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Nicole Richie’s designs on a star brand

She hosted the kickoff festivities for L.A.'s Fashion’s Night Out in September and sat front row at the Louis Vuitton runway show in Paris this month. Come February, she’ll be in our living rooms every week, as a mentor on NBC’s new “Fashion Star” designer competition series. Is tabloid sensation-turned-designer Nicole Richie poised to become the next big celebrity fashion brand?

Following in the footsteps of Jessica Simpson and Rachel Zoe, Richie, 30 — whose adoptive father is Lionel Richie — launched her House of Harlow 1960 jewelry line in late 2007, adding shoes in 2009 and bags in June 2011. Last spring, she debuted ready-to-wear under the label Winter Kate.

Her designs are an extension of her paparazzi-ready personal style — witchy woman, rock goddess, ‘60s and ‘70s vintage princess. The Winter Kate collection ($78 to $700) features fringed velvet kimonos (inspired by vintage pieces Richie has collected for years), firefly-print maxi dresses, silk camisoles and short-shorts (but not a lot of pants).

House of Harlow 1960 accessories ($195 to $695) include beaded moccasins, velvet booties and pony skin bags, and jewelry with antler, evil eye, arrow and stud motifs.

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Her labels have received modest attention in fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily and in glossy women’s magazines. In 2010, she won Entrepreneur of the Year for her House of Harlow 1960 brand at the British Glamour Women of the Year Awards.

“We won the jackpot when we partnered with her,” says Rick Cytrynbaum, who co-owns Montreal-based Majestic Mills along with his brother, Brian. The Canadian manufacturing company produces House of Harlow 1960, Winter Kate and several other labels, including Modern Vintage footwear, Heidi Klum footwear and Earnest Sewn denim. “She’s on the ball. She works with her design team every day.”

Rick Cytrynbaum declined to give sales figures, saying instead that Richie’s clothing and accessories are available in more than 700 stores in 23 countries. But in this country, at least, they have low visibility in stores, compared with the Zoe and Simpson brands.

That may be why Richie herself has been more visible over the last few months, wearing her hippie headbands and flowy tops to events and “selling” her earthy Hollywood mom lifestyle.

Her Los Angeles house — which she shares with husband Joel Madden of the band Good Charlotte, and their two kids, Harlow, 3, and Sparrow, 2 — is canyon cool with natural wood floors, a sunken living room, big brick fireplace, kilim rugs, fur throw pillows, a terrarium and two taxidermy chickens dressed in aristocratic finery.

On this day there is incense burning, Hendrix on the sound system and a family cat, an Abyssinian named Gypsy, snuggling with his mistress. Befitting a rock ‘n’ roll household, the bar cart is well stocked, but there’s also a miniature stove for the kids, near the adult-sized one in the kitchen.

Stevie Nicks would feel at home in Richie’s office, which looks out over the treetops. Her antique desk is covered with line sheets and sketches, and there is a red-feathered tribal headdress (a gift from Madden) sitting on a side table. (Richie also has a downtown studio, where her five-person design team works.)

Nicole Richie landed on the public stage in 2003 at age 21, when she starred with Paris Hilton in the reality show “The Simple Life,” which chronicled the celebutantes’ adventures “roughing it” on an Arkansas farm and other places. Earlier that year, Richie had been arrested for heroin possession and driving with a suspended license.

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The show, on TV for five seasons, turned her into a tabloid fixture, known for her boho style, her on-again, off-again friendships with Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Zoe, and her battles with eating disorders and substance abuse, for which she went to rehab.

In December 2006, she was charged with a DUI after being arrested by the California Highway Patrol for driving the wrong way on the 134 Freeway. Pleading guilty, she was sentenced to four days in jail, but released after just 82 minutes due to overcrowding.

“I was first approached to do a self-help book at 21, and I passed,” says Richie, sitting barefoot on her office floor, dressed in a cream blouse from her line and a pair of black Balenciaga pants. “I said I was too young, and who knows what the next few years will be like? And really, who knew? It’s a good thing I passed!”

Since then, she has kept a lower profile, having two children with Madden, marrying him in 2010, and publishing two novels, “The Truth About Diamonds” and “Priceless.” (One review of “Priceless” concluded: “A clichéd fairy tale, about as original as the TV movie it will inevitably become.”)

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Going from reality star to chick lit novelist isn’t too much of a stretch when you see that there is a fun-loving, Elle Woods quality to Richie, whether she’s jetting off to Mexico for a girls-only birthday weekend, or heading downtown on Saturday mornings with friends to buy flowers at the Los Angeles Flower Market. It comes across in her Twitter feed too. Some of her more hilarious musings include:

“Gonna wear beige today so people think I’m responsible.”

“Today wasn’t the best day of my life, but I did eat a corn dog.”

“Aladdin is, like, really hot.”

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Her interest in fashion started early.

“When I was a little girl and my dad was on tour, the woman who designed his costumes used to create costumes for me out of the excess fabric,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea of making what I wanted.

“As I got older, I would go to [International Silks & Woolens] and buy strips of velvet and charms to make into chokers. I brought them to school and sold them for exactly how much I bought [the materials] for. It took me a while to understand the concept of a mark-up.”

When it came time for her own label, she started small, partnering with jeweler Pascal Mouawad on her House of Harlow 1960 line of jewelry in 2007, inspired by treasures she found in Thailand, South Africa and elsewhere.

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Footwear was next. Nordstrom started carrying House of Harlow shoes in select stores this season and will expand the offerings to more stores this spring. Bruce Moynagh, senior shoe buyer for Nordstrom, says. “She’s done her homework. She has really keyed in on the must-have silhouettes.” He points to the Nelly kiltie lace-up and the Bailey bootie with button details as hot sellers. (The Winter Kate collection is sold at select Nordstrom stores in addition to online at ShopBop and RevolveClothing.)

Like most celebrities with fashion lines, Richie is more stylist than designer — picking up inspirations from magazine clips, vintage clothes and furnishings, music and travel, and from her rock ‘n’ roll heroes from the 1960s and ‘70s, both decades she likes because “there was no such thing as clashing.” Her staff attends to the design details.

In the next year or so, Richie is hoping to launch a lower-priced apparel collection under the House of Harlow 1960 name. (It is in the mass apparel category that most celebrities hit gold.) She’s also finishing her third novel (Richie wakes up at 5:30 or 6 every morning to write) and setting her sights on recording an album. (She sang on last year’s re-recording of “We Are the World” and plays the piano, violin and cello.)

Then there’s “Fashion Star.” Richie, Jessica Simpson and John Varvatos will be mentoring the designers vying for the attention of retail buyers from H&M, Macy’s and Saks, who will decide whether to produce their pieces every week.

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The show is likely to create a new level of exposure for the Richie brand. “Clearly, we’re going to use it as a platform for people to get to know her better and to see her sense of style in a real way each week in their living rooms,” Cytrynbaum says. “That translates to her lines as well, although she won’t be wearing her designs exclusively on the show.”

But will it all add up to a fashion windfall?

“I think so,” says Bruce Ross, president and chief executive of Celebrity Fashion group, who works with celebrities, manufacturers and retailers to build exclusive collections, including reality show star-fashion student Lauren Conrad’s successful label.

Because as much as it is about product and promotion, it’s also about personality.

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“I have great respect for what she’s done and what she’s become,” he says. “Here’s someone who has turned her life around, is married, has children and a career. People like a comeback.”

booth.moore@latimes.com


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