Q&A With Nicole Richie

NEW YORK — It’s about 8:30 p.m. on a brisk, Saturday evening in New York, and Nicole Richie is ready to party. Not the type of partying she did in the old days — which drew plenty of tabloid headlines — but the grown-up kind that comes with being the face of a bourgeoning fashion business.

Tonight Richie is the guest of honor at a small gathering hosted by Rick and Brian Cytrynbaum, co-founders of Modern Vintage and Majestic Mills and her fashion collaborators. They’re feting the spring ’10 launches of Richie’s House of Harlow footwear collection and Winter Kate apparel line.

Dressed in black platform House of Harlow booties, dark leggings and a long, silk Winter Kate cardigan with a colorful peacock-feather print, Richie strolls through the penthouse of the Cooper Square Hotel, taking in the 360-degree views of Manhattan and mingling with new fiancé Joel Madden, retailers and a cast of business associates.

The party marks the half-way point in a public-appearance blitz designed to promote Richie’s entry into the fashion world. It began last year with the launch of House of Harlow jewelry, and for spring ’10 has widened to include shoes and sunglasses, and apparel under the Winter Kate nameplate.

For the past two weeks, the former reality TV star and mother of two has been very visible in New York, where she appeared on “Late Show with David Letterman,” and has made international stops at department stores in Canada, Paris and London.

But before hitting the road last month, Footwear News visited the rising designer in Los Angeles, where things were a bit more quiet. At her studio in a tree-lined residential neighborhood near Beverly Hills, Richie is relaxed in jeans, a flowing Winter Kate sweater, chunky House of Harlow bangles and sky-high booties. She openly discussed her vision for the footwear collection and talked about plans for building the House of Harlow and Winter Kate lines — both named for her 2-year-old daughter, Harlow Winter Kate Madden — into a global lifestyle offering driven by her bohemian-chic style.

“I would like for it to be the best version of itself,” Richie said at the studio, where she pores over magazine clippings, colorful fabrics and art books to find design direction. “This is the first time people are going to see my clothes, footwear and sunglasses, [and] I’d really love [for it] to be the biggest and best it can be.”

While Richie isn’t making any bold predictions going into her footwear and clothing launch season, Rick Cytrynbaum, who, along with brother Brian, is producing those collections, is confident he’s got a winner.

“The success has been so tremendous,” he said, noting that the footwear line — priced between $150 for flats and $395 for boots — is launching in 23 countries, including the U.S., Japan, Russia, France, the U.K., Australia and Canada. “We’re also in talks with retailers in the Middle East and all over the world to grow the brands and are focusing on each market independently.”

House of Harlow, Cytrynbaum said, also will expand the sunglasses offering and launch handbags, and a higher-end footwear collection is set to debut under the Winter Kate label. Branded retail wouldn’t be far behind, he added, with a potential U.S. store opening in 2011.

“This will definitely be a lifestyle brand, [but] we need to get it right before we can move on to the next category,” he said, predicting that the footwear component could bring in several million dollars in sales in its first year. “We’re not going to rush it because it’s important that everything matches Nicole’s vision. There has to be that authenticity, that integrity.”

Retailers agreed that Richie’s stamp on the line brings credibility in a saturated celebrity market.

“People have a huge obsession with her and what she wears,” said Jon Singer, owner of Great Neck, N.Y.-based store and e-tailer Singer 22. He said he’s picked up about 90 percent of the line and already carries the jewelry. “We have been pre-selling a ton, [and] I know it’s going to blow out. We’re not going to have enough, and that’s not a bad problem,” he said.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Footwear News, Richie talks about her goals for steadily growing a global lifestyle brand, moving beyond her tabloid past and the stamp Hollywood has left on her design sensibility.

FN: When did you start to seriously think about launching your own fashion label?

NR: There wasn’t a day when I just woke and said, “I’m ready to do this.” [When I was] 16, I’d tape every single look I liked from magazines on my wall, and when I got older, instead of throwing all those tear sheets away, I just put them in a folder. There was something about them that I loved, and I knew in the back of my mind that this was something I wanted to do when I grew up. … I started out with the jewelry and really wanted to take it slow. Something like this is a huge undertaking, and it really takes up all your time. I wanted to make sure I had the time and energy [I needed]. I didn’t want to be another celebrity to put their name on something and not [truly] be part of it. I’m passionate about design and really wanted to make it my own.

