Jessica Simpson is no fashion fluke.
With her fashion empire expected to hit $1 billion in retail sales next year, Simpson sits atop a wide-ranging enterprise that stretches from better junior sportswear and dresses to handbags, fashion jewelry, intimate apparel and fragrances. In fact, 22 licensing agreements have been signed to produce Jessica Simpson merchandise, with home, fine jewelry, cosmetics and men’s wear on the radar.
“The bigger it gets, the more stressful it gets,” said the 30-year-old Simpson, dressed in a body-hugging striped knit dress from her G-III dress license, in an interview in New York, during a visit to meet with licensees and see products.
When the pop star entered the business, she never imagined where it might take her. Since aligning herself with Camuto Group, the Greenwich, Conn.-based company that purchased the brand’s master license for $15 million in August 2005, the business has skyrocketed.
“I didn’t really know I was going to be able to take on the fashion world, but when I was given the opportunity to start a line of shoes, I jumped right on board,” said Simpson. “Vince Camuto is definitely a role model to me when it comes to making shoes. He just believed in me from ‘Newlyweds’ [her former MTV reality show that ran from August 2003 through March 2005]. He just thought I could relate to the everyday consumer, and that I had it in me to design and wear the product.”
Bursting onto the music scene as a teenager, Simpson was discovered by an independent record producer while singing at the altar in church. Later, Tommy Mottola, then-president of Columbia Records, signed her to her first major record deal, in 1997, and she had her first Top 10 hit at 19, followed by several more. After marrying Nick Lachey, of the boy band 98 Degrees, in 2003, the couple became household names with the short-lived “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.” She went on to appear in several films, including “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Employee of the Month” and “Blonde Ambition.”
Early on, the young bride was teased for wondering whether “Chicken of the Sea” tuna was actually chicken, and she made other ditsy statements that amused a snarky public. She’s had to endure old boyfriends like singer-songwriter John Mayer calling their sex life “sexual napalm” in Playboy magazine, and has been steadily criticized in the tabloids for her shifts in weight. Through it all, she’s managed to maintain a decidedly stiff upper lip and a favorable public opinion.
According to the winter 2011 Performer Q study from Q Scores Co., among females and males 18 to 34 years old, Simpson’s awareness is 91 percent, versus an average of 71 percent among performers. “Pretty much everyone in that age group knows who she is. It’s top tier awareness,” said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores Co. Her Q score — the percentage of people familiar with her who rate her as one of their favorites — is 15 percent, which is average for performers.
After a high-profile divorce from Lachey in 2006, Simpson was linked romantically with Mayer and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and last November became engaged to Eric Johnson, a Yale graduate who spent five years in the NFL, playing for the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. She recently relaunched her music career and released her first greatest-hits compilation, “Playlist: The Very Best of Jessica Simpson,” in October, followed by “Happy Christmas” in November. Most recently, her name has surfaced as a potential judge for Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor.”
“They have definitely talked to me about ‘X Factor,’ ” Simpson confided. “I think it would be a lot of fun. It’s definitely my life. To be a mentor for up-and-coming artists is right up my alley. I would have loved to have a mentor. I love watching people’s dreams come true.” While she may not have had a mentor, Simpson’s parents, Joe, who is still a minister, and Tina, have managed their daughters’ careers every step of the way. (Jessica’s younger sister is singer Ashlee Simspon.)
As far as taking another walk down the aisle goes, Simpson said she’s in no rush to get married again. Sporting a ruby and diamond engagement ring, she said she’s enjoying the engagement period. “No date has been set yet. We’ve both been married before. We’re enjoying our commitment to each other. We want to take our time,” said Simpson. Nor has she determined who will design The Dress. “I will be part of designing my own wedding gown. We might elope if it gets to that point.”
“But not without telling your mom,” interjected Tina Simpson, co-creative director of her daughter’s fashion line.
Tina and Jessica, who complete each other’s sentences, are intertwined when it comes to their burgeoning fashion business. Since Jessica is often busy with entertainment projects, it’s Tina who holds the fashion company together, coming to New York for a week each month to meet with licensees, go over designs and approve products. Jessica often attends the meetings too.
“How the brand looks and how it all comes together is me, and Jessica, and our team,” said Tina, who also works with her best friend, Beth Pliler, brand manager of the Jessica Simpson Collection. (Pliler was Jessica’s dance teacher in Texas but now helps Tina with logistics.)
So how does Jessica juggle her fashion career and various entertainment projects?
“It all works together,” she said. “I really don’t look at myself as just one thing. I’m kind of scattered and like to have my hands in a lot of different projects. It makes me who I am. It’s what defines me. What I wear, what I sing, the songs I write, the projects I choose all have to represent Jessica Simpson. I wouldn’t take certain jobs if they were to take away from the positive role model that the Jessica Simpson Collection has allowed me to establish…because this is my number-one priority.”
To be sure, the business initially took off based on footwear, for which Camuto, founder of Nine West, is well-known.
“Vince is shoes,” Jessica said. “He makes incredible shoes that are affordable and comfortable, and they look high fashion — like they’d be $500, when they’re $69 or $70.”
But Simpson’s brand has since expanded well beyond footwear, and it is expected to get another big push this fall with the addition of the better junior sportswear collection, which is licensed to The Jones Group. Jones already produces the brand’s jeanswear.
“[This will] give the consumer something to dress up in, to feel like a lady, to feel sophisticated, yet it has some sort of funk and flair to it,” Jessica said.“It has a lot of style to it. It’s not your average suit or skirt. It has lots of fun details. We wanted to change things up for the everyday working girl who wants to feel her age. It could be for a girl’s first job, or an internship. She could be in her 20s, 30s, even 40s. My mom would wear it, and she’s over 50.”
“We have to think broad. We have a large demographic,” said Tina, 51.