Jaclyn Smith was at the height of her career. Coming off a five-season stint in the top-rated Charlie’s Angels, she was modeling for Max Factor and was a favorite among fashion mavens and magazine editors who named her to various best-dressed and most-beautiful lists.
Smith was not, however, a Kmart shopper. And in the 1980s, when executives with the retailer, then No. 1 in the market, offered her a chance to develop her own brand, Smith politely declined. “I just wasn’t aware of the mass market for apparel at that time,” she says.
But Kmart executives were insistent and took Smith into their stores to show her their interest in creating brands.
“I liked the people, and I felt that Kmart stood for what I was about,” she says. “It’s a family store.”
While Smith was intrigued, Max Factor officials didn’t want her to get involved with the mass retailer, thinking it didn’t fit her image. Other friends and business associates thought her connection with Kmart would hurt her acting career.
But part of the attraction for Smith was that she wouldn’t only be endorsing a product; she would be helping create it. Kmart allowed her to be hands-on with the marketing, advertising and other aspects of the business, as well as the design of garments, “even down to the buttons,” she explains.
“I’ve always been one to take on challenges and go into unknown terrain,” Smith tells SUCCESS. Against the protestation of everyone, she decided to partner with Kmart.
In the 25 years since then, more than 100 million women have purchased clothing and accessories from the Jaclyn Smith collections, and Women’s Wear Daily reports the line has the highest consumer awareness of any private-label apparel brand in the nation. Smith has since parlayed that success into other ventures, including the Jaclyn Smith Home collection, launched with Kmart in 2008.
Withstanding the Challenges
A pioneer in celebrity brand development, Smith’s brand has shown unusual staying power—surviving Kmart’s bankruptcy in 2002 and the recent recession, which precipitated the demise of some other celebrity lines (and some of the stores that carried them).
Smith also survived early criticism for going with Kmart. “I was put down at first,” she told a reporter last year, “but certainly not now. You take chances, and I’m happy I did.”
Today, her image as one of the world’s most fashionable and beautiful women doesn’t seem to suffer for her involvement with the mass-market retailer—while it does convey the brand’s promise. In videos celebrating her quarter century with Kmart, a jeans-and-sneakers clad Smith talks about “combining beauty with functionality” as she strolls about the restored Georgian colonial home she shares with husband Dr. Bradley Allen, a pediatric cardiac surgeon, and her five dogs.
With her standard poodle, Elizabeth, bounding alongside her and a beagle snoozing on the floor with a veterinarian’s cone around its neck, Smith reveals a hint of her native Texas accent as she speaks. “I want a home where the dogs are comfortable, and so are my children, their friends, the rest of the family. You gotta put your feet up, sit down, enjoy.”
Through her clothing and accessories line, and now the home collection, Smith seeks to help other women develop their own personal styles. She credits her success in part to these savvy buyers. “Women are smart shoppers. Women know a good buy, and they know quality. People don’t want to spend $500 for a cashmere sweater, especially now,” she says, referring to a line of 100 percent cashmere sweaters she developed that flew off the racks.
While staying in touch with women’s need for affordable style was key to her brand’s longevity, Smith says she never could have launched her lines without being willing to take some risks. “When I started, nobody was doing celebrity branding,” she says. “But you can’t be afraid of failure. I always tell my kids, ‘Go toward something that frightens you.’ You have to put yourself on the line, or you’ll never get anywhere.”
‘Fight for Your Vision’
Smith remembers how tough it was when Kmart fell on hard times and filed for bankruptcy. “I had to readjust to new people, and I had to fight for my core customers and what they wanted.”
She felt very strongly that she had to believe in whatever she lent her name to. “In Kmart, I know my customers,” she says firmly. “Always remember to fight for your vision.”
At the same time, she cautions budding entrepreneurs to know when to pick their battles, especially in the midst of a recession. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Give me six months in your store without royalties,’ ” she says. “In today’s business world, people aren’t taking chances. Don’t ask for the world right off!”
Smith’s image as an actress and model—elegant, lovely, poised—might belie her business moxie and tenacity. But she says these characteristics aren’t necessarily incongruous. Her mother, Margaret Ellen Harstfield, who passed away last year, provided a role model for her, showing that women could be beautiful, family-oriented and strong.
“She was everything to me,” Smith says about her mother, her voice breaking. “She lived right. There was no burnout. She loved us, and she didn’t need therapy to manage life. Everything I am I owe to her.”
