You can love different aesthetics, but as someone launching a lifestyle brand, there has to be a prevailing aesthetic.
Ellen: Oh, yeah, as far as that goes. Well, we were talking about houses.
WWD: Is there a connection?
Ellen: I think it has to be comfortable and I think simple does apply. Simple not in a basic way, but simple in a sophisticated, not tricky, not trendy way. The hardest thing is to find something that will go with anything else, something you can mix and match and wear without it looking like it was last year. I know things have to change, I know that’s what fashion is. But it just drives me crazy when one year, you wear a collar that is three-quarters of an inch and the next year it’s [bigger] and you can tell something is out of style because of the collar. I know that’s the nature of the beast, but I’m going to try to make things that are simple and basic enough that they last. Comfort and quality are really important to me as well. I want my stuff to be dependable so that someone can wash it and it’s still going to look the same and feel the same.
WWD: Why now? When do you find the time?
Ellen: Look, I’m not as busy as a lot of people. I’m not as busy as the President of the United States or Ryan Seacrest. I think that if you love something and if it’s your passion, then you have plenty of time. I think about my show as a very well-oiled machine. I go there every day and we create the show and that’s it. I have many hours of the day to think about design when I go home and I have weekends and I think about it all the time. Why now? It just turns out that the partners came at this time. I’ve been looking to do this for a long time; my team and I have been searching for the way to do this exact thing. I didn’t want to license my name. I wanted it to be me, and I wanted to have partners who knew what they were doing and knew how to build a business. I’m not doing this because I’ve had so many celebrities on the show talking about their perfume or their clothing line or whatever. I would hate for it to look like, “Well then I’m going to do it.” I’ve wanted to do this for ages. We’ve just been picky. We wanted to do it right. I have representation that protects me in every way. Every decision we make, every time I make a deal with anybody, it is because it is me. It is not my name; it is not my brand. It is me. I wanted to do it the right way and it just took this long to find the right team. I feel like it’s the most amazing team, an all-star team.
WWD: How are you approaching the capsule launch for holiday?
Ellen: We’re launching with tabletop. How I see the product is every single thing I’d want in my home. Growing up I knew what I liked. We didn’t have money but I really wanted my bedroom to look a certain way. All I had for an influence was Pier 1; that’s where we went. Even with my first apartment before stand-up, I tried to make it look cool. My awareness was [limited] and my environment was very different because I didn’t read Elle Décor. I didn’t look at all of those things so I didn’t know…
I think now people are a lot more educated because more people read Elle Décor and Dwell and Architectural Digest, and now they have access to furniture because of Design Within Reach, because of Restoration Hardware and because of all of these stores that have popped up that are replicating these [original designs]. So that’s what I want to do. You’re only able to put your house together within a certain budget if you have access to certain things and if you’re educated about them, about what your lighting fixture can be and what your tabletop can look like. So my goal is that people can have a beautiful house, a really comfortable house, without only being able to afford [very expensive] things.
WWD: Money is no longer a constraint for you when working on a house. Are you prepared to be budget-conscious?
Ellen: For a long, long time I was budget-conscious. Quality has to be there. Obviously, there is a difference if you’re buying something from the Gap or Saint Laurent. But if you’re able to have something that’s really stylish, then why not?
WWD: Where will the clothes be positioned in terms of price and customer?
Ellen: As far as price point, it will be midlevel. As far as who it’s for, I think it’s for anyone. I hope that what I wear is something that — I’m 56 — so somebody who’s 56 can wear it, and I also think that someone who’s 18 can wear it. It’s just great clothing. It’s simple: a classic shirt is a classic shirt. Same thing with pants or drawstring pants. It’s for everybody who has the same sensibility that I have.
WWD: Women’s and men’s?
Ellen: Yes I’ll do both.
Ellen: I don’t think we’re starting with dresses but I would [do dresses] because I love to buy Portia dresses. I love Dries Van Noten, I like Comme des Garçons. There are certain deconstructed, simple dresses that I love buying her. So if there is something that I love and I would still proudly represent it as something that I love, it doesn’t matter that I personally wouldn’t wear it. Because if I’m just going to be that specific, it’s kind of limiting for me.