The Kardashians are a phenomenon which many people – both genuinely and wilfully – seem to struggle to comprehend. They’re probably the most famous family in the world, and yet middle-aged men frequently respond to coverage of them with such witty repartee as, “What’s a Kardashian?” “Isn’t she the one with a sex tape?” And, of course, “Aren’t they the family that are famous for being famous?”
The Kardashians (and in particular Kim Kardashian West) made their fame and money through non-traditional routes. A sex tape boosted the success of an already planned reality TV show, which in turn sparked paid public appearances, photoshoots, several spin-offs and, later, branded social media posts. But Kardashian West never coasted on her success, continuing to find ways to monetise a life lived in the spotlight. She brought out mobile video games, emoji packs, and pay-to-view lifestyle apps. These ideas seemed faintly ridiculous when they were first announced, but they are now an accepted revenue stream for many social media star profiles.
“Kim’s the best marketer I’ve ever met,” says Jared Heinke, the head of digital operations at Whalerock, the company which makes the Kardashians’ lifestyle apps and her custom emoji, called Kimoji. “I’ll go to her with an idea on marketing Kimoji and say, ‘Kim, this is how we’re thinking about doing this.’ I’ll plant the seed, and then she’ll come back to me with something better.”
For years, Kim Kardashian West and her sisters have essentially been marketers of their own lives: selling their daily activities as entertainment and lifestyle products. Want to know more about me? Watch my show and pay for my behind the scenes app. What to live like me? Buy the products I use and promote on my social media feeds, or play my life on my video game.
So it might come as a surprise to see the Kardashians going down a much more traditional money-making route: designing and selling physical, not digital, products. It was recently announced that Kylie Jenner, Kim’s younger half-sister, is the youngest person on the Forbes list of the 100 richest entertainers thanks to her cosmetics company and clothing lines. The majority of her income comes from Kylie Cosmetics, which focuses on lip kits (packs including a lipstick and lip liner in the same shade; Jenner’s lips are probably her most-discussed feature) but she has branched out to several other kinds of make-up.
Kylie also has a clothing line with her sister Kendall, and sells clothes and merchandise in her own online shop (which has recently been accused of plagiarising designs from smaller, black-owned businesses: more on that later). Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian West has been selling branded Kimoji merch on her site, has a children’s clothing line with her husband Kanye West, and recently announced her own cosmetics company is coming later this month. These are all expected to make a significant contribution to her fortune.
But surprising as it may seem, Kim and her sisters have long been interested in traditional forms of business. A pre-megafame Kim essentially started her first business on eBay, under the username kimsaprincess. She would buy designer items when a good price came up, and resell them on the auction site at a high markup. “I discovered eBay and I loved shopping,” she explained to Variety. “I had to be on a budget. I didn’t have credit cards. How do I figure out how to make this a business?”
It started with a five pairs of $700 Manolo Blahnik shoes and $3,500 borrowed from her father. “He let me buy five pairs. I had to pay him back plus interest,” she recalled. “They were these Manolo Blahniks that Jennifer Lopez had worn in her first or second video. Everyone had to have them. I called at the right time and the girl at the store had five pairs and I took them. I sold every pair on eBay for $2,500. I became so obsessed with seeing that return I would sell off the things I wouldn’t be wearing.”
This later morphed into a wardrobe organising business – Kim would rid clients of clothes they no longer need and reorganise their wardrobes to make the most of the best pieces. “My closet business came about when I was at my godparents’ house, Sugar Ray Leonard and his wife Bernadette,” Kardashian explained to Player Magazine in 2006. “Bernadette’s closet was massive and had so much stuff in it. I said to her, ‘You really need to clean out your closet.’ Well, we spent the whole night doing that.” Soon she was doing this for celebrity pals like Paris Hilton. She opened a clothing shop with sisters Kourtney and Khloé in 2006, called Dash, which still has two physical branches in the US. But this is where any sense of Kim as a glamourous Alan Sugar-style wheeler dealer disappears: until now.
So what is it about these products that makes them so popular? Kylie Cosmetics are manufactured by Seed Beauty, an independently run company based in Oxnard, California. Seed also manufactures ColourPop products: a brand that has become famous as a mysterious overnight sensation. Rumours abounded in the beauty sphere that Kylie Cosmetics products were, in fact, just repackaged ColourPop products, something that Kylie quickly clarified on Instagram: “we do not use the same formula or exact colors”. Beauty brands using the same production companies and facilities are nothing new – but this story does suggest that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the formulas themselves.
In February of this year, some customers accused Kylie Cosmetics of repackaging old shades with new names. And the design of the original packaging of Kylie Cosmetic lip kits, which feature a drawing of lips dripping in bright colours, was met with controversy when it was unveiled due to its similarity to the work of LA make-up artist Vlada Haggerty. Indeed, Haggerty has repeatedly claimed that Kylie Cosmetics have copied her work (the two parties seemed to settle the dispute earlier this year). Now Jenner faces new accusations – this time related to the clothing she sells on her store, after a designer of remarkably similar items posted evidence of Jenner’s team ordering her designs. Khloé Kardashian, too, has been accused by fashion designer Destiney Bleu of ordering her work before copying it (her legal team called the accusations “flagrantly false and defamatory”). This kind of thing is par for the course in the fashion industry, where there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation.
Taking existing products with proven appeal and marketing them with a Kardashian name starts to look less like coincidence, and more like a deliberate business strategy. “The Kardashian klan is tapping into a long history of American entrepreneurs who spot trends and then repackage them for new markets,” writes Amy Zimmerman in The Daily Beast. In this instance, “they’re taking from predominantly black designers and influencers, and making their aesthetics accessible and desirable to new demographics—in Jenner’s case, teenage Keeping Up With The Kardashian fans with twenty bucks to blow on matte lip gloss.”
It seems as though the design, packaging, and almost everything about the products themselves, are, to the Kardashians outsourceable. They’ve taken their previous experience to extremes. It’s the Kardashian brand – which has always benefited from its associations with blackness – that sells products for them. So while moving into physical goods might look like a gear-change, really they’re practising the same strategy they always have – marketing themselves.