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The Power of Celebrity Brand

Andrew Macpherson/CPi Syndication

Heidi Klum photo by Andrew Macpherson/CPi Syndication

In early June, Heidi Klum tweeted a photo to her million-plus followers. Seated at a table chock full of athletic wear and shoe prototypes in a hotel room, she posted: “In the middle of designing my new #HKNB collection with my @newbalance team!”

Just 13 days later, she tweeted “I'm back running” and another photo. Hair tied back, black shades on her bare, makeup-free face, Klum is captured midstride and airborne, graceful as a gazelle, on an urban waterfront in the New Balance shoes she helped design. This certainly isn’t the decked-out, stiletto-wearing Klum of Project Runway. This is Klum the runner, performing a lifestyle moment for popular consumption. The celebrity media machine can churn out what it deems newsworthy: the minutiae of her fashion choices, love life and career. But here, Klum presents her image to perfect brand effect. Her body embodies, quite literally, the New Balance brand. But is she selling running shoes or Heidi Klum? Or both at the same time?

In our era of networked media, the terms long used to describe the convergence of celebrity and commerce no longer seem sufficient. This is especially true within the ever-expanding world of celebrity fashion lines, from Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen’s reported $1 billion retail empire to Jay Z’s Rocawear label (which says it sells more than $700 million in merchandise each year). Endorsement—and its restrictive dictionary definition of “giving one’s public approval or support to something or someone”—feels almost archaic, a term more fitting for the long-gone era when celebrities only had to hold a product and smile awkwardly for the standard promotion shot. Endorsement is now embodiment: A commodity is a commodity is a commodity until it has a storyline and becomes something more—a brand.

Yet despite the ubiquity of the term in the business world and even within our social lives today (personal brand, anyone?), the traditional brand has its limitations: It can never be more than a fictionalized account, an abstraction. It can only signify something. It can never actually be someone in the way the “brand” Justin Timberlake or the “brand” Sean Combs actually are. And since we live in such a pervasive culture of celebrity, it’s no wonder we want to do more than consume the narratives of celebrity lives—we want to get as close to living them as possible. And what’s more personal and intimate than our second skin: our clothes?

Social media has helped usher in and sustain this new era of fashion. In an age where every moment of a famous person’s life can be tweeted, her daily life recorded on Instagram and YouTube, celebrities embody a lifestyle more fully than a brand disconnected from the flesh and blood of personhood. Sure, an OREO can tweet out a daily joke, and every brand—be it toilet paper or toothpaste—has a Facebook account with a team of interns pushing out a daily stream of status updates, but a famous person does what a brand can’t: He embodies and lives out the lifestyle a brand wants to represent to the world. Perhaps that’s why the old formula of celebrity endorsement, no matter how sincere and carefully managed, is just not enough to satisfy us anymore. We want the (seemingly) authentic versions of our celebrities.

Of course, fame has always been about performance. The celebrity’s relationship with the media is mutually symbiotic, yet the role celebrities now play—especially within the fickle, constantly churning worlds of high and low fashion—is radically changing. And in this world, where the conflation between commerce and celebrity is almost complete, the famous person may appear less airbrushed and “managed” to the average consumer. But this doesn’t mean celebrities perform less. In a saturated media culture, one in which the cameras never stop running, the performance is now more than nonstop than ever, and consumers are often in on the act of brand creation and promotion. We are all microcelebrities now, with the same access to the tools of publicity once reserved only for celebrities or public figures. We, too, constantly shape and construct our personas through social media. And based on our fickle natures, we can help make or break a celebrity brand.

The ubiquity of celebrity clothing lines also tells us something about how we construct identity today. Clothes have always been far more than utilitarian objects. Through their acquisition, they’ve long served as visible cues to our identity, our class position, our tastes and preferences. The celebrity fashion line places the famous person in the position of arbiter, a guide to a particular “look,” offering the replication to schoolgirls in Peoria as well as working moms in Manhattan.

The dominance of celebrity fashion lines tells us something about how the long-symbiotic relationship between media and celebrity has changed, as well. When a Justin Timberlake fan buys a pair of jeans from the pop star’s popular and profitable William Rast clothing line, it’s not usually because he thinks they’re the best denim jeans around. And when a teenage boy puts on a pair of Sean John capri casual shoes sold at The Finish Line for $69.99, he’s likely imagining himself living the life of the rap star turned businessman, if only for the day.

In The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream, Daniel Boorstin famously defines a celebrity as a “person who is well-known for his well-knownness.” But do these cultural shifts mean the definition is due for a rewrite? After all, being “well-known,” is far from the feat it once was, especially in our age of reality TV and countless cable channels. Notoriety, of course, has never been the same as celebrity. Yet that doesn’t stop even the most marginal pop culture figures from trying to exploit their limited renown for financial gain in the fashion world. For every Justin Timberlake William Rast line, there’s a Gosselin Gear, the short-lived, failed line of former reality TV star Jon Gosselin; and for every Heidi Klum New Balance line of athletic shoes, there’s a Malibu Dave, the failed line of surfer attire by Baywatch star David Hasselhoff.

Fashion is far from the great equalizer. //

Sky Feature // Heidi Klum, Inc.

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