Thirteen minutes after the “Today” show reported Madonna’s fondness for $125 pink suede Steve Madden boots with pompom laces, the company had received 240 orders.
When several young Hollywood actresses — including Zoe Saldana (“Avatar”), Emmy Rossum (“Shameless”), Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia”) and Olivia Munn (“Attack of the Show”) — were photographed strolling around in the same $49.90 blue-and-red-striped Express dress, fashion and celebrity bloggers took note. Days later, Express had sold all 10,000 of the dresses the chain had in its stores.
If celebrities wear it, consumers want it. That makes celebrity product placement a big business, and Arlington Heights native Susan J. Ashbrook is an expert in the field.
A self-described “female Tim Gunn” and celebrity stylist for the past 20 years, Ashbrook says getting a star to wear an item can not only be profitable for a company but also can put a brand on the fashion world’s radar.
“Celebrities really do influence the consumer,” said Ashbrook, who now does consulting and gives speeches on how to match designers with celebrities.
Her new book, “Will Work For Shoes: The Business Behind Red Carpet Placement” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, $22.95), is packed with tips on how to get a celebrity to wear a product. She’ll tell you upfront, though: It’s no easy task.
Designers and fashion retailers will send paparazzi darlings literally thousands of items, so to get an item chosen — and photographed — takes networking, persistence, luck and a keen sense of the star’s style, Ashbrook said.
Some stars will wear only big-time designers on the red carpet. Some like to discover new talent. Others might hand down the items to their housekeepers.
“In today’s world, it is incredibly competitive,” Ashbrook said. Regardless, “celebrity marketing is part of every marketing campaign.”
Ashbrook learned about a celebrity’s marketing power even before she was a student at Prospect High School. She can’t remember exactly how old she was — maybe 10, maybe 12 — when she heard an interview with Marilyn Monroe where the starlet was asked what she wears to bed at night. “Chanel No. 5, of course!” she answered in her breathy voice.
“I remember thinking, ‘What’s Chanel No. 5?’ And I saved my baby-sitting money and bought it. Have you ever smelled it? It’s not something a 12-year-old would like,” she said.
Ashbrook would be reminded of that lesson years later, while working as a publicist for designer Richard Tyler. As she tried to get fashion magazines interested in doing stories on him, they brushed her off until she mentioned Mick Jagger and Julia Roberts wore his clothes. Soon, he was known as “the designer to the stars.”
That success led Ashbrook to launch Film Fashion, her own company that matches designers with celebrities.
Her first client was Ralph Lauren. When she struggled to get actresses to wear his bright neon-colored dresses on the Oscar red carpet in the mid-1990s, she decided instead to pitch his sleek tuxedos to male stars. Actors like Denzel Washington were among those who bit.
Ashbrook also scored a big hit for one of her German-based clients, Escada, who at the time was unknown to the celebrity world. In 1998, they sent a custom-designed pistachio green satin gown to Oscar nominee Kim Basinger for consideration. Not only did she love it and wear it, but she won the best supporting actress Oscar for “L.A. Confidential” that night.
“Every year, when the Oscars come around, we see pictures of her in (the gown) in the ‘Who won in the past’ stories, and they mention the Escada gown,” Ashbrook said.
That’s not to say all of her efforts have been as well-received. Her book’s title is actually taken from one of the low moments in her career.
Ashbrook once rushed to a Los Angeles hotel at 2 a.m. the night before the Oscars with several pairs of her client’s shoes because “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” actress Ziyi Zhang had just flown in and expressed interest in them. To Ashbrook’s dismay, she found a few other stylists like herself waiting there with their clients’ shoes.
Zhang ultimately passed over what she offered. Sitting in the lobby in despair, Ashbrook remembers thinking, “Here I am. I’ll work for shoes.”
She thought she might have a problem when best actress Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) chose a bright orange dress designed by one of Ashbrook’s current clients, Parisian designer Herve L. Leroux, for the NAACP Image Awards. When the photos of her in the dress were published, Leroux was upset to see how much cleavage Davis was showing, Ashbrook said.
“He thought people would think the dress was awful … but everyone loved it,” she said.
While Ashbrook now lives in Los Angeles, she regularly returns to the Northwest suburbs to visit her mom and sister in Mount Prospect. In her down time, she loves riding horses, and writes about it at equinevip.com.
“I really do enjoy working in Hollywood … but my life is completely separate of Hollywood. I’m in the service business. I’m not best friends with any celebrities. That’s not my job,” she said. “My job is to help them look great and help my clients.”