Dressing the party
LOS ANGELES -- As the doting wife of hotel and real-estate scion Rick Hilton, the mother hen to tabloid darlings Paris and Nicky Hilton, and the aggrieved childhood friend of Michael Jackson, Kathy Hilton has always been one step to the left of the spotlight.
Half sisters Kim and Kyle Richards struck reality-show gold with Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," but Kathy Hilton's own turn at reality TV, "I Want to Be a Hilton," lasted just one season on NBC.
Now she's trying out a new starring role -- aspiring lifestyle mogul -- beginning with the Kathy Hilton Collection of party dresses.
When it came to the holidays, Hilton was enthusiastic, to say the least. She hosted a Christmas party at her Bel-Air home to celebrate her new venture, complete with carolers, a high-end Santa Claus and little people cast as elves.
It was all very happy homemaker, Bel-Air-style.
Hilton, a creaseless 53, was dressed in a black, sparkly pleather lace short-sleeve peplum top and miniskirt she had whipped up by the tailor at her dry cleaner, with fabric bought at Britex Fabric in San Francisco. The outfit will be translated into a dress for the fall 2013 collection.
"I didn't go to school for this, but I love fashion," she said.
The Trenton, N.J.-based occasion-wear manufacturer Mon Cheri approached Hilton with the idea about a year and a half ago. And while the term "occasion wear" may conjure not-so-flattering images of mother-of-the-brides in floating chiffon and sprays of crystals, Hilton's designs are more sleek, subdued and, yes, sophisticated than those usually found in the formal dress department -- with a heady dose of Hollywood inspiration, of course.
A red silk ruffle halter gown with a keyhole cutout in the front recalls Valentino's famously red red-carpet creations. (Hilton name-checks him as one of her favorite designers.) A black A-line jersey minidress with long, billowing sleeves and rhinestone cuffs brings to mind the mod ensemble Megan Draper wore during the "Zou Bisou Bisou" serenade on "Mad Men." An emerald green cocktail dress with a jersey halter top and a ribbon-trimmed tulle skirt was apparently designed with daughter Nicky in mind. (Neither daughter was at the party; this was strictly their mother's affair.)
"I went to the special-occasion departments at all the stores and found the dresses looked really pageanty," Hilton said. "I wanted something more feminine, flirty and reserved -- with attention to detail."
Priced from $350 to $870, the dresses sell at more than 400 stores worldwide, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. Many styles come in multiple colors and lengths, and many have sleeves. "The sleeve thing is a big deal to me," Hilton said. "Because sometimes you just don't want to show your arms."
Hilton sketches ideas for dresses ("like a 12-year-old," she jokes), and her design team in New York translates them into prototypes, sending them to her for feedback and input on beading and trim.
"She's very smart in the way she's positioning the collection," said Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. "She understands the realities of what many women can spend on eveningwear."
Hilton's ambitions are not limited to clothing. She also has her eye on bedding, furniture, costume jewelry and more.
It's not such a stretch. In the 1980s and early '90s, Hilton, who grew up in L.A. and started acting at an early age, had her own gift and antiques store called the Staircase on Sunset Plaza. She's sold home accessories on QVC and skin care products on HSN. And she is a decorating freak.
"People like her. She's high society but at the same time down to earth," said Evelyn Anastos, president of the Kathy Hilton Collection, who has worked 25 years in the apparel market for brands such as Marc Bouwer and Adrianna Papel. When it comes to special-occasion wear, "lines are either very prom, or very mother-of-the-bride. We didn't want to be either of those. We wanted the focus to be on a designer-level product," she said, adding that the collection has done $2 million in sales its first year, which is on track with her projections.
As for Christmas, the Hiltons didn't leave for Palm Beach until the 26th. Christmas morning, mother Hilton made a big brunch for family and friends at home.
"I love to decorate the table and put garlands around the food," she said, sounding very Martha Stewart. "I use little pomegranates or nuts, and spray paint them gold or silver, and tiny bouquets of flowers that I tie with pieces of velvet or ribbon that I collect."
And being at home is no excuse for looking sloppy. On Christmas Day, Hilton was in a cocktail dress. Because, she said, "I like to get dressed!"