FN: You were known as a tabloid and reality star. Has it been a challenge trying to build fashion credibility?

NR: I’m on the inside of it all, so it’s not something I can give a straight answer on. “The Simple Life” started when I was 19 [and my] self-image has changed so much in the [10 years] since then. [Building credibility in fashion] has been pretty organic in the sense that I’m finding out who I am as a woman and what I like and don’t like. I was like a lot of other 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds graduating from high school, going to college and figuring out who they are. I just did it in front of a larger circle. Just because people watched me grow up doesn’t mean that it was anything more significant.

FN: How did the partnership with Modern Vintage and Majestic Mills come about?

NR: I had met with people [about creating a line] before, [and] those other meetings just didn’t hit me the way the one with Rick and Brian did. My manager introduced us, [and] it was such a perfect fit. They knew what they were talking about and would allow me to be me and to express myself. They are also very opposite, [and that’s what sealed it]. … I would talk to both of them in two completely different ways, and one of them was going to get it. I could say something, and if Brian didn’t get it, Rick got it. If Rick didn’t get it, Brian got it, and I was like, “OK, I’m dealing with the right people.”

FN: What’s the working relationship like?

NR: I work with Brian on clothing, and he knows every single piece of fabric, every stitch on any item ever seen. He knows where it’s from, where it’s manufactured, how they got that material — he knows everything. You learn so much just from being around Brian. Working with Rick on the shoes and accessories is much more like, “So, what’s your vibe? Got it, got it, got it.” He always totally understands what I’m talking about.

FN: You’re pretty involved with the design of the collection, from apparel to shoes. What is your approach?

NR: By the time I met with Brian and Rick, I had books and books of different looks and styles and pieces that I loved and was inspired by. … I’ll bring in different materials or shoes that I’ve liked and will break down what I like about the style and comfort and what doesn’t work for me. For our first meeting, I had [Brian and Rick] come to my house because I thought, “What better way to know who I am?” I dedicated my living room to my favorite pieces. I pulled out shoes, clothes and scarves, which I hung on my lamps. I played the music I like — classic rock from the 1960s and ’70s, good old soul music and Billie Holiday. I really wanted them to step into a world of what I felt represented me the most.

FN: Is there anything that has been particularly difficult as you’ve been breaking into the fashion industry?

NR: I can’t give you any war stories. Everyone I’ve come in contact with [in fashion] has been extremely nice, and I’m grateful for that. My biggest hope is just that people like my stuff and what I’m saying [with the lines]. I’m saying, “This is who I am.” If people don’t like it, I’m really screwed.

FN: Have you taken any notes as you’ve watched some of the other celebrity lines succeed and, in some cases, fail?

NR: It would be so unfair of me to compare one line to another because the fashion world is really cutthroat. Someone could have put [her] whole entire soul into it, and it just didn’t work out. That happens. I respect the work other [celebrities] have done, and it’s really not fair of me to guess what works for one person and not for another. I have no idea what it’s like to be in their position, [or] what part they play in the development and design. For me, it was very important to be extremely involved in every aspect. I wanted to give 100 percent to this.

FN: Are there any pitfalls that you want to avoid?

NR: The one thing I’m absolutely not comfortable doing is just putting my name on something I wouldn’t wear myself. I would never [do that] with a piece of jewelry, shoe or anything else just because [I think it] will sell. I’m one to go with my heart and my gut. I go with what my soul is telling me, and it’s either going to work or it’s not. I have a very clear idea [of what I want this line to represent], but it’s early, and I’m just going to have to wait and see.

FN: What is appealing about designing footwear?

NR: Shoes have really become the accessory that women pay attention to. When you’re putting together a footwear collection, [you know] that shoes can make or break an outfit or totally change a look.

FN: The shoe collection ranges from moccasins to sky-high heels. What was your approach to blending comfort and fashion?

