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Entertainment & Arts

The Kardashians: Cashing in with a capital K

Having conquered reality television, the Kardashians are fashioning a celebrity retail powerhouse.

Beyond the glittery red carpets and steamy tabloid fodder, the famous family has transformed itself into a branding machine, quickly leveraging the hype into a retail empire worth tens of millions of dollars.

Unlike other reality-stars-turned-entrepreneurs such as Snooki of “Jersey Shore” fame or Lauren Conrad of “The Hills,” the Kardashians are in a class by themselves and unfazed by skeptics who doubt they can keep it up for the long haul.

There are Kardashian boutiques, fragrances, jewelry, apparel, bikinis, self-tanner, skin-care products, candles — even bottled water, if you’re willing to shell out $10 for it.

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Whether it’s business savvy or shameless self-promotion, it’s paid off: Kardashian Inc. raked in an estimated $65 million last year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication. And with the family signing on to a slew of new projects, it’s poised to make even more in 2011.

This year alone, sisters Kourtney, Kim and Khloe released their own “glam pack” of Silly Bandz, the wildly popular rubber-band shapes that kids trade and wear as bracelets. They’re also opening Kardashian Khaos, a celebrity retail store at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Kim has been promoting her jewelry line Belle Noel and touting Midori liqueur as a company spokeswoman; she and mother Kris are also the new faces of Skechers Shape-Ups sneakers. Khloe and Laker husband Lamar Odom, who are starring in their own spin-off series on E!, recently released a unisex fragrance called Unbreakable.

The sisters’ biggest project this year is the launch of the Kardashian Kollection, an ambitious “shop-within-a-shop” concept that will launch at Sears stores in late August and in international markets.

The global lifestyle brand is Sears’ biggest celebrity deal ever. The line will span categories including dresses, outerwear, T-shirts, denim, footwear, jewelry, handbags and lingerie, and will reflect the sisters’ individual styles: classic red-carpet glamour for Kim, bohemian chic for Kourtney and edgy rocker for Khloe.

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“It’s new and exciting and different, and they’re going to be a big part of that change,” said John Goodman, executive vice president of apparel and home for parent company Sears Holdings Corp. “In order to evolve and move forward, you’re going to have to step out of the comfort zone.”

Not everything the Kardashians have lent their name to has been a success. In November, the sisters were forced to pull their prepaid debit card, called the Kardashian Kard, amid slow sales and an outcry about high fees. After releasing “JAM (Turn It Up),” a dance-pop-infused single last month, Kim was criticized as having an uneven voice and talking her way through the song.

But for the most part, strong sales have followed their many pursuits. Kim’s eponymous perfume was Sephora’s No. 1-selling fragrance last year and the sisters’ exclusive Bebe collection was a huge success, a company spokeswoman said. Their memoir and style guide, “Kardashian Konfidential,” debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list in December. Unbreakable, available exclusively at Perfumania, has sold out twice since its February launch.

In recent interviews with The Times, the Kardashians said they’re just getting started.

“There’s some days we definitely go crazy,” Khloe said during a recent appearance at the Beverly Center, where hundreds of hysterical fans lined up for photos and autographs. Added Kourtney: “There’s no way I could do this alone.... We all kind of pick up the pieces for each other.”

The Kardashians became household names in 2007 with the debut of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on the E! channel, which was conceived of by Kris as a modern-day Brady Bunch-esque reality show.

At the time, Kim Kardashian, still the most well-known of the brood, had already made a name for herself as Paris Hilton’s sidekick and fellow socialite. And like Hilton, Kim was also facing notoriety over the release of a sex tape made with her then-boyfriend.

The family’s less-than-wholesome reputation has earned the Kardashians a fair amount of criticism that retail experts say could hinder the family’s long-term viability as a brand.

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“The Kardashians are a great example of, in my mind, talentless celebrities or celebrity for celebrity’s sake who took advantage of their looks, a sex tape, a lot of pretty raw and low-level stuff that titillated and fascinated the American public,” said Eli Portnoy, a marketing and branding expert in Los Angeles.

Led by Kris, who describes herself as the family’s “momager,” the Kardashian brood includes Kourtney, 32, Kim, 30, Khloe, 26, and Rob, 24, her children with her first husband, former O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Kardashian, who died of esophageal cancer in 2003.

