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Small Business
How a Small Designer Reached for the Stars on Oscar Night
By Gwendolyn Bounds
1670 words
7 March 2006
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Los Angeles -- IT WAS FRIDAY afternoon, two days before the Oscars, and Lauren Merkin, a little-known New York handbag designer, waited inside her room at the swank Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, hoping that the $31,000 she had invested in producing a collection of 65 one-of-a-kind "Red Carpet" bags for Hollywood's biggest evening was about to pay off.

Her dream: that a big-name star or her stylist would breeze through the hotel room and select a bag to carry for the Academy Awards.

Bagging a celebrity endorsement is a marketing coup for any business, but a small shop like Ms. Merkin's can be catapulted to the major leagues if a star is photographed wearing the merchandise. In the frenzy of Oscar week, however, dozens of hopefuls -- from tiny shops to designers who are celebrities in their own right -- jostle each other for attention in hopes that a star will deign to wear one of their creations to one of the parties and events.

Breaking into this world costs money: Of the $31,000 Ms. Merkin spent, $13,500 included a fee to have her handbags at a "freebie" gift lounge for celebrities at the Independent Spirit Awards the day before the Oscars. An additional $9,000 went to production of the Red Carpet clutches -- she decided to make a special line of unique bags just for this event; Ms. Merkin's travel and hotel expenses ate up $3,500 and a publicist's travel expenses cost $5,000.

For a small company with roughly $1.4 million in revenue and a staff of four, this was no small investment -- and one that was a gamble. Even if a celebrity or her stylist took one of Ms. Merkin's bags, there was no guarantee she would actually end up toting it Oscar weekend as stars are notorious for being fickle. And even if someone did carry one, they might inadvertently tuck it behind their back or hand it to a publicist to
hold while cameras were snapping.

Ms. Merkin was aware of the risks. "If they have your item and are photographed in conjunction with the Oscars, you can't even put a price on that," she said before the awards. And if not? "I'm trying not to think about it."

At 31 years old, Ms. Merkin, who earned an M.B.A. from Columbia University in New York, already has achieved some success with her basic $165 to $575 bags in silk, lambskin, snakeskin and calf hair. The bags are sold on Neimanmarcus.com and at Bergdorf Goodman, and in some 200 smaller boutiques such as Searle.

She got one of her first tastes of how powerful the celebrity connection can be after singer Jessica Simpson was photographed in August carrying one of her leather totes and the image appeared on a fashion Web site crediting Ms. Merkin. The photo was a surprise to Ms. Merkin -- her company hadn't given the bag to Ms. Simpson. Afterward, "we were getting emails from women around the country wanting to know how to get the bag," Ms. Merkin says. "It puts you on the map in a different way."

The business of courting celebrities has grown to the point where some vendors now pay stars to endorse an item -- a luxury Ms. Merkin says is "out of the realm" of what she can afford as a small business. Yet rather than simply doling out her regular bags, she did opt to create a cadre of unique Oscar handbags with fabrics such as organza and antique hand-beaded lace that she hand-picked in Manhattan's garment district.

Having unique bags was a bid to satisfy celebrities' desire to stand out -- and something that bigger designers do as well. This season, for example, Dockers created customized khakis for each presenter at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards, the edgier sister show to the Oscars that occurs the day before. Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, meantime, designed footwear adorned with jewels owned by Rita Hayworth for Kathleen York, a best song nominee for "Crash."

Producing a special collection was "a super smart move on Lauren's [MS. MERKIN'S]part," says stylist Robert Verdi, who, among other stars, dresses Eva Longoria of "Desperate Housewives" and who knows Ms. Merkin's work. "When you get the best things for nothing, the next thing you want is an original great thing for nothing."

Ms. Merkin isn't completely new to Hollywood. Mr. Verdi gave one of her bags to Ms. Longoria to wear at the recent Golden Globes awards. Despite the exposure, Ms. Merkin decided the Oscars would be an even greater promotional stage.

The special-edition clutches were the angle Ms. Merkin's publicity firm pushed in the weeks before the Oscars with stylists who guided, or outright decided, what outfits their clients wore that weekend. Ms. Merkin's main publicist, Jill Snowden, sent one of her regular bags to 15 of the top stylists, along with a personal note letting them know about her Oscar collection and hotel room in Los Angeles.