NR: Comfort is extremely important to me, but that doesn’t mean you need to wear flats all the time. I wanted a really great pump that wasn’t impossible to wear [and] was extremely inspired by Christian Louboutin and the [platform toe he incorporates] to make his shoes so comfortable. [If you get it right], you can have a super, super high heel that is actually very comfortable.

FN: Could House of Harlow stores be part of the brand in the long term?

NR: I would really love that because, when I brought Rick and Brian to my house, it was fun to create a nice little world. It would be great to do that [on the retail level]. It’s not something that is going to happen [before 2011], and I don’t know where I would do it initially. Maybe Los Angeles, maybe not.

FN: What is the strategy for spinning out into other categories?

NR: The big picture is to do the whole lifestyle offering. We’ll do handbags. I really want to do everything. I’d love to make chandeliers and do home furnishings. I’m really into that. But at the same time, I’m not just going to take the fast track. I’m a control freak and need to know every single inch of everything that’s going on.

FN: Do you have a dream client?

NR: [I come from that celebrity world], so I don’t really think about it that way. I just want to make this line accessible for the everyday woman. I like to be able to wear jeans and a T-shirt and dress for comfort, but I like to look good at the same time. I don’t think anyone can honestly tell you they don’t care what they look like. It just depends on whether you want it to be easy or difficult. I want it to be easy, so that’s my main goal [with the collections].

FN: Beyond House of Harlow, what are your favorite footwear brands and looks?

NR: Right off the bat, Christian Louboutin. I have more pairs of his shoes than anyone else. I also really love Balenciaga and have a bunch of YSL sandals. … I [have no idea] how many pairs I have, [though], because my feet haven’t grown in 10 years, and I never throw shoes away. You never know if they’re going to come back. I’m not someone who’s going to buy a neutral pair of shoes. I really like them to make a statement because I’m such a jeans-and-T-shirt person.

FN: You’ve been surrounded by Hollywood most of your life. Is there any one person who has left a big mark on your design sense?

NR: I was born in 1981, so when I was approaching becoming a teenager, there was the whole Kate Moss thing. I know it’s such an obvious thing to say, but it’s true. My mom, too, [has been a big influence]. Half of my line of skirts comes from things she wore. She is such a woman of fashion, and I always [looked] up to her. I remember sitting in her bathtub when she would be getting ready for the Grammy Awards, or whatever event she was going to. I would watch her get dressed and think her fashion sense was so cool. That’s what has made the biggest imprint — looking up to her and just wanting to be pretty, wear makeup and get dressed up.

FN: What is the ultimate goal for the collection?

NR: I need to just get a feel [for the response] before I make a definite goal [in terms of size and distribution]. I don’t want to say, “It needs to be this big in so many years.” I try not to set myself up for that kind of disappointment.

Nicole On…

Her fashion icon:
“I know it’s obvious, but Karl Lagerfeld. He’s an extremely smart businessman, so nice and really knows what he’s talking about. He’s someone to look up to 100 percent. … [He] can say something that’s so genius regarding fashion but that also has a really funny, sarcastic undertone. … Just being in the room with him is an honor.”

Picking out shoes for her little ones:
“Kids are so easy because everything’s comfortable. Sparrow, [5 months], has the cutest little baby booties, [and 2-year-old Harlow] likes ballet flats. I’ve gotten her a few tennis shoes, but I mostly let her pick her own stuff so she can express herself. … She’s definitely a girlie girl.”

Finding inspiration:

“I travel so much, and it’s more just from being out there that I really find most of my ideas.”

Fiancé Joel Madden’s favorite brands:
“[Men’s fashion] is such a different world and something I know nothing about. If I said ‘Vans,’ he’d probably be like, ‘No, no. It’s Nike.’ So, it’s better not to even to go there.”

Hosting a fashion-related reality show:
“Heidi [Klum] has got a great thing going on, and she’s clearly on top in that world.

I really don’t see where another show could fill that space.”

Her favorite shops:
“Decades, Resurrection and Satine [in Los Angeles] are great, but I really like shopping all over [the world].”

Embracing past fashion faux pas:

“I love to look at old pictures, make fun of myself and say, ‘How embarrassing was this? How embarrassing was that?’ It’s fun and part of looking back at who you were.”

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