RED-CARPET STYLE SECRET: CLD STYLE HOUSE THRIVES OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT

CLDPR Celebrity Placement

CLDPR Celebrity Placement

When you think of fashion, you think of Dior, Gucci, DKNY.  You think of brands; you think of lights flashing . . . camera, action . . . What’s interesting to note, however, is that many of the people contributing the most to what you see out there on red carpets and runways are working behind the scenes and rarely seen or heard.  Their talent and what they do is visible, but their name is known only to a chosen few, on a need-to-know basis.  One of these people is Michelle Wendell, founder and owner of Chic Little Devil Style House.  Most often known by its initials, CLD, and occupying two floors of a downtown building in the midst of downtown’s Santee alley, it’s unknown to the public, but a must-know place for stylists, costume designers, and the glam squads looking for the next new thing for their celebrity clients.   Michele Wendell talks about how she started and her work behind the scenes.

How did you start CLD Stylehouse?

CLD Stylehouse, now comprised mostly of CLD PR, started way back in the day, about 8-9 years ago with designer closeouts–lots of good designers around town.  There was a big need for that back then.  Now that market is a little different.  You have Flash Sale sites.  Then it evolved to the stylehouse component which is the wardrobe rental house where people having a project for television, a major film, or music video can go pull wardrobe for those types of projects.  And that division, the stylehouse, is still with us and in business.  Then the final step in the evolution was CLD PR, which is where we represent top designers from around the country, around the world, and some local ones for celebrity placement, media placements, and events, and all kinds of PR needs.  One division just organically spawned from the next division due to demand.

So for us mortals, a style house is more for costume design, non-press, right?

Yes, costume designers, producers, anybody who’s working on a film and TV project, or music video.  Style house is synonymous with costume house, rental house.  To tell you the truth, I’m the one who made up the term “style house” years ago, and I find it really funny ‘cause now I know other people who are using it in their company names.  I just made that term up because I didn’t want to use ‘costume house’ because people think of costumes, like a bear and Halloween.  And I didn’t want to use rental house, because people think of old-school rental houses like the Palace on Western, where you go if you want to rent 100 cop uniforms for the day, a musty old rental house.  So I used “style house” to denote that we have high-end couture designers of modern-day stuff, but we rent it, too . . . so I made up a word.

CLDPR Michelle Wendell

CLDPR Michelle Wendell

Did you start out in fashion?  I mean how did you start out?

I actually didn’t start in fashion. I always think of myself less as a fashion person and more of a business person who happens to have an affinity and eye for fashion . . . started in the cardiac medical field, so random . . . did that for a while.  It allowed me to have the financial footing to start my own company, and it’s been fashion and business ever since then.

What drew you into fashion?

As far as fashion is concerned, you either are, or you aren’t strongly attracted to it. I’ve always loved “thrifting,” and how fashion and history are connected; have always been big on 60s and 70s influences. And that’s what drew me in.  And there’s still nothing as exciting as getting samples from London from McQueen, and just opening that box and just freaking out, or just finding on eBay a sick deal on some cool, rare vintage dress.

What drives you; what gets you out of bed? What is the thing you find most rewarding?  Fashion is a hard business.

The thing that motivates me most is I love making a deal—as the owner I’m the deal maker. As the owner I’m really the head of business development. I’m constantly looking for what’s the next.  What hot city is putting out a lot of hot new designers; who’s doing the hottest gowns.  Tracking that person down, making a deal with them, bringing them into the U. S. market, and showing them off to the world . . . that’s my passion. And just watching it grow.

The fashion market has evolved.  How have you seen it change?

These days, with designers, there’s a general notion, I think, of questioning advertising effectiveness. We are so saturated in this country you can’t drive a foot without seeing a billboard.  You can’t turn on the TV . . . you can’t open a publication without being inundated with ads, so consumers at large are metaphorically fast-forwarding through ads content.  So companies need a new vehicle to reach consumers, a non-traditional, non-advertising vehicle. So they look to us at CLD PR to get on celebrities and use that as the new conduit to open the consumers’ eyes to them, get into editorials, have events to do social media campaigns, and do fun viral media things on YouTube.

CLDPR Space

CLDPR Space

Yeah, it’s interesting because the Internet has changed PR in many ways, especially social media.

Totally! The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is check my Twitter and Facebook.  That’s where I get all the news.  That’s how I heard Steve Jobs died.  I get the news on Twitter . . . I get everything from there.  Don’t even watch the traditional news anymore.