After divorcing Robert in 1989, Kris married Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, who also had four kids. Kris and Bruce have two daughters together, Kendall, 15, and Kylie, 13.

Also part of the family are Odom, the Lakers basketball player who married Khloe in 2009 after a month of dating, and Scott Disick, Kourtney’s on-again, off-again boyfriend and father of her 1-year-old son, Mason.

As a group, the Kardashian-Jenner-Odom-Disick clan is capitalizing on its multi-generational, multiethnic appeal, actively pursuing and inking deals for everyone in the family.

But celebrity branding is a fickle beast. Too many missteps or a slump in popularity could see the Kardashian franchise headed the way of Lindsay Lohan’s infamous leggings line or Sarah Jessica Parker’s clothing collection at now-defunct Steve and Barry’s.

If successful, they could join the elite ranks of celebs-turned-lucrative-designers such as Victoria Beckham, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Jessica Simpson, whose retail empire is expected to bring in $1 billion in sales this year.

Whether the nonstop rollout of new products will damage the brand or lead to a bona fide franchise with lasting appeal will depend on the family’s ability to maintain product quality and exclusivity, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of national retail consulting and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates Inc.

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“If you’re everywhere and you become a mass brand, that means you better really be good,” he said. “The Kardashians are hot as a pistol, but they’re no Oprah. This stuff can dissipate very quickly.”

The Sears deal in particular is a curious choice, marketing and branding experts say, given the sisters’ sought-after, fashion-forward styles — a stark contrast to Sears’ image as a place to buy power tools or a new washing machine.

“The Sears thing — I have a question mark,” Portnoy said. “In my mind, Sears and the Kardashians are not consistent at all. It hurts both properties. That one strictly comes off as about more greed, more money.”

Not so, said Bruno Schiavi, president of Jupi Corp., which will produce the Kardashian Kollection.

“It’s not a one-off collection — this is a long-term goal for us,” he said, noting that other celebrity mavens have partnered with Sears. Most notably, Martha Stewart offered an exclusive line for years at Kmart, a Sears Holdings company.

Another challenge is the fact that the public’s fascination still mostly centers on the family’s real-life dramas and not the products. For Kim especially, being seen as a serious businesswoman has been a struggle.

At recent Los Angeles events promoting the sisters’ various products, the women were mobbed by hordes of paparazzi and tabloid reporters who lobbed a few throwaway questions about whatever the Kardashians were hawking — clothes, shoes, jewelry — before spending most of the time grilling them on what new words Kourtney’s baby was saying, Khloe’s latest diet tricks and Kim’s new boyfriend (she’s currently dating Kris Humphries of the New Jersey Nets; previous boyfriends include NFL players Reggie Bush and Miles Austin).

The sisters admit that fame sometimes gets in the way of getting the job done.

In Calabasas, where they opened their first Dash boutique before becoming tabloid fixtures, Khloe said it was no longer possible to swing by and work the cash register or greet customers — “it almost causes a scene where people can’t shop.”

For the Kardashian sisters, who don’t have business backgrounds, running a burgeoning empire has been about being heavily involved and carefully vetting projects. Only Kourtney, who attended the University of Arizona, graduated from college.

“We all approve everything together,” Kim said at a recent event at Kitson in Los Angeles, where she and her sisters were promoting their Silly Bandz rubber-band shapes. “I could love something but they hate it, so two out-rule the one.”

“We’re in every design meeting, we pick everything from the buttons to the fabric to the fit, we pick the fit models,” Khloe said. “We’re very hands-on.”

The companies that are signing the Kardashians say they’re not concerned that their own brands might be hurt by the family’s sexually charged, drama-driven image.

“This is just nonsense,” said Silly Bandz creator Robert Croak. “They’re having fun. There’s always going to be the naysayers who say someone’s famous for nothing, and I really don’t see that with the girls.”

Not surprisingly, the family is open for even more business ventures. Among the categories they’d like to tackle next include home decor and children’s products, Kourtney said; they are also in talks with nail polish maker OPI for a not-yet-announced project.

“We have to, No. 1, make sure that it’s something that we really want to spend our time doing,” Kim said. “Time is really precious now.”

So far, the overexposure isn’t turning off their fans.

“Get it while you can get it,” said Amanda Lopez, 29, after buying a $140 dress at Dash Calabasas recently. “I think it’s great that they’re branching out. They’re hot right now; why wouldn’t they?”

andrea.chang@latimes.com


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