Susan Ashbrook pioneered the idea of celebrity product placement when she founded the company Film Fashion in 1994. For 14 years, she worked as a liaison between fashion companies and celebrities, engineering red carpet looks and paparazzi photo-ops for brands including Escada, Stuart Weitzman, Lanvin and Monique Lhuillier.
She sold the company to PR powerhouse Rogers & Cowan in 2008, and wrote Will Work For Shoes: The Business Behind Red Carpet Product Placement, a how-to guide of sorts for getting products on celebrities. We chatted with Ashbrook about why the Oscars are so significant for fashion brands, and when the shift happened that celebrities stopped paying for clothes.
How did your company Film Fashion come about?
"I was working for designer named Richard Tyler. He gave me a job as the head of his Public Relations. He is so talented, but when I called editors and told them about him and how talented he was, they just weren’t interested. But he had clients like Mick Jagger and Julia Roberts -- back when celebrities bought clothing -- and I started calling editors to say, he has these great celebrity clients. Suddenly, the editors were interested. His career really took off then, and he became the designer for Anne Klein. Then I started to think, I don’t have to just work for one designer, I could be an agent for fashion designers in Hollywood, because I would imagine there are other designers that are interested in getting their clothes on celebrities. My first client was Ralph Lauren. Then came Hervé Léger, Escada and a lot of others."
How important is it to a fashion brand to be represented on the Oscar red carpet?
"I really knew my business was taking off when Escada dressed Kim Basinger the year she won an Oscar. They got so much publicity. Why? Because 40 million people nationally watch the Oscars, so it was really great exposure for them. That’s how my business really took off. It was one of the best moments in my career."
What was the turning point, when celebrities stopped paying for their own clothes?
"I think what happened is that a lot of us realized that we could barter our services. A lot of designers started bartering clothing. For instance, Armani was rumored to have gifted Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster with clothing. And in exchange, they wore his clothing. So it was a win win for them and him. Every time that they went out in public, people assumed they were wearing Armani. And they looked flawless and beautiful. That really started the trend. Now, of course, the trend is gifting celebrities with a lot of clothes."
What about payment for wearing clothing?
"Certainly for the Oscars, I think that happens. Charlize Theron is a brand ambassador for Dior, so I am going to assume she is going to be wearing Dior on Oscar night. And of course, a lot of the jewelry companies have been rumored to pay celebrities to wear their jewelry on Oscar night. It’s just like advertising, and they pay for advertising and it’s a chance for exposure. A lot of consumers, surprisingly enough, don’t know this goes on. When I travel around the country and meet regular people, they ask me, 'Do celebrities buy their clothing?' And I’m always like, 'Are you kidding me?' They don’t know this goes on, so when they see a celebrity in all of this glamorous clothing and shoes, they think that celebrity is endorsing the brand."
What other Oscar fashion moments have you been a part of?
"One time, I got a call from Gene Simmons. I thought my husband was playing a joke on me. He told me he had a line of underwear that he was coming out with, and he wanted me to represent him. I was representing luxury brands at the time, so his brand didn’t quite fit into my business model, but I commented to him on what a great idea he had to expand his own brand. He said, 'If the train is leaving the station, I might as well be filling the seats.' And I thought, that is such a great saying, and then I started to think about how I could use that it in my own business.
"My work with Stuart Weitzman is such a great example of that. Here, he makes all of these beautiful shoes. He was dressing celebrities, but you couldn’t see the shoes underneath the evening gowns. So Stuart Weitzman came up with the million-dollar shoes [for the Oscars]. He was filling the seats. He partnered with a diamond vendor, he partnered with a celebrity, and it was a brilliant marketing idea. And that’s how you have to think today."
What makes a good celebrity partnership?
"A lot of people say to me, 'I’m sick of Kim Kardashian,' and I do want to gag when I read one more thing about her. But the reality is she has 13.3 million Twitter fans. The President of the United States has 12.6 million Twitter fans, so if you are working with Kim Kardashian and 13.3 million Twitter fans are reading about your product, that means something."
Has the recession changed celebrity gifting at all?
"It really hasn’t changed it. People are always interested in celebrities. When I first started, I thought that after three years I was going to have to get another job because people would be sick of celebrities. They’re not. People are still very interested in what celebrities wear. It translates to a lot of different brands -- not just the big luxury brands, even the mass market. Express had this little striped dress that sold for $49.90, and they sent it to a bunch of celebrities, and the celebrities wore it -- and they styled it in lots of different ways and these pictures started to surface. Express has over 600 stores, and that dress sold out in every single one of their stores -- 10,000 units. It continues, I think, because of lot of people look at celebrities as real women. Jennifer Lopez is a great example. She’s got curves. And a lot of women look at her and say, she’s got curves, and she loves her butt, so I can too."