How do you pick the designers for your style house?  Do you have criteria; is it instinctual?  A retail buyer has their own criteria, of course, but the Stylehouse is a completely different thing.

This is where the distinction between CLD Style House and CLD PR is important.  For CLD Style House you gotta think that people who are pulling for music video, TV and film, want pieces that are really distinct, period pieces, cool rare pieces, not necessarily as brand-conscious . . . striking, aesthetic pieces. And at CLD PR, the focus is on dressing celebrities for red carpets and events, and getting the product in publications. For that, you want to make sure you have things that are really wearable, refined, elegant, and that look good on a celebrity. But at the same time things that are going to compete with all the other hot red carpet brands out there, that are going to turn heads, get that celebrity noticed, get them on the best dressed list and not the worst dressed list.

What kind of designers do you find for PR?

I look at celebrity appeal, or a lot of editorial appeal . . . or if this is unlike anything we’ve had currently so it fills a void in the showroom . . . like swimwear . . . or I’ll say this designer’s talent is unique because they engineer their own prints . . .  or see someone’s talent, and their level of exposure in their press kit doesn’t match, and I’ll want to right that wrong.  And sometimes I even think of what lines would complement lines we already have, for example, a diamond line, but none of them use black diamonds, or sashes that would complement a lot of the gowns we have, for the bridal gowns.  So things that would work well, which would make it easier for things we already have, for example, a celebrity is coming for these shoes.  I can also offer them these tights that go well with these shoes.

For PR, probably the biggest part of our success here, the reason we’re able to get Fergie’s stylist and Angelina Jolie’s stylist to come here is that we have everything from the shoes, to the jewelry, to the outfit, to the handbag.  So I have to make sure that I have daywear, red carpet wear, ready-to-wear, shoes, boots, fine jewelry, diamonds . . . everything they could need for a 30-day press junket in Australia, let’s say. Then they’ll come here and get the whole job done under one roof. So in PR I try and keep a nice array of lines.

There’s more freedom in PR.  I can pick a line that’s crazy, and more formal, that a normal person would never have a chance to wear.  It’s marketing.  Even if we put something on a celebrity that’s completely not wearable by a human, it can still translate into brand awareness and sales.  The designer just has to do a good job in making the affordable versions of what they made for the high-level.

Where do you see CLD in the future?

If we continue on the current growth trajectory, about four years ago we had 6,000 square feet; now we have about 15,000 square feet.  So we’ve tripled in size, physically.  We’ve grown about 4-5 times in the volume of business we’re doing.   The future of our business is in the PR aspect.   We’ve had so much success there, and we were kind of a sleeping giant in that realm.  We came out of nowhere a few years ago.

Do you pay attention to trends?

I’ve always paid attention to trends, and I’ve always loved vintage eras, but when the PR department started years ago, what changed in me, I started paying a lot more attention to celebrities:  who’s got a new show coming out, who’s going on tour; people who are going to be out doing press and needing books. I probably care more about the celebrity culture now than I should, but I have to because it’s my bread and butter . . .

Would you say you’re a taste-maker?  How?

We position ourselves as the one-stop-shop to dress your celebrity client.  Therefore, what’s here is what they’re going to pull.  Stylists are human, too.  They only have 24 hours in a day and may not want to go to 16 different showrooms, and that’s definitely driving tastes and trends because people will follow what celebrities wear and what they see in magazines.   It’s a symbiotic relationship; it’s circular.  For example, I look on the street and see the cool kids in Soho wearing vintage and re-purposed vintage . . . would see that as the coming trend, and then start seeing that in the clothing lines. And the lines get on the celebrities and in press, and then the majority of the consumer population catches on to it.  So there’s your innovators, there’s your celebrities and media and the rest of the consumer population; and the circle starts all over again with the way the consumers are wearing it,  which feeds back to the designer.

With the celebrities you’re kind of a best-kept secret.  How do you avoid two people pulling the same items?

That’s such a good point. This falls under the politics of PR.  That’s both a no-no and an effective strategy. So it depends on who you’re working with. Some people, set out to have a “who wore it better”  and they find that ok if you out it on two actresses that maybe aren’t too closely overlapping in what they do and their styles are different and you pitch that to the media. Other actresses would die if something was worn twice, and I have different stylists that will only pull something that’s never been worn, and will never be worn again. So you just have to politick it to who you’re working with and just respect people’s guidelines.

Who polices it generally?

It’s us and the stylists. It’s the stylist’s job to say, “Please has this been worn?  We’re confirming it.”  It’s our job to tell the truth:  “Yes, it has, in blue”; or “Yes, it has, on another person.”  And we would always tell the truth because especially with PR it’s a long term thing. It’s both parties’ job.

