By Marcy Medina
Call her what you want — a celebutante, a blonde bubblehead or worse — but with an international branding empire with retail revenues of more than $2 billion in fragrance alone over the past ten years, Paris Hilton is laughing all the way to the bank.
She arrives for her WWD interview and shoot earlier this month more than an hour late — but not without her handler texting well before call time to make sure it’s OK. She is rolling a three-foot-tall nylon suitcase containing two dress options (“I didn’t want to wear them in the car or they’d get wrinkled,” she said) and carrying a MacBook (for mood music during the shoot) in a pink Neoprene case; her newest mini-purebred pooch, a six-month-old, 11-ounce micromini teacup Pomeranian named Prince Hilton, and a stack of 50 calligraphed cards that she plans to sign as part of a surprise mailer for beauty editors heralding the arrival Saturday of her 17th (yes, 17th) fragrance from New York-based Parlux Ltd., With Love, Paris Hilton.
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The question today is the same one that arose when she launched her first fragrance a decade ago: What qualifies her to peddle perfume in the first place?
“I would say that the success speaks for itself. [My brand] is one of the number-one celebrity fragrances out there and I have 17, which is a lot more than, I don’t know, most people,” she said, adding it continues to grow. “Every single month we are getting more sales and more countries wanting to sell the fragrances.”
Donald J. Loftus, president of Parlux, agrees. “Over the 10-year period we’ve done $2 billion in sales,” he said. “Yes, it’s a lot of fragrances, but the strategy is to make sure it stays fresh every six months so the consumer keeps coming back. The business is actually growing year after year because she’s always doing new things — the DJing, a hotel, her singing and her handbag line. The fans are fascinated by her as a result.”
And while many see Hilton as a joke famous simply for being famous (and a sex tape — hello, Kim?), others with expertise in high-fashion branding who don’t work with her are intrigued by the Paris phenomenon. “I’m always sort of blown away by her,” said Starworks Group founder James Grant. “Say what you want, but she sort of started the whole thing. The Kardashians wouldn’t exist if Paris Hilton didn’t exist. I don’t know how it happened, but you have to be awed in some way. There is an element of genius to it.”
Grant attributes it to timing. Tapping into the cultural zeitgeist at the right moment is half the battle. “Everyone looks to America for trends — maybe not design, but certainly in tech, marketing and pop culture. Paris managed to marry a movement in pop culture through TV and just being who she was. All the people like her have this place in the history of fashion and celebrity coming together which predates digital culture.”
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Perhaps it’s stating the obvious that Hilton inherited the entrepreneurial gene given her family tree: Her great-grandfather was Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton. Many say she could have easily gone the route of heiress and layabout, but given that her father Rick built the Hilton & Hyland real estate firm, her mother Kathy oversees her own empire of licensed fashion lines, and her little sister Nicky does the same, that seems less likely (her two younger brothers Barron and Conrad are a budding film director and real estate executive, respectively).
It’s also probably easy to imagine Hilton is inspired by Elizabeth Taylor as far as longevity in the fragrance arena. In fact, they were once related. “I grew up with her. She married my grandfather’s brother, so she was my great aunt. I don’t know how many fragrances she had, but a lot. I always looked up to businesswomen like that who build their own brands. Oprah as well is another one I’ve always admired. And I don’t know anyone else who’s been doing celebrity fragrances as long as me other than Elizabeth Taylor.”
Hilton struck her first fragrance deal in 2005 and the next year, encouraged by its success, she founded Paris Hilton Entertainment. “I didn’t want to just be known as the Hilton Hotel granddaughter. I wanted to be known as Paris who created her own empire,” she said.
That company now oversees her Parlux business, and a surprising 16 other licenses in clothing, accessories, beauty, as well as her real estate ventures (run by her father — her first residential property opened in the Philippines this year — and she’s planning to go into hotels and casinos); her singing (her second album is coming next year), and her DJing. Hilton now goes up against big-name DJs at major venues such as club Amnesia in Ibiza, where she played this summer for 10,000 people. Her DJing cred was criticized earlier this week by DJ Deadmau5 and Hilton fired back via Twitter: “I find it hilarious when others try to badmouth me in order to get attention. Sorry that I’m #Killingit while doing what I love & live for.”
