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Celebrity Cachet: Stars Still Have the Midas Touch

Photo credit : Julie Oliver
Celebrity Cachet: Stars Still Have the Midas Touch

Ottawa jewelry designer Karen McClintock is Hollywood-bound.

In February, McClintock headed to California with a six-foot berth in a celebrity gifting suite and a suitcase stuffed with her blingiest, most red carpet-worthy work. Her objective: that a pair of earrings or a necklace will catch a celebrity’s eye, the star will be photographed wearing it and the image will appear in US Weekly, InStyle or any of the influential U.S. celebrity and lifestyle magazines.

"It’s a game-changer," says the Ottawa-based designer, who is known for pieces made of semi-precious stones, crystals and vintage silver coins.

"Being associated with the Oscars in any way gives you credibility. I’m not just a crafter at the craft show in a gymnasium."

McClintock, who was invited to participate in the suite by a New York-based company called GBK Productions, will give away 90 pairs of earrings, plus she will have other pieces on hand at the suite, located in Hollywood’s W Hotel. Her earrings retail for between $100 and $165, and her necklaces for $250 to $650.

Having a celebrity wear your designs is the ultimate product placement. But giving away product is also a gamble. Top stars usually have their Oscar wardrobes and accessories chosen far in advance of the awards show and often wear jewelry lent to them by legendary jewellers such as Harry Winston and Van Cleef & Arpels.

Nova Scotia designer Lisa Drader-Murphy, whose Turbine Design Studio produces clothing, leather accessories and a cosmetics line, was in the gift suite at the Golden Globes and the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010.

She has more than 300 photos of celebrities and her fashions. At Cannes, she gave away a package of items, including a dress, a mini hobo bag and a mineral lipstick, as the "Cannes survival kit." The strategy worked. Turbine got 150 mentions in the international press.

"It’s fun. And a great marketing tool," says Drader-Murphy, who is based in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. "We live in a star culture. People find it fascinating to have that bit of contact."

Having a celebrity wear your products is what she calls a "soft endorsement" and it can only be taken so far, she says. "They’re not spokesmodels for our brands."

Drader-Murphy has had a few brushes with celebrity. She has been photographed with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Gwen Stefani. At Cannes, Angelina Jolie asked that the gifting suite be cleared while she attended with a security crew. Jolie took a few of the mini hob bags for her children.

There are tales of celebrity avarice. The wife of a Hollywood producer took a gift bag, then had her assistant phone about "your gracious offer of more product." Drader-Murphy sent her a leather clutch and suggested she visit Turbine’s website.

Ottawa-based We-Vibe, which produces a rechargeable couples sex toy, was in the gifting suites at the Oscars in 2009. We-Vibe founders Bruce and Melody Murison attended and hand-delivered the products to the celebrities.

Since then, the company has participated in gifting at the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Genies, either by sending products for gift bags or with promotional materials and banners and with a full team.

"In my opinion, having monitored all of these commitments, there is a significant added value of being there on-site yourself to rep the product, answer any questions, and of course, get your picture taken," says Sarah Bobas, marketing communication manager with Standard Innovation Corp., which produces the We-Vibe.

"It is a significant financial commitment, so you have to make sure you are leveraging the opportunity."

But given the nature of the product, there are sensitivities that must be observed, she says. Model/actress Shannon Tweed, for example, is a fan of the product and has been vocal about it.

On the other hand, We-Vibe has done "celebrity seeding," sending the product to stars. In some cases, they have received a thank-you note, but also a request that there not be any public connection between themselves and the sex toy.

Two years ago, Associated Press entertainment reporter Sandy Cohen noted that "the notion of gift suites seems to be souring."

Top-level stars don’t show up anymore — it would be tacky for, say, Tom Cruise to be seen hauling away a bag of free loot, Cohen noted. Besides, businesses pay for the privilege, often $5,000 or more, and many suites don’t have any real connection with the awards show.

"Some major shows, including the Academy Awards, are not affiliated with any gifting ventures, so a company that claims to be hosting an Oscar suite before Sunday night’s annual award ceremonies is not sanctioned officially by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — nor can it be guaranteed that Oscar-level talent will attend," Cohen noted.

McClintock has already made a name in Canada, where her jewelry has sold at Holt Renfrew for 11 seasons. This alone has given her credibility.

Her jewelry has been worn by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wife Laureen, and by Julie Jacobson, the wife of David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada (Mrs. Jacobson was wearing a McClintock necklace with vintage U.S. coins when she greeted President Barack Obama at the G8 conference in 2010. Jacobson later reported that Obama told her: "You look great.")

McClintock has been featured in Canadian fashion magazines from Chatelaine to Flare and Elle Canada, and Style at Home editor Erin McLaughlin will wear one her necklaces in the May edition of the magazine. But she is unknown in the U.S.

Her marketing and communications director Carrie Irvine recognizes both the risks and the potential rewards. McClintock’s signage, which she had made up specially for the Oscars, plays up that she is Canadian.

Irvine was happy with the gift suite experience at the Gemini Awards, where she met actor Jason Priestley and his wife Naomi Lowde, comedian Tom Green and R&B singer Deborah Cox, who wore one of McClintock’s bracelets on the Gemini red carpet.

"We see it as a business opportunity," says Irvine. "But it’s what we make of the opportunity. We have to make it count."

Having just one major celebrity wear a product generates interest. And the Oscars have mass recognition. Even the ability to post photographs of the designer with celebrities on a website has value, Irvine says.

She knows of a designer who uses celebrity photos in retail stores.

"It’s amazing how consumers are drawn to that line. People get excited about the product and want to buy it. It opens doors to new retailers. We’re trying to expand distribution in the U.S. We can’t just expect that it will happen on its own."

And even if the jewelry isn’t worn at the Oscars, it might get picked up for a future appearance, or even casual wearing.

"There are a lot of parties at the Oscars," says Irvine.

Drader-Murphy says most of the celebrities who have attended gifting suites she was in were two or three years away from being famous. It’s good because they are still happy to get free products.

"George Clooney will never go to a gifting suite," she says.

There have been other benefits for Turbine. Drader-Murphy met a representative for a props company that lends out clothing to set and costume designers for television shows. It would be a windfall of attention for any designer, she says. But she also warns that designers have to be prepared to meet the kind of sudden demand that would be generated. One designer was deluged with demand after a bag appeared on Gossip Girl.

"I can’t make 5,000 bags," she says.

McClintock is not sure what to expect at the Oscars, but she’s thrilled to be going. Jennifer Aniston or Viola Davis would be amazing. "If Meryl Streep comes in, she can have anything she wants," she jokes.

McClintock has heard the anecdote about the purses that went to Angelina Jolie’s children. And she recognizes the irony in giving away free stuff to celebrities.

"I am not giving pieces away to a two-year-old," she says firmly.