Disney seeks high-end cachet

Times Staff Writer

Snow White, Ariel and Jasmine have for years adorned little girls’ T-shirts, bed linens and backpacks as part of the Walt Disney Co. merchandising bonanza.

Now, those characters have gone couture.

Designer and fashion maven Kidada Jones recently introduced a line of baby blue and pink women’s loungewear, costume jewelry and home accessories inspired by the animated heroines that have come to be known in marketing circles as the Disney Princesses. Jones’ line made its debut this month in a special white room, decorated with cherry blossoms and a fairy tale castle, in the fashionista fantasyland known as the Fred Segal boutique on Melrose Avenue.

The princesses also have inspired a line of wedding gowns by designer Kirstie Kelly that aim to evoke the happily-ever-after vibe in chiffon, satin and taffeta. At prices of $1,100 to $3,500, the gowns are more expensive than the trinkets and toys for tots and teens that Disney has historically been known for.

For several years now, Disney has quietly been courting the Hollywood glitterati with high-end fare, taking such iconic characters as Mickey Mouse to places they had never ventured. Some of these designer items, such as a furniture line unveiled in 2006 and the bridal gowns introduced this year, have little visible connection to the Burbank-based entertainment giant. The Disney name is not flaunted or embroidered on the goods. Rather, the products are contemporary interpretations of vintage Disney art.

The goal is to give the Disney brand cachet with trendsetters that could carry over to the mainstream, expanding the company’s reach beyond kids.


“You gain visibility and make it cool when you sell some upstairs,” said Martin Brochstein, editor of the Licensing Letter, a biweekly newsletter that covers consumer products licensing. “It really gives it a kind of halo effect to the rest of the line.”

Disney Consumer Products Chairman Andy Mooney started reexamining the company’s licensing strategy after he joined the company in January 2000. Its traditional approach -- striking deals to put the studio’s popular animated characters on children’s clothes, toys and electronics -- reached its zenith with the animated film “The Lion King.”

To achieve his goal of $50 billion a year in retail sales, Mooney knew the studio needed to move beyond character licensing. He aimed to position Disney as a lifestyle brand, for which all manner of products could be fashioned to fit.

“There was a lot of skepticism about why anybody would buy Disney products if they didn’t have the characters on them, because for 50 years that was the business we were in, character licensing,” Mooney said. “But the opportunity is 20 times larger than character licensing.”

Mooney, a former Nike Inc. marketing executive who appreciates the power of celebrity endorsement, set about to bring these sensibilities to Disney. Mooney invited designer Jackie Brander to rummage through the archives for artistic inspiration. The result was Disney Vintage, a line introduced in 2000 that included a hot pink Tinker Bell cashmere sweater, “old school” Mickey sweatshirts and ribbed, fitted tanks featuring Minnie and Pluto, that sold at high-end retailers such as Kitson, Neiman Marcus and Fred Segal Fun at prices ranging from $65 to $275.

Borrowing a page from Nike Chairman Phil Knight’s marketing playbook (“Never underestimate the power of a free T-shirt”), Disney started stuffing the newly fashionable retro-wear into Hollywood gift bags. Celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Leonardo DeCaprio and Jennifer Garner wore them.

Other designers followed. Dolce & Gabbana featured a $1,400 sequined Mickey Mouse T-shirt in 2003. And others, including Kidada and YellowMan founder Peter Mui, have similarly sought inspiration from the Disney vault.

“Disney is the only brand that can sell a shirt in the same city on the same day for $1,400 and $14,” Mooney said. “There are only a handful of brands in the world that have the emotional depth that Disney has. If you produce the appropriate product for the demographic, it’ll reach the consumer.”

John Eshaya, vice president and women’s creative director for the shop Ron Herman at Fred Segal Melrose, said he selected Kidada’s collection because she brought an interesting, funky feel to Disney’s classic characters. He said the lingerie recalled the whimsy of little girl panties in a way that he describe as “sweet but still a little sexy.” The costume jewelry -- big, chunky gold Tinker Bell earrings surrounded by bamboo hoops -- have a hip urban chic.

“She kind of kept the classic of what Disney is but updated it so that cool girls would wear it,” Eshaya said.

Disney’s new licensing approach appears to be paying dividends.

In a speech today at the Licensing International Expo in New York, Mooney will announce that retail sales of licensed merchandise have doubled in just five years, to a projected $26 billion this year, from $13 billion in 2002. Operating income grew 55% from 2000 to about $600 million last year.

The bulk of the licensing business still comes from Mickey and Winnie the Pooh, which Mooney said are on track to represent $12 billion in retail sales. The Princesses, Fairies, Power Rangers and Cars also account for healthy sales. But the boutique collection is expected to generate $300 million in annual retail sales for licensees in the next few years, Mooney said.

“In order for us to get to $50 billion or $75 billion or $100 billion, you have to develop a significant business at mass,” Mooney said. “To sustain the cachet of the brand, you’ve got to get the tent pole way up high. The more excitement at the high end -- the top of the tent -- the broader the base.”

That has emboldened Disney to move into new categories.

Disney approached Drexel Heritage in 2005 with an idea for a line of furniture inspired by the mid-century modern furniture in Walt Disney’s office in the 1940s -- a style they described as “art moderne.”

A senior executive at Drexel said designers gained access to Disney’s office furniture and, under the watchful eye of three armed guards, “air-measured” the entertainment icon’s desk. Drexel reproduced the desk as part of the initial 12 pieces that made up the Walt Disney Signature collection introduced in April 2006. “Before it was even in the store, we had people calling us at the 800 number, e-mailing us, ‘Please show us something. We want to buy it,’ ” said Melanie Dunn, senior vice president at Drexel Heritage’s corporate parent. The line has been so successful that Drexel Heritage and Disney Home have introduced an additional 39 pieces for the bedroom, the dining room and the living room this month.

At the urging of one employee who recently wed, Disney approached designer Kelly about a year ago to discuss how to enter the $90-billion wedding business. The idea was to create sophisticated adaptations of the gowns worn by Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine and Ariel for the modern woman.

“The average woman, I don’t think on a daily basis, says, ‘I want to be a princess when I get married,’ ” Kelly said. “The second she gets engaged, she starts thinking about love, the idea of a wedding. ‘How do I want to feel?’ She’ll walk into a salon and say, ‘I just want to feel like Cinderella.’ That’s how they base their decision. ‘Do I feel like a princess in this gown?’ ”

Kelly said she watched the animated films over and over again to understand each character’s personality. The smart, independent Belle of “Beauty and the Beast” would “be our lawyer or doctor,” she said. So she designed sophisticated taffeta and tulle gowns with subtle hints of Belle’s flowing ball gown. There are a total of 34 gowns in the Disney’s Fairy Tale Weddings line -- four to six gowns for each princess, with enough variety to appeal to the bride who gets married on the beach or in a cathedral.

The line debuted at New York Bridal Fashion Week in April, and already, Kelly has introduced maiden gowns and jewels. In the coming year, she plans to offer invitations, fragrances, handbags and shoes.

“So much of it is about a lifestyle,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that as a grown woman you want to look or feel like one of the princesses from the animated films. It’s more about a lifestyle and understanding and belief in a certain quality, a certain level of luxury, and having those different things within your life.”