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The J.Lo Line Hits A Snag On Its Run For The Top


June 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

IN Hollywood, Jennifer Lopez is an ascendant Latin supernova.

These day the singer-actress receives $12 million a movie (she is making three this year). Her most recent album, "J to Tha L-O! The Remixes," arrived at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. And public interest in her melodramatic personal life is so intense that it keeps phalanxes of tabloid reporters churning out juicy grist (the newest is that she separated from Cris Judd, her husband of only nine months).

In Macy's at Herald Square, however, where Ms. Lopez's clothing line, J.Lo by Jennifer Lopez, was introduced late last year, the star is having trouble getting respect. Even the very people who are supposed to compose her loyal fan base are playing hard to get. Take Christina Torres, 15, who like Ms. Lopez is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx.

"I don't really like it; it looks cheap," Ms. Torres said last week, standing beneath a wall-size photo of the superstar and fingering one of the T-shirts that bear a glittery J.Lo graphic, for $24. "She looks stuck up. I am Puerto Rican, and I like the fact that she is supporting the Bronx, but she should just stay acting." Ouch.

When Ms. Lopez announced in April last year that she was taking a page from her former paramour Sean Combs and adding fashion designer to her résumé, Seventh Avenue paid attention. "Jennifer Lopez has an image that is perfect for fashion right now," Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's, said at the time.

On the press release, at least, everything made sense. The Latina Lovely, as the tabloids christened Ms. Lopez, has developed a distinct look: provocatively sexy yet elegant, a streetwise barrio girl meets Brooke Astor. Even when sporting that unforgettable translucent body-revealing Versace dress to the Grammy Awards in 2000, Ms. Lopez, with poise and buffed abdominals, managed to look more sensational than slutty.

Moreover, so-called urban brands by hip-hop singers and promoters like Sean Jean from Mr. Combs, Phat Fashions by Russell Simmons and Rocawear by Jay-Z have been the hottest brands in fashion in the last five years.

Ms. Lopez's business partner was Andy Hilfiger, the younger brother of Tommy, no less. And he was confidently predicting that the Sweetface Fashion Company, where he and Ms. Lopez would be co-presidents, would bring in $100 million in sales to stores in its first year.

But when the company last fall introduced its first collection, J.Lo by Jennifer Lopez, for girls and young women 15 to 21, customers and store buyers liked it about as much as movie critics liked the star's recent releases "Enough" and "Angel Eyes." Not a whole lot.

While denim jumpsuits with "J.Lo" on the belt buckle and velour workout suits have been popular, the abundant use of flimsy nylon fabric and T-shirts with the star's outsized logo have not struck a chord. Moreover, the clothes are relatively high priced for the juniors market: white spandex low-rise jeans with athletic stripes retailed for $125, and an orange Army Girl top with gold star epaulets was $58. Tommy Girl jeans, by comparison, usually sell at around $50.

Stores were further frustrated by the fact that clothes they bought for the Christmas season based on sketches had undergone major alterations before they were shipped, largely because of Ms. Lopez's last-minute changes, buyers were told.

Delivery, fit and quality problems have also plagued the more recent spring collection. Several independent chains that sell Ms. Lopez have been pleased, but the department stores have been disappointed. "They have not exceeded our expectations," Christine Munnelly, the senior executive in charge of juniors merchandise for Macy's East, said. "Lately, they have dropped slightly below" what the chain expected to sell, she added.

A top buyer for Dillard's, the Southern chain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "The spring line has not been successful at all."

And Bloomingdale's has decided not to carry the line altogether. "I know her, and I thought it was a good idea," Mr. Ruttenstein says now, "but when I saw the clothes I was disappointed. I did not think they captured her essence. They looked like just another juniors line, and I was worried about quality and fit."

Ms. Lopez's energetic public relations team vigorously rebuts the notion that their star is anything but her normally successful self. "This company launched on 9/11," said Paul Wilmot, a well-connected fashion publicist whose firm is handling Sweetface's image.

"In its first year, it will do $45 million in sportswear, $8 million in children's clothes, $1 million in swimwear and $10 million in fragrance," Mr. Wilmot said. "That is $64 million wholesale. I don't know any companies who launched on 9/11 who've done that."

Yet despite the bright public face, the company is clearly moving to improve its designs and its relations with customers. On Friday, it announced that Denise Seegal, an industry veteran who was most recently president of Liz Claiborne Inc., will become president and chief executive of Sweetface.

She will replace Mr. Hilfiger, who was previously charged with translating Ms. Lopez's creative impulses into marketable commodities, but will now be executive vice president for communication.

Before teaming with Ms. Lopez, Mr. Hilfiger had worked in communications at Tommy Hilfiger. While he is credited with playing a key part in giving his brother street cool by cultivating music celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Sheryl Crow, the younger Mr. Hilfiger had little hands-on experience with production, sales and other business details before starting Sweetface.

Ms. Seegal's arrival should free Mr. Hilfiger, an equity holder in Sweetface, to do what he does best: generate attention. Ms. Seegal, meanwhile, will try to make the trains run on time. Mr. Hilfiger declined to be interviewed for this article.

In addition to demoting Mr. Hilfiger, Ms. Lopez, who took on the additional title of creative director, recently snatched away Heather Thomson, the designer who helped make Sean John a sizzling property, to be her personal style consultant. Officially, Ms. Thomson will help Ms. Lopez on everything from her many clothing lines to her costumes, but store buyers said Ms. Thomson was also promising to take charge of the design of the brand and make it better reflect her boss's aesthetic.

That bit of corporate kidnapping only further complicates the intertwined relationship between Ms. Lopez's and Mr. Combs's business dealings. Besides Ms. Thomson, Ms. Lopez also employs Mr. Combs's former manager, Benny Medina, as her manager. And each star's clothing company uses Mr. Wilmot to manage its public image.

Another bit of news that is cheering stores is that Sweetface is preparing to spend $20 million on advertising this fall. While the money will be spent to promote Glow, Ms. Lopez's new fragrance (described as a delicate mixture of orange blossom, vanilla and rose), the company expects that the attention will also promote the fashion lines.

"There has never been a fragrance launch of this magnitude paired with a fashion brand just a year old," Mr. Wilmot said.

Store buyers say the company is already showing that it has moved up a sharp learning curve. J.Lo customers can expect to see a lot more velour and jumpsuits as well as more basic denim items this fall, items that stores are hot to sell. "The fall line looks excellent," said Ms. Munnelly of Macy's. "We are committed to working with them for the long haul."

Other artists turned clothing moguls also have faith that Ms. Lopez will eventually make a successful go of the line. "It takes time to find yourself," said Mr. Simmons, the founder of Phat Fashions LLC, one of the original urban brands. "It doesn't have to happen overnight. It took us over six years to be profitable. Jennifer has great style, so I know this is going to happen."

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