Just picking the right hotel is critical as celebrities and stylists have limited time to canvas all the designers' suites and gift lounges set up around town. At the last minute, Ms. Merkin's team switched to the Peninsula after learning there would be a plethora of stars staying there as well as a "Luxury Lounge" suite offering high-end goods and spa services to celebs, even though her bags weren't included in this particular lounge.

It was a calculated decision that paid off. Soon after arriving at the hotel on Thursday, Ms. Snowden and Ms. Merkin visited Luxury Lounge to chat up representatives from luxury-goods makers who were giving free products to celebrities. One of these representatives offered to direct any celebrities needing a handbag up to Ms. Merkin's suite.

The next day, the two women were talking with a stylist when an unexpected visitor directed from the Luxury Lounge walked in: it was "Desperate Housewives" star Nicollette Sheridan who plays the hit TV show's serial divorcee vixen, Edie Britt. The star, clad in an all-white pantsuit with her young stylist in tow, described her Oscar weekend attire -- a red dress with silver shoes and white gold cuff bracelet, which she planned to wear, among other places, to Elton John's popular party Sunday night.

After a few moments of mulling the creations sprawled across Ms. Merkin's bed, she took one of the designer's favorite, and most expensive, bags in grey/taupe lace. "It's beautiful and antique and chic and different," Ms. Sheridan pronounced.

Even as Ms. Merkin hurriedly packaged the handbag, the anxious stylist was already at the door. "Come on, my sweet," he sang to Ms. Sheridan. "Your broomstick is double-parked." The whole exchange took less thaan 10 minutes but Ms. Merkin and Ms. Snowden were optimistic: landing this "Housewife" would be huge even though they had no guarantee Ms. Sheridan would actually use the bag.

By day's end, four major stylists had visited Ms. Merkin's room and 31 bags had been doled out -- a good start. The most promising Oscar contender: Amy Adams, nominated for best supporting actress in "Junebug," whose stylist stopped by and picked up several bags, though made no promises. While many stylists will borrow and return bags, if a top celebrity wants to keep theirs, the matter of price will be forgotten -- and deducted as a marketing expense.
Saturday morning, the designer and her publicist headed to the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, where Ms. Merkin's regular handbags, and few Red Carpet ones, were offered free to celebrity award presenters.

The event was a boon for Ms. Merkin, who managed to get her bags into the hands of numerous celebrities, including Naomi Watts, Lisa Kudrow, Rosie Perez and Sienna Miller, as well as several men. Willem Dafoe and Billy Baldwin each snagged one for their wives; Terrence Howard, nominee for best actor in "Hustle & Flow," picked up one for his young daughter.

Every chance she got, Ms. Snowden ensured a photo was snapped, knowing the images could later be sent to the media or posted on the designer's Web site. The biggest coup came when the Independent Spirit Awards' host, comedian Sarah Silverman, was photographed with one of the "Red Carpet" bags.

On Sunday morning, Ms. Merkin and Ms. Snowden flew back to New York to watch the Oscars -- and wait. They were disappointed that Ms. Adams of "Junebug" didn't carry Ms. Merkin's bag. But not long after, Ms. Merkin found an image online of Ms. Sheridan carrying the grey/taupe tote at the Elton John party. Actress Gabrielle Union also was photographed carrying a Merkin bag to the Vanity Fair party.

Total Academy Awards tally: three big names photographed at Oscar-related events with the bags and some 30 other stars given free bags at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Ms. Merkin has no plans to sell the leftover Red Carpet bags, although at retail, they would go for $600 to $1,100. Instead, she will use them as a marketing tool, showing them to retailers to interest them in possibly ordering up a new special collection.

The next step is parlaying the Oscar weekend work into real business. Ms. Merkin will use the celebrity photos to court new retailers. Her public relations firm, meantime, will phone and email their contacts at magazines such as Entertainment Weekly to make them aware of the Oscar images and encourage citations in any post-Oscar packages. The images will also go up on Ms. Merkin's Web site.

"Giving away so much seemed a little out of hand at first," she says. But based on the exposure to celebrities and stylists, "I definitely got my money's worth."