How do you feel when you see a celebrity whose dress comes from you, especially when you’re dealing with so many lines that are new to the U.S.?  Does it do anything?  Does it affect your emotions?

Oh yeah, big time. Anytime I turn on the TV and see that red carpet and see my person coming out, I’m excited like I didn’t even know it was happening even if I knew it was happening.  Everybody that works here, texts each other . . . and it never gets old. We have a stack of magazines back there that’s probably taller than me with placements in them.  Yet every time I’m in bed reading magazines and I see my thing, it still makes me gasp. Nothing is as good as that feeling of seeing what you placed there. Because I always think these celebrities could have, at the touch of a button, any designer in the world, anything that they wanted and they chose your product.

That’s really interesting, CLD Style House is unknown . . . I mean, you know it, your employees know it, the stylists know it, but the consumer doesn’t know CLD.

That’s ok, it’s my job to make them know the name of my designers, so they need to know the name Ines Di Santo, never the name CLD PR–we keep that behind the scenes. People who need to know we did the placement will know. We’re definitely not promoting us; we’re promoting them.

So you’re one of the people working behind the scenes, who WANT to stay behind the scenes . . .

Absolutely, 100 percent! You don’t want to be known by the public. I’ve had magazines that run the placement that credit CLD’s name instead of the designer and that makes me cringe because that’s not our work, that’s not our job to pose as ourselves to the consumers.  Think about it.  How can we benefit? If I get Gipsy Jockeys in a magazine that’s read by 600 people, then they’re going to sell some stuff. If I get my name in a magazine read by everyday people, how is that really going to help me, except some Facebook and Twitter friends, and we have plenty of that.

Which aspect do you like the most, limelight or background?

Background.  Being an entrepreneur for 10-11 years, the hardest part of it, and the most unpredictable commodity, is people.  Money can be quantified and predicted, designers usually stay true to their aesthetic and predictable season after season, to a degree, but people, it’s up, it’s down, they have moods.  Turnover is the worst possible thing for a business.  Being on the front line just subjects you to masses of people, and I personally don’t like interacting with that many people.  And the more successful I get, frankly, the less available I may be.

So, red carpets, you like to watch them, but not be on them.

I don’t want to be there, I want to see it.  You’ve seen it in person—it’s just a stress bucket deluxe.  On TV, it looks like a well-managed, smooth, happy operation.  But you and I know it’s just one giant photo op.  I don’t know how these actors can stay sane . . . have watched some of these photographers in person.  Another thing I don’t like is the permanence of it all.  If you’re on the red carpet and you get a picture taken, and it goes on Getty and Wire, that picture lives out in cyberspace for ever, and ever, and ever.  So if you got the wrong angle or the wrong face, you’re immortalized for the next 100 years.  I don’t like the pressure of having to be perfect in every shot, so that’s another good thing about being behind the scenes.  You can control your image better.

If you had to walk the red carpet, would you do anything different than what’s being done by the celebrities, anything you’d pay particular attention to?

I don’t know that I would.  I don’t think I would be as good a celebrity as the celebrities that really exist because they look like they put meticulous detail from head to toe:  every eyelash, every shoe. I don’t know that I would do anything different.  Have to give it up to the glam squads that get them ready the night of, in their outfit, hair, and make up . . . they do a pretty good job.

You work in unison with other talent . . . you’re not the stylist.

You  can have the best goods, but if you don’t have a good stylist when you’re putting the outfit together, it can be a problem . . . hoping that they use it in the most appropriate, tasteful way . . . I sometimes see  something that could have been better on someone else.  Everybody’s got to remember dressing always for their body type and not for the trend . . . and we do have a lot of ahead-of-trend things . . . and people get excited and caught up in that trend moment, and it was not the trend for them, or the color for them.  We try our best to legislate it, like when things go out, we say “now this isn’t good for someone busty.”  . . . We always know who the talent is, and if we see a train wreck coming, we can prevent it.  Sometimes no one sees it coming.  At some point you have to let go of the control.

Like styling a photo shoot, in the end it’s the photographer looking through the lens, and taking the picture . . .

Yes, in the end, it’s being able to let go and trusting other people’s instincts.  I’m a part of a moving wheel, a few spokes.  Even the celebrity is a spoke on the wheel, if they’re out there posing in a way that’s unflattering, controversial, even that can ruin it, can wreck the movie, wrong publicity.

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