Still, as much as she believed in herself, Smith had to prove she was more than a pretty face when she entered business. “When I started (Jaclyn Smith) Home, they thought, ‘Who is this Charlie’s Angel telling us about furniture and antiques?’ ” she told a Reuters reporter last year. “But once you really know what you are talking about, it doesn’t take long for people to recognize that. It’s all about backing it up with knowledge. But in the business world, as a woman, you really do have to represent yourself in the proper way, otherwise you won’t be taken seriously.”
Values and Priorities
Contrary to the predictions of those who counseled against going with Kmart, Smith’s acting career has been prolific. Following her run with the iconic Charlie’s Angels series, she garnered roles in numerous top-rated television miniseries, including Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, which earned her a Golden Globe award nomination.
Performing since the age of 3 as a dancer, Smith never envisioned herself as a designer and business owner, despite being a definite trendsetter when she was a young actress and model. While modeling for Max Factor, she developed her own fragrance, California. And it was a fragrance she wore. Smith was very passionate early on about not endorsing or promoting anything she didn’t believe in.
That remains true today. In her videos promoting her Kmart lines, she points to a paisley sofa fabric that inspired the pattern on a coffee cup in her collection. She shows off a table setting and mentions how she mixed pieces from the collection with an antique that was a gift from her daughter, Spencer Margaret.
The home collection was entirely Smith’s idea, and her goal was to give average women the tools they needed to create a beautiful and comfortable home all on their own. “It’s intimidating to try and pull your home together if you don’t have an interior designer,” Smith says.
She offers two different lines, Jaclyn Smith Today and Jaclyn Smith Traditions. The former provides a modern take on home design with global and contemporary elements, while the latter reflects Smith’s own 18th-century furnishings and textiles.
Smith isn’t surprised by her brands’ enduring success. “I have a particular image,” she says, “and my customers know my line isn’t going to be so trendy it will be out of style next year.”
Now 64, Smith attributes a lot of her own success to staying true to her values and priorities. Like most modern women, she knows how hard it can be to juggle the demands of family and career. One reason her relationship with Kmart has endured is because the retailer has respected Smith’s need for balance. The companies’ executives and designers knew she had an acting career to manage and that her family was always going to come first. Though her children Gaston Anthony and Spencer Margaret are now grown, Smith made sure she was there for them during their childhood years.
If she ever had doubts about her priorities, Smith says a breast cancer diagnosis seven years ago made everything clear. “Cancer stops you in your tracks,” she says. “It really makes you think about what’s important. In a second, life can change. Don’t ever forget to say thank you for love and family. What good is your success without them?”
Cancer and her mother’s passing seem to have strengthened Smith’s resolve to stand firm for those things that are dear to her, and to say no to those activities that detract. “There’s been no stress in my life about managing things,” she says. “Everything in my life is little compared to cancer. If I feel like I can’t manage something, I turn things down.”
No matter how busy she is, she at least takes time out during the day to play with her pooches or to say a daily prayer. “There are these little moments I take,” she says. “You need to do something for yourself every day, or you’ll get angry in life.”
One thing that’s important is her passion for supporting cancer and heart disease research. A portion of the profits from her product lines, for example, has gone to fund cancer research. She also gives talks about her experience fighting cancer to encourage women to get mammograms every two years after age 40. She’s loved meeting other breast cancer survivors along the way. “There is an immediate bond when you meet a woman going through the same thing you are,” she says. “The power of girlfriends is pretty amazing.”
When Smith needs inspiration, she thinks of her mom. “Even in her 90s, she was the youngest, most beautiful person I knew,” Smith says. “She wasn’t afraid of anything. She just had this aura.”
It’s an aura many would say Smith has inherited… or perhaps worked for. “Success is carved out of a hard tree,” she says. “It doesn’t just happen. It’s people who stick to it that succeed.”
Deborah Huso is a Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in business, lifestyle, and travel subjects. She is also a regular book reviewer for SUCCESS. Her publication credits include FamilyFun, Military Officer, Appraiser News Online, Women's Health, GORP.com, USA Today magazines, Alaska Airlines Magazine, WellBella, and The Progressive Farmer, where she serves as contributing editor. Huso also publishes a popular blog on love, motherhood, and work called "I Only Love You Because I Have To" at www.deborahhuso.com. Visit Huso online at www.drhuso.com, or follow her on Twitter @writewellmedia.