April 5, 2007 in Business

You, too, can sit like a star

Ieva M. Augstums Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Donald Trump poses with a dining room suite during the introduction of his furniture line in Thomasville, N.C.
(Full-size photo)

THOMASVILLE, N.C. – With the theme song from his reality television show blaring in the background, Donald Trump strode into a showroom at the world’s biggest furniture trade show and started to brag about, of all things, his couch.

“Trump Home furniture offers consumers a tangible way to experience the luxurious Trump lifestyle for themselves … even if they can’t afford millions for one of my properties,” Trump said. “Now the public can not only wear my clothes, they can sit on my couch.”

Should Trump’s over-the-top bombast not suit your personal style, how about a couch from model Cindy Crawford? Or a couple of chairs from teen stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen? Such boldface names are all over furniture today, and some touted at this spring’s International Home Furnishings Market in High Point are among the increasing number whose fame isn’t rooted in the business of hearth and home.

The furniture industry has very few consumer recognizable brands – fewer than 10 by most measures – so manufacturers bring celebrities on board to help draw consumers into stores, said Jerry Epperson, a furniture industry analyst with Richmond, Va.-based investment banker Mann, Armistead and Epperson.

“America appears constantly fascinated by the famous, often without regard to their talent or ability,” Epperson said. “A celebrity identity gives consumers some comfort and reinforcement that someone else has chosen the item, too.”

Such famous-name furniture isn’t new – think Martha Stewart. Other celebrity lines that have sold well include that of American Realist painter Bob Timberlake and a collection named for fashion designer Liz Claiborne, both sold by Lexington Home Brands.

But several of the more recent celebrities to enter the market are like Trump, who bring their name to the business as much as a designer’s touch or artisan’s eye. They include Crawford, whose furniture collection debuted in late 2005, and the Olsen twins, whose second collection will hit stores this spring.

Epperson said for celebrities, launching a furniture line associates their name with fashion and the home – and brings in some profits. Among the first to enter the market was former Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit model Kathy Ireland, who in 1998 added furniture to the apparel, accessories and jewelry now sold by Kathy Ireland Worldwide.

In 2003, the last year from which figures from her privately held company are available, her collections with Standard Furniture brought in $500 million – at the time half of her company’s annual sales.

“We started with socks in 1993, and people laughed at us,” Ireland said. “I’m humbled by our brand’s success.”

Such well-known celebrity names attract consumers who generally don’t spend a lot of time shopping for furnishings, said Mary Frye, president of the Home Furnishings International Association, a Dallas-based trade group.

“It’s like being a political candidate,” Frye said. “Sometimes they get elected not because you side with them on their political issues, but because you recognize the name.”

This spring, Trump was the rookie at the furniture market in High Point, about 90 miles west of Raleigh, where 70,000 people gather every six months to do business in more than 12 million square feet of showroom space. He met in nearby Thomasville with more than 350 buyers, all eager to hear him talk about his venture into the furniture business.

“The thing I really do know is furniture,” Trump said. “I buy it for all my properties and will buy this furniture for my future properties.”

Trump’s name famously adorns his skyscrapers and hotels, as well as vodka, menswear and accessories. But the mogul said he’s done more that just lend that name to Lexington Home Brands – he opened up his personal homes and luxury properties to designers from the privately held company so they could be inspired by his larger-than-life style.

“I can’t put my name on something I don’t love,” he said.

Trump Home’s Westchester line is formal, with burled woods, brocades and leather, while the Central Park line has a modern flair with art deco-influenced accents. Both are in the middle of Lexington’s price range, with a Central Park rectangular dining room table set to cost about $1,595. A similar Westchester table will cost about $1,795.

While celebrities usually have the final say in how their products look, some are more hands-on than others. Timberlake’s insistence that furniture from his original line be made in the United States temporarily shut down production last year. Ireland said she listens and seeks guidance from her customers in creating her products.

“I think it’s exciting that the home industry is starting to look like Hollywood,” Ireland said. “But customers are the ones who have to determine if these are real brands or not.”

Indeed, there have been some notable failures. Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. dropped its Elvis Presley collection just 18 months after its debut in 2002. Company spokesman Doug Bassett said the typical Elvis fan loved the furniture, but couldn’t afford it.

“As we like to say, ‘Folks, Elvis has left the building,’ ” Bassett said. “The collection was a successful promotion, but just like Elvis, we wish it would have lasted longer.”

The key, Epperson said, is mixing the identity and the appeal of the celebrity with the affordability and attractiveness of the product.

“No one will buy ugly or overpriced furniture because someone’s name is on it,” he said.

© Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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