The fact that Hilton’s licensing team is based in Europe, not New York or Los Angeles, speaks to her international savvy. Serena Sibbald, associate vice president of brand development at licensing agency Beanstalk, heads up Hilton’s global branding efforts from the company’s London office. Introduced to Hilton via her talent agency, Beanstalk has worked with her since 2006 to expand her brand in the fashion space. “With Paris it’s the multitude of products and territories that’s very special. And she is actually the best ambassador of her brand and because she has such a strong sense of style that her fans around the world love to emulate, so the most natural thing for her to go into is fashion and beauty,” Sibbald said. “She just seems to touch gold with whatever she works on.”
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She added, “She is very professional and she just keeps going, which is why her licensing partners and her fans love her. All those things combined put her into superstar status. I’m not sure where she ranks overall, but I would say she’s certainly in the top.”
Beanstalk just linked Hilton with Apparel Club — a Middle East-based, billion-dollar franchise operator that operates all Nine West stores in the Middle East — for the company’s new multibrand watch retail concept. Hilton’s watch line is in 10 of their stores so far. Hilton’s handbag licensee, Retouch Brands, is also a store operator, and she now has 45 branded stores throughout the Middle East and Asia that only sell her bags, and from time to time, her other product lines (for example, in Dubai they also sell her shoes).
Sibbald pointed out that some licensing deals are territory-specific. Take South Korea, for example. For Hilton, like for many other brands, it’s a growing aspirational market. There, she already has a beauty line and apparel is coming soon too. Sibbald added that they are working on a Paris apparel line to launch in China next year.
Hilton’s international reach is unusual for an American celebrity (for her fragrance, 30 percent of her customer base is in the U.S., 70 percent outside). “Capturing global attention and hanging onto it takes an insane work ethic. It is a talent,” said Brian Dow, partner at APA talent agency, where he heads the branded lifestyle division. Dow’s clients include Kim Kardashian and Bethenny Frankel. “In the U.S., she [Hilton] is not that relevant right now, but in certain markets like China, she is extremely relevant. You can really only be in so many places at one time anyway. Once you hit a certain point you can work forever. You just keep going.”
Hilton estimates she’s working or traveling 300 days each year. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that when I’m at all these events it is for work and I’m being paid to be there and promote a product or whatever club or restaurant has hired me to be there. People got to know me from being a New York socialite and a teenager at every party at every club since I was a kid. But I’ve actually turned that into a huge business. It is a part of my brand that I’m having fun and living an exciting life and being the life of the party, but it’s a lot of work.”
And just as important is her constant social engagement (she sleeps with three iPhones and a BlackBerry). The numbers don’t lie (though we know from Kendall Jenner’s Instagram fan exposé that some can be bought): 25 million social followers globally. That includes 12 million Twitter followers, five million Facebook fans, 2.7 million Instagram followers and more than five million social followers in China alone.
Is Parlux worried about whether the Paris bubble will burst? “I’d have been more worried 10 years ago,” said Loftus. “Now I think that in addition to those who may be obvious fans, she has won hearts and minds of intelligent women who say, ‘Good for her.’ She has taken it further than the teenyboppers.” He notes, “There have been bigger celebrities who have launched a single fragrance and it’s been a shocking disaster. The fact that she has $2 billion in sales for a relatively low retail item [her fragrances average $55 to $60 retail] is impressive. She is our longest-standing celebrity brand to date, and over time, it’s likely she will be the most profitable. Jay Z’s fragrance may have made more in its first year, but for Paris we’re talking over 10 years. Other than Liz Taylor, she’s probably one of the highest paid over time.”
Said Dow, “I think she’ll always be Paris. She’s worked a long time and she hit that critical mass. If you were ranking, I don’t know how close to top she’d be, but she’s going to be a legacy.”
What does Hilton say to those who are ignorant enough to insist she’s a flash in the pan — 10 years later? “People who don’t know me, they’ll say certain things. You could say that about someone who’s been around for a second, but I’ve been in this business for so long, and I’m killing it.” (Don’t forget the branding hashtag.)