Two decades ago, 42 million people watched as Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom counterpart, Ellen Morgan, came out on national television. The historic “Puppy Episode” sparked a media frenzy and national debate that put DeGeneres and her sexuality at its center.
DeGeneres’ bright blue eyes welled up with tears last month as she stood in front of her studio audience to celebrate the anniversary of that trailblazing event, which helped permanently change the conversation on equality, acceptance and inclusion.
“I had no intention of breaking barriers,” DeGeneres told Footwear News on the phone a few days after she commemorated the moment on her talk show. “I was just trying to have a career, and I also just happened to be gay. I decided it was not really worth the burden of a secret like that. Any kind of secret carries a lot of shame, and I didn’t want to live with that shame. I wanted to be free from that and feel proud of myself, and so I just decided to be honest. And coincidentally, it broke barriers.”
Despite major backlash after the show aired — which nearly cost the television personality her entire career — DeGeneres persevered, and national sentiment about gay rights began to shift. By the time “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” debuted in 2003, the host’s influence already extended far beyond the small screen. “I’m proud that [the coming-out moment] helped other people. More than anything, it just made me live a more peaceful life,” DeGeneres explained.
As the comedian embraced her true identity, she also grew more comfortable expressing her unique sense of style. “I had a way of dressing that isn’t the way most women were dressing,” said DeGeneres.
The star soon began to notice that many people wanted to emulate her look. “I started seeing women come to the show attempting to dress like me,” she said. “I would see versions of myself in the audience, and I thought, ‘There’s a market here.’”
Fashion insiders clearly saw potential, too — and in 2015, Christopher Burch, the CEO of Burch Creative Capital, who co-founded Tory Burch and has invested in other fashion brands, officially teamed up with the star to launch ED Ellen DeGeneres.
As she developed her brand vision, DeGeneres said she was focused primarily on being comfortable. “First of all, comfort is everything to me. I’m not going to ever wear something just because it’s fashionable or because a woman is supposed to wear this. So [I thought] I should make the kind of clothes [and shoes] that apparently women want to dress in.”
From the beginning, footwear — produced under license with Camuto Group — was a major part of the equation. “What I was known for more than anything else was wearing tennis shoes with everything,” she said.
In addition to footwear, the brand includes handbags (also in partnership with Camuto) as well as women’s apparel, accessories, pet products, home furnishings and décor that all are inspired by DeGeneres’ style, values and personality.
The influencer was determined to create a brand that had authenticity and longevity, much like her show.
“I don’t ever go into anything without hoping that I’m going to do something that is significant and impactful,” she said. “We try to make a show every single day that’s better than the one yesterday, and we take a lot of pride in how creative we try to be. We try to be positive because that’s really important now more than ever. I want the show to be something that is breaking barriers, and I want my brand to be something that is breaking barriers.”
That certainly isn’t easy to achieve in Hollywood — or fashion. In a sea of celebrity brands, differentiation is key — and that’s one sizable advantage for DeGeneres.
Another selling point: The star almost always dons her own designs on-set.
“I rarely do a show not wearing my shoes. It’s not that I’m wearing shoes just to promote them; I’m wearing them because I’m saving money,” the comedian quipped. “No, it’s because I love them. I wouldn’t wear anything if I didn’t love it. It’s amazing that I happen to have a platform to show off my brand. It’s just an added bonus.”
DeGeneres’ unique ability to instantly reach millions of consumers every day is a big reason why Camuto Group — which built Jessica Simpson’s blockbuster shoe business — found the Ellen business appealing.
“We were presented with an unparalleled opportunity to develop a brand that uniquely bridges casual and athletic footwear, and to do so with a person that is not only adored around the world but has a thoughtful aesthetic built on core principles important to Camuto Group,” said Alex Del Cielo, Camuto’s chairman and CEO.
DeGeneres described her shoes as stylish and timeless. “I want them to be able to last and not just be of the moment,” she added.
While she’s best known for her casual sneaker looks, DeGeneres is also offering up ballet flats, sandals, slides and slip-ons, which retail from $89 to $198. The accessibility factor was key for DeGeneres as she crafted her business strategy. “There’s no sense in making shoes that people couldn’t afford,” she said. “The goal is to hopefully get to a price point with everything that we make that is accessible.”
For their part, top retailers are bullish about the brand’s early performance.
“It launched last year with a strong base in sneakers and flats. This year they’ve done a nice job growing the brand by adding categories and expanding into fashion sneakers,” said Kristin Frossmo, EVP and GMM of the shoe division at Nordstrom, which debuted the shoe collection exclusively in 2016. She added, “Our best-selling styles have been the more whimsical styles — printed sneakers with positive messages like ‘love’ and ‘smile,’ dog- and cat-themed sneakers, and a flat with a heart or the word ‘love’ written on the toe. The shoes are fun and novel.”
Frossmo said the shoes are unique because they align with customers’ perception of DeGeneres as a person. “The thing that stands out the most is the positive messaging of the collection. They look like shoes Ellen would [and does] wear,” added Frossmo. “This has resonated with our customer.”
Now DeGeneres is looking to expand further in the accessories market. After adding handbags to her collection with the Camuto Group for spring ’17, baby and kids’ footwear is next and will launch this fall. “The customer remains enthusiastic about the breadth of Ellen’s collection, the attention to detail and its strong reflection of her personal style and spirit. The brand’s performance, coupled with Ellen’s global appeal, has proven a tremendous opportunity,” Del Cielo said.
On a broader scale, the label — which in addition to Nordstrom is stocked in Dillard’s, Lord & Taylor and is sold on QVC — will also look to expand internationally, according to Marisa Garidini, CEO and managing partner of the ED brand.
DeGeneres also has gotten a boost from fellow celebrities who have taken an interest in the collection. Kerry Washington, Jessica Biel, Elizabeth Banks, Naomi Watts and Michelle Monaghan have all been spotted in her shoes.
Asked whom she would most like to see in her line, DeGeneres has a simple answer: everybody. “When I see people wearing my shoes, whoever it is, it makes me really happy. It’s the same thing when people are wearing the Ellen underwear. They do it because it’s comfortable, not because it’s my name. Everyone who buys them — whether the Langston flats or the Chapalla sneakers — say they’re so comfortable. It makes me happy.”
When pressed a bit more on her dream celeb get, DeGeneres eventually volunteered, “The [Radio City] Rockettes would be great. That kick line would be really cool. You’d see love on every shoe.”