Kim Kardashian Inc. (NYT 18/11/10)
FOR many longtime readers of W, the elite society bible, the appearance of the reality television star Kim Kardashian on the cover of its November issue was an outrage — “No iteration of W should give credence to such banalities,” wrote one angered reader. For many residents of SoHo, the appearance of a Kardashian-owned clothing boutique in their neighborhood two weeks ago was also an unwelcome event, made more upsetting when a mob of fans turned up and prompted calls to 911. (Sean Sweeney, the director of the SoHo Alliance, was quoted in The Villager describing those fans as “a generation of classless, tasteless and clueless sheep.”)
The amount of hostility toward Ms. Kardashian seems to raise the same question you might ask when presented with the amount of admiration for her, or the fact that, on her Twitter account, she has 5.3 million followers: Why do people care?
This much is known to anyone: Ms. Kardashian is famous, gorgeous and lives her life voluntarily under the microscope of reality television. More to the point, as the branding expert Robert K. Passikoff put it in a phone interview this week, “You would have had to be living in a cave in Nepal to have not been exposed in one way or another to the celebrity ilk of Kim Kardashian.” The scene on the corner of Broadway and Broome Street on Tuesday at noon suggested there were few, if any, cave-dwelling Nepali tourists in the vicinity of SoHo that day. There was a line of more than 100 men and women of varying nationalities, most in their 20s, waiting behind a sign in front of the Bebe store that invited them to meet Ms. Kardashian.
As her black SUV pulled up to the curb, precisely on schedule, it was as if another 100 had instantly materialized to document her arrival with cellphone cameras. She was wearing a black blazer with velvet panels, black Bebe leggings and her hair in a bun. Turning toward the cameras, she offered up her signature look — the head tilted slightly, lips apart, as if she had just blown a kiss.
The occasion was the introduction of a jewelry collection designed by Ms. Kardashian for Bebe, which is being sold alongside the dresses, leggings and tops she already designs for Bebe. This is a different jewelry collection from the one Ms. Kardashian announced last month, which she is creating with Pascal Mouawad and calls Belle Noel, and different from the jewelry collection she designed in February with Virgins, Saints & Angels. And the clothes are different from the dresses, leggings and tops Ms. Kardashian sells on QVC under the label K-Dash by Kardashian.
It is true that Ms. Kardashian, along with her sisters Kourtney and Khloé, and their mother, Kris Jenner, command a branding empire that includes fashion boutiques, fitness videos, credit cards, a best-selling fragrance, skin care products and a self tanner. Ms. Kardashian herself has represented many other products in advertisements, including some that a reasonable person might consider to be sending mixed messages. In one ad she promotes QuickTrim weight-loss products; in another, Carl’s Jr. While it is not unusual for celebrities who are famous for being famous to aggressively capitalize on their exposure, Ms. Kardashian, who made her debut on the public stage in the form of a sex tape, stands out for the fact that she is generally still regarded in a positive light by many consumers.
Mr. Passikoff, the president of Brand Keys, a New York research company that monitors consumer perception of brands, noted that Ms. Kardashian is currently tied with Snooki at the top of its celebrity loyalty index, a survey that gauges consumer engagement with celebrities. Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian also figure in the top seven.
“There was a time when Paris Hilton topped that list, when she was the most famous person for being nothing we had ever seen,” Mr. Passikoff said. (Ms. Hilton is now in third place.) Interestingly, he noted, many consumers associate Ms. Kardashian with entrepreneurship, far more so than other celebrities.
Outside Bebe, though, a more complicated picture emerged as to what draws all these young people to Ms. Kardashian. Most of them had heard about the event on Twitter, and most said they saw something inspiring in her example. But what does she represent?
“The average girl,” said Julie Sunday, 22, from Scranton, Pa., who recently left a job doing accounting work for a political media buying company in Washington.
“She represents fashion,” said Wendy Sosa, 22, a waitress from the Bronx. “I like the way she dresses.”
“She has an ethnic sex appeal,” said Sarah Harooni, 26, a paralegal from Queens. “I like how she created a franchise with her sisters. That opens a lot of opportunities for women who have a spark of beauty and want to shine. She reminds me of Sophia Loren.”
“She stands out from every other celebrity in the world,” said Emma Brodel, 21, a journalism student from Queensland, Australia. “She is natural and curvaceous. There are too many thin celebrities out there who make women feel they are overweight.”
Ms. Kardashian, who is 30, is unfailingly polite when discussing her brand, one that was largely created through her public exposure since 2007 on the E! reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” She does not talk about fashion and image as most designers and celebrity designers do, with platitudes about quality and authenticity, but rather as a person who seems wholly content to allow consumers to project upon her whatever image they wish.
“I really do believe I am a brand for my fans,” she said.
She does not talk about design in terms of cut or craft, either, but of Twitter and Facebook, of blogs and text messages. When fans ask her what she is wearing or what lip gloss she uses, she answers them and then creates products in the vein of what they like. When she was deciding on a color for her Kim Kardashian perfume bottle, she asked her followers on Twitter whether they preferred a hot pink or a light pink. (It was light pink, by far.) “Twitter is the most amazing focus group out there,” she said.
But ultimately, what Ms. Kardashian and her sisters create and sell are products based on their own image, and not much of it is particularly distinctive from the standard uniforms of Southern California nightclubs. At Bebe, the best-selling item has been a slinky one-shoulder dress for $98. At QVC, one of the most popular items on its Web site has been a slinky one-shoulder dress for $49.75. Both collections have leggings that can be worn with cute printed tunics. All of her jewelry collections have a slightly vintage feel and strong influences of Armenian design, reflecting Ms. Kardashian’s familial roots.
“I try to find inspiration from what is on the runway,” Ms. Kardashian said. “But I think hoops are a staple. Whether or not they are in, we always get compliments on them.”
The Bebe jewelry, priced from $24 to $98, includes Lucite hoops accented with gold flakes and gold hoops trimmed with what look like tiny jewels, which Ms. Kardashian wore to her store appearance Tuesday.
“We make the kind of clothes we like to wear,” she said. “We give answers to the questions our customers are asking. I think that’s why we’ve been successful.”