Kirkpatrick: Frank Trapper/Corbis Sygma; T: A Cao
March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Leaning back on a black leather couch in an otherwise nondescript Redondo Beach hotel room, ‘N Sync’s Chris Kirkpatrick, 29, is earnestly explaining the marketing potential of his just out fashion collection. Bandying about phrases like ”style and imaging” and ”signature pieces,” the eldest member of the megaselling boy band is starring in a video — but the fuzzy mini movie is far from ”TRL” material. It’s the promo tape — shrewdly intercut with flashy concert footage — shown to convince department store execs to pony up the Benjamins for the star’s FuMan Skeeto clothing line.

”We’ll go on all the TV shows that we do and say where you can go buy [the clothes],” he assures prospective buyers. ”Because we get asked every day.”

Kirkpatrick, Jennifer Lopez, Cher, Lil’ Kim, Bon Jovi’s Tico Torres, Crazy Town’s Seth Binzer, and E!’s Emme are among the celebs joining the lucrative retail fray, which already includes Kathie Lee Gifford (whose fashion line generated $660 million last year for distributor Wal-Mart), Sean ”Puffy” Combs (whose Sean John label raked in $100 mil in 2000), and actress / ex? swimsuit model Kathy Ireland, whose Kathy Ireland Sportswear Collection (at Kmart) pulls in more than a half billion dollars annually.

”The obvious reason stars are doing this is to capitalize on a name and extend their brand,” says Kimberly Bonnell, former Glamour editor and author of ”What to Wear.” ”It’s a very glamorous thing to do — fashion has so much aura — as opposed to pots and pans.” (Unless you’re Martha Stewart, of course.) But that aura can also lead to a public relations nightmare: In 1996, for example, then talk show diva Gifford became embroiled in an unfashionable scandal when National Labor Committee chairman Charles Kernaghan revealed that garments bearing Gifford’s name (and sold at Wal-Marts nationwide) were produced in sweatshops in the U.S. and Central America. And Gifford’s troubles are nowhere near over: Just last May, the NLC released a report stating that Kathie Lee handbags were made in China under ”prisonlike conditions.” Says Gifford’s attorney Ronald Konecky, who refutes the validity of the report, ”She has her own independent monitoring system to monitor infractions and has worked closely with Wal-Mart [to rectify problems].”

Retail dabbling stars have become extra cautious as a result: Ireland, 37 — whose father, John, 62, was a labor union rep for the Retail Clerks Union and worked with activist Cesar Chavez — researched Kmart and toured factories before signing on in 1993 to do her line with the discount monolith. ”This was something I was concerned about long before [the Kathie Lee] incident took place,” says Ireland. ”I grew up picketing…. The way people are treated has always been something at the forefront of my thoughts.”

”You can’t just sign a contract and say, ‘Okay, I trust you,”’ adds Fashion Emergency host Emme, 37, who meets with both international and domestic labor law compliance experts to ensure that her upscale plus size clothing line is produced fairly.

”I don’t think [Gifford] knew what was going on,” says Kirkpatrick, whose label launched at Nordstrom’s last Thanksgiving, was completely sold out by Christmas, and is now available at Bloomingdale’s and Von Maur. ”We’re very aware of who makes our clothes, when they get made, how long it takes them to get done.”

Says Bonnell: ”Celebrities are accountable in a way that even a Ralph Lauren isn’t, because it is their name and the public [identifies] the clothing line with the person, so [stars] are held more responsible.”

But Kernaghan contends that other than a New York State act (stating that goods produced under abusive conditions could be seized) passed shortly after the Gifford scandal broke, there is still much to be done as far as regulating factory practices. And he also stresses that celeb clothiers have to take even more responsibility for how their garments are produced.

”[Gifford] actually helped to wake the country up to child labor and sweatshop abuses,” says Kernaghan. ”Has it ended these abuses? No. No other celebrity has stood up [because] you’re asking people to do something that flies in the face of their enormous self interest.”

Translation: money. ”Kathie Lee’s move with Wal-Mart was brilliant,” says The End of Fashion author Teri Agins. ”These companies have to come up with a good consumer hook, and celebrities are certainly a terrific vehicle for that. The fact of the matter is Kathie Lee is bigger than Donna Karan.” And that’s post- Reege! Wal-Mart says sales of Gifford’s line haven’t been impacted by her departure from the long running morning show.

But there’s a big difference between shilling mass market duds at megastores and earning fashionistas’ respect. Combs’ 2001 Sean John fall collection featured mink vests, shearling coats, and crocodile skin jackets — and has garnered positive, if not gushy, reviews in the fashion industry. ”Understand that we are not in the clothing business for a quick hit, but we are truly commited to the expansion and growth of the men’s marketplace,” Combs, 31, said in a letter to buyers. ”[We] will use all of our resources to ensure?quality in both design and production of the Sean John collection.”

But make no mistake: The line wouldn’t get a fraction of the attention if the CEO didn’t happen to be a media lightning rod. ”[Puffy saw] himself in videos and noticed that whatever he wore, the sales would go through the roof,” notes Jeffrey Tweedy, executive VP at Sean John. ”So he thought, ‘Wow, what am I doing here? Why don’t I do it for myself?”’ (And it doesn’t hurt that Combs’ former paramour Jennifer Lopez showed up at MTV’s 2000 Video Music Awards bling blinging in head to toe Sean John.)

Adds Mary-Kate Olsen, 14, whose tween venture with twin sis Ashley debuted at Wal-Mart in December, ”The clothing line is basically the fashions that we wear in our [straight to video] movies. Kids ask us, ‘Where do you get your clothes?”’

Star power will only go so far, however: ”Fans will buy something once, but when they make the second or third purchase, the clothes have to stand up to regular scrutiny and it’s not just about some brand,” says Agins. (Among the casualties: Olivia Newton-John’s Koala Blue line, which, blaming overexpansion and the recession, went belly up in 1992 after filing for bankruptcy protection.) But in the end, there will always be consumers willing to buy the shirts off their favorite stars’ backs. ”I think [people] are gonna love it,” says Kirkpatrick of his fashion endeavors. ”It’s something new that everybody hasn’t really seen yet.”

At least until the Backstreet Boys get their hands on some sketches.

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