The sunbeam smile and Maliblue eyes still hint of summers on a California beach. The soft curves and easy angles of the body remain some of the best reasons for the invention of the camera. In the 16 years since Cheryl Tiegs first gazed into a lens for pay, the fetching model has used her streamlined good looks for the promotion of everything from evening gowns to Lincoln-Mercury Cougars, from Cover Girl cosmetics to Olympus cameras and Clairol hair coloring. At 34, she has not only survived in a field increasingly inundated by eye-shadowed adolescents, she has added a lucrative new page to her portfolio. Like a growing number of public personalities, Tiegs has begun using her name and knowledge of fashion to create and sell designs of her own.
Last year the CT label on lingerie, skirts, blouses, bathing suits, blazers and blue jeans accounted for an estimated $100 million in sales for Sears, Roebuck and Co., her patron retailer. New collections of Tiegs togs now arrive at the chain’s 700 stores every two months, and small-fry sizes are in the works for back-to-school shoppers this fall. With those jingling cash registers bolstering her income by a reported $4 million annually, the still sought-after cover girl now devotes a third of her working days to making rather than modeling new styles.
To Tiegs, the move from photographer’s studio to designer’s drawing board makes perfect sense. “As a model I’ve worn everything imaginable, every color and texture by every designer,” she notes. “After all that experience, you sort out what is wearable, unwrinkleable, practical and exciting.” Even so, she confesses, some manufacturers have been more eager to capitalize on her fame than her fashion sense. A 1978 offer from one firm to lend her name to their “designer” blue jeans “just didn’t ring true to me,” she explains. “I could have made about half a million dollars a year, but I just couldn’t take the money and run. I have to be involved.”
At Sears, with whom she signed the following year, Tiegs boasts that her involvement includes deciding on “the length of the sleeve, the kind of buttons, how the ruffles are made, where the pockets are placed and the exact weight of the fabric.” Admitting that “I can’t really draw,” she credits her team of Cheryl-wear designers with creating the initial sketches for “the kind of clothes I would want to wear.” Tiegs and the pros then haggle over hemlines, fuss over fabrics and iron out other details before production begins. “I am German. I am very stubborn, very persistent,” states Cheryl. “I’m on the phone every day, and at designers’ workshops once a week.”
As a result, Tiegs’ mix-and-match daywear (under $25), slinky nightgowns ($23) and practical PJs (under $25) have found willing buyers in an ailing economy. “I think the Sears customer is like me; she’s conservative,” asserts Tiegs, who first posed for the cover of the company’s catalog back in 1966. Of course, to a $2,000-a-day model, conservatism is relative. At home in the three-bedroom Park Avenue duplex she has shared with photographer Peter Beard since their marriage last May, Tiegs divides her walk-in closet space between off-the-rack size eights at Sears and more recherché styles by Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan of Anne Klein. Clothes that haven’t been used in a year are summarily discarded. “One of my rules is, if I don’t wear it, I don’t want it in my life,” says the model turned fashion mogul. “I don’t like what’s trendy. My style is feminine but classic. I’m not saying my taste is so great. It’s just that what I like happens to be what America likes.”
That conviction is shared by a good many others as well. With one hand gauging the public’s pulse and the other edging toward its pocketbook, a cast of eager celebs has metamorphosed into hopeful designers. Since 1969 Johnny Carson has been parlaying his taste in conservative two-button suits into steady sales for Johnny Carson Apparel, a line manufactured by Hart Schaffner & Marx. Nancy Reagan’s chum Betsy Bloomingdale, who is married to a Diners Club founder, Alfred Bloomingdale, has begun her fourth year as a designer of loungewear for Swirl. Her $20-to-$45 cotton-and-polyester housecoats are the perfect item “when you want to look nice but don’t want to get dressed up,” she advises. Though they might not be de rigueur at state dinners, she wears them “around the house, to the market, even out to dinner.”
Some stars, like songman Kenny Rogers, are more recent converts to couture. Rogers began marketing his line of Western wear a year ago and credits his commercial art and architecture courses at the University of Houston for teaching him “the balance lines that are all related to the work I do with clothes.” That work, Kenny concedes, is primarily “corrective design. I look at the sketches and say, This would be better If or ‘I’d like it better if we changed this to that.’ Even when I build houses, my strength has never been starting from scratch but rather renovation and reconstruction.” Rogers’ duds, ranging from $38 jeans to $400 leather jackets, racked up $30 million in retail sales through country-Western stores and fan club mail orders in only their first year. Of that, their corrective designer pocketed a cool $1 million in royalties.
While Rogers promotes his threads as “real American clothes,” Shakira Caine makes no such claims for hers. A native Guyanan and second runner-up in the 1967 Miss World contest, Shakira had become a London model by the time she married actor Michael Caine in 1973. Her all-silk dresses, which will sell for up to $200 at I. Magnin and Bullock’s this spring, are now designed at the couple’s California home and sewn in Canada.
Despite her current success, Shakira vividly recalls financial troubles in the mid-’70s. “I didn’t know much, and I paid for my mistakes,” she says. “This can really be a dreadful business.” Other battle-scarred stars might be quick to agree. Suzanne Pleshette’s Strawberry Patch pattern for bed linens made her sheets the country’s best seller in 1977 (she dropped out of the design game last year), but singer Dinah Shore’s sheets washed out when the mill tried to push her sophisticated designs in K mart stores. Crystal Gayle’s line of sportswear, which was viewed in Dallas over a year ago, fizzled because of production problems. “I wish anyone well going into this business,” established designer Michael Vollbracht says of this new breed. “But they better hook up with somebody who knows what they’re doing. Otherwise the sharks get you.”
Former Minnesota Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton was thrown for a loss last year when he failed to reach a royalty agreement for a line of Higgins business suits bearing his imprimatur. Undaunted, the ex-jock has since designed a six-page airline ticket envelope with room for some mini-ads. “Tarkenton’s Ticket Shopper” now crosses the palms of some 14 million airplane travelers each month, and Fran makes a profit both from the ad space he sells and from products like cordless phones and electronic blood pressure kits that he markets himself.
Many celebrities, like Tarkenton, have ranged far from their usual fields of endeavor. When the Shulton Company wanted help in concocting a new perfume, it called on actress Candice Bergen. “I’m not the kind of person who sells my name,” says Candy. “I had to be there in a lab coat checking out everything.” Alas, Bergen’s favorite fragrance was nosed out by others in market tests, and Cie, which she now endorses, features another scent.
But no matter. Such blows to celebrity pride will scarcely stem the tide of star-name products; a whole new array is already in the works. Among them: face cream goodies from Dolly Parton, eyeglass frames from Sophia Loren and a line of skin-care products from perennially youthful Dick Clark.
For most of the creator-endorsers, the risks will be measured, the involvement cautious, the commitment transitory. Yet for some, like Cheryl Tiegs, the venture may prove to be more than padding for already well-cushioned bank accounts. Although she is still a familiar face in magazines and on TV (she will host a PBS Media Probes segment on photography airing this Wednesday), Tiegs insists she is happier with her Sears work than with anything she has ever done. “I’ve gone as far as I can in modeling,” she says. “Now I have to go on to something else, another goal. This is my career. This is total commitment.”