Here, at last
“I like being Jack Nicholson’s daughter and I’m proud of him, but people don’t understand the pressures that come along with that,” said fashion designer Jennifer Nicholson, taking a lunch break in Santa Monica on Friday. She’d spent the morning casting models for her runway show this evening at Smashbox Studios in Culver City.
Over a veggie burger salad at the Montana Avenue diner Blue Plate, the 40-year-old designer chatted about her family and her new career. Looking sleek thanks to a low-carb diet that has helped her shed 25 pounds, she wore jeans, a Stella McCartney satin zip-front jacket and pink leather Costume National boots.
Nicholson, who grew up mostly in Hawaii with her mother, former actress Sandra Knight Stephenson, seems on the verge of climbing out from under her famous father’s shadow. Her spring line debuted in New York last month to favorable notices. Fashion photographer Steven Meisel shot one of her gowns for the November issue of Italian Vogue (her first major fashion credit). And department stores, including Henri Bendel, have come calling.
Unlike some children of celebrities, Nicholson freely talks about her father. She traveled to L.A. during her preteen years to visit him, and he took her to the Bel-Air Hotel, the Playboy Mansion, producer Robert Evans’ house, or wherever pals Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando were partying.
“My mother used to say that she prayed a lot, and I guess it worked because nothing bad ever happened,” Nicholson said.
That is until 1990, when her father met Rebecca Broussard, a 28-year-old model, and a close friend of Jennifer’s. His 17-year relationship with Anjelica Huston, with whom Jennifer Nicholson remains close, ended with the news that Broussard was pregnant. “That was really difficult,” Nicholson said, lowering her eyes.
As the child of a mega-star, she said she has often felt misunderstood. Early on, she learned to use her love of fashion as a kind of escape. “It made me feel better,” she said. Clothing was like armor, giving her a sense of normalcy and belonging in tough times.
She fondly recalled the first designer piece she owned -- a black, wrapped Azzedine Alaia dress, bought when she was in high school. “It gave me a really different feeling of myself, and made me feel really sexy and cool, like an adult.”
In 1979, while visiting her father on London set of “The Shining,” she discovered punk. “I was shocked, but I was totally into it,” she said. She has brought her love of all things slashed, safety pinned and studded to her own line, mixing it with her girlie sensibility. (For spring, she showed a scalloped baby doll dress with motocross boots, and a biker-style jacket in white lace.)
An avid collector of designer and vintage clothes, her wardrobe includes 500 pieces by Italian designer Emilio Pucci, famous for his crazy, bright patterns. She has spent many a weekend at flea markets, and has scoured vintage stores in L.A., New York and Paris.
She has “20 or 30" pieces by Karl Lagerfeld from the early 1990s, after he was hired to revive Chanel. Nicholson also loves John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Prada. For fall, she bought Prada’s green alligator bag. And she is too embarrassed to admit how many pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes she owns.
A Virgo, she said she meticulously arranges her closets by color and hangs all the vintage pieces together by designer. “In my new house, my closets are going to be as big as my bedrooms,” Nicholson said. “I told the architect, anything you’ve ever seen that you thought was a big closet, times 20, and that’s what I want.”
(The house is not actually new; she’s renovating a 1911 Santa Monica Colonial-style home. Recently divorced from Mark Norfleet, whom she met at the Punahou School in Honolulu and married here in 1997, she lives with their sons Luke, 4, and Sean, 7, a nanny, a chef, five dogs, a rabbit and a miniature pony named Little Joe.)
Thanks to her father, Nicholson is financially secure enough that she could have spent her whole life buying clothes, instead of designing and selling them. “But I have to work,” she said. “My dad has a really strong work ethic. Since I was 18, I’ve always worked.” Her first job was as a set decorator on one of his movies.
She tried her hand at acting too. In 1990, her father financed a film for her called “Blue Champagne,” which was never released. She also starred in the 1994 psychological thriller “Inevitable Grace.” It was a flop.
An art major at USC, she began dabbling in interior decorating in the 1990s, even giving her father’s Mulholland Drive pad a new look.
In 2000, she began collaborating with designer Pamela Barish (daughter of the producer Keith Barish) on a line that was sold at Saks Fifth Avenue. The partnership dissolved after about a year. “We thought our styles would mix better than they did,” Nicholson explained.
Without any formal fashion training, she launched her own line a year and a half ago. Her design studio on Market Street in Venice is in the same complex as the gallery of Huston’s husband, the sculptor Robert Graham. She opened her own boutique, Mlle. Pearl, on Montana Avenue in April 2002 to give Westside women a place to shop for designer labels without having to drive “into town,” she said. The store, which sells Stella McCartney, Fake London, Roland Mouret and Narciso Rodriguez, has yet to make a profit, though Nicholson is hopeful.
“When I first started designing, people told me I should only wear my own stuff,” she said. “But that’s so boring! I have too much fun with clothes.” Despite her recent weight loss, Nicholson is far from the standard issue, size 2 fashionista. The industry’s obsession with thin has always peeved her.
In 1998, she agreed to model in a runway show for Maska, an Italian label known then for featuring celebrity children in its shows. She sent a headshot to the company and indicated she was a size 14.
“But when I got to Milan, they said I was too big and they weren’t going to use me,” she said. “It’s not like I lied and told them I was a size 6.”
She insisted on being paid anyway and eventually participated in the show. “But in private,” she said, “I was devastated.”
The weight issue came up again later. “When I first started my line, I argued with people a lot about sizing. I wanted to be able to wear the largest size of my line, and really I’m a little too big to fit into the largest size.... And when I’m ordering for the store, I’m really annoyed when people only make up to a size 10. I take it personally; I really do.”
In her label, she offers up to a size 14, though buyers don’t order the larger sizes, she said. She also accepts made-to-measure orders at her store.
At this evening’s Smashbox show, she plans to unveil some new evening gowns, appropriate for red carpet territory. Her father said he’d try to show up. She’s not holding her breath; the Lakers are playing their first season game tonight. Both start at 7:30.