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How Lauren Conrad Went From MTV Reality Princess to Social Style Queen

The lifestyle guru proves that nice girls finish first

The former reality star uses her social fan base to build a serious fashion empire. Photography by Marc Royce

"I'm a little nervous. I'm a lot nervous!"

It's nearly 7 p.m. last Wednesday, and Lauren Conrad does indeed seem a bit anxious as she has her signature winged eyeliner touched up backstage at an event space in Chelsea. In just a few minutes, the former reality star's 6-year-old fashion line with Kohl's, LC Lauren Conrad, will stage its first runway show during New York Fashion Week.

For the past hour, viewers at home have been following the behind-the-scenes action, as models rush through hair and makeup, cute waiters pass around glasses of pink champagne, and VIPs—including familiar faces like Conrad's longtime best friend Lo Bosworth and celebs like Chrissy Teigen and Ashley Tisdale—arrive for a pre-show party.

While this certainly isn't Conrad's first major on-screen event—as the star of MTV's Laguna Beach and The Hills, everything from her senior prom to job interviews have been captured by the cameras—it's certainly one of the biggest moments in her career as a fashion designer. And this time, there's no postproduction should things go wrong. Because this isn't TV—it's Periscope.

Conrad has made it all the way from Laguna Beach to Fashion Week.


Girl next door

The successful transition of Conrad, 29, from TV personality to social media star has undoubtedly been helped by her decade's worth of experience as one of the first (and biggest) stars of the reality TV era. When Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County debuted in September 2004, the series was an instant hit with MTV viewers. Billed as the true-life version of another wildly popular teen show, Fox's The O.C., Laguna Beach captured all the drama and excitement of high school through a sun-kissed filter. At the center of it all was Lauren Conrad, an 18-year-old high school senior. Known to her friends as L.C., she was the prototypical girl next door, blonde hair and blue jeans. In stark contrast to most of today's reality stars, she was also nice. She was the girl that drama happened to, not the girl who created it. It was impossible not to like Conrad.

Not long after graduating from high school, she was given her own spinoff, The Hills. Set in Los Angeles, the show featured Conrad as a wide-eyed newcomer balancing school (at L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising), work (she landed internships at Teen Vogue and the fashion PR firm People's Revolution) and, of course, relationships (in Season 1, she famously chose then-boyfriend Jason Wahler over a summer in Paris).

 Throughout her five seasons on The Hills, Conrad maintained her role as the always-stylish "girl's girl" you'd want to be friends with. Her nights never ended with drunken antics or sloppy behavior—not on camera, at least. And while that might have been considered boring by today's reality TV standards, it actually served to make her more relatable to viewers.

"Lauren seems to lead a wholesome life, which I think is very appealing to people," explains Cosmopolitan's editor in chief Joanna Coles, who chose Conrad for this October's cover. "She's pretty, she's cheerful, she owns the fact that she's a 'basic bitch,' and there's something refreshing about someone who is fine with being normal."

Conrad has plenty to emote about and plenty to share with her millions of social followers.

Conrad's ability to create a public persona that's approachable proved to be a major asset as platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram emerged as crucial tools for celebrities to market themselves. "Reality TV really was like an exaggerated version of social media," Conrad recalls. "Anything you put out there, you're basically putting up for criticism, so you learn very quickly that there are certain things that you just don't want other people's opinions on, and those are the things that you keep to yourself."

That lesson has held true as far as Conrad's strategy for sharing content with her more than 10.7 million followers across Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram (where hers was dubbed the "best account ever" by The Huffington Post).

Conrad is judicious about what she posts online, as evidenced by the carefully curated collection of rose-tinted photos that make up her massively popular Instagram account. There are pictures of her friends and family (including numerous shots of Conrad and her husband, lawyer William Tell, looking blissfully in love), perfectly arranged entertaining scenes (flower-covered tablescapes, vintage china and pastel cakes are recurring themes), travel posts (many from picturesque seaside locales) and, of course, photos of Conrad herself, modeling designs from her Kohl's collection or higher-end Paper Crown contemporary line.

Fans can also find Conrad's signature aesthetic in full display on her lifestyle website, LaurenConrad.com, where she and her digital team—Allison Norton, Ilana Saul and Rachel Rosenbloom, the co-founders of Polka Dot Media—write about everything from fashion and beauty to home decor and etiquette. (A characteristically Lauren Conrad tip from her Ladylike Laws: Social Media Etiquette: "If you wouldn't say it in front of your grandmother, it's probably not a good idea to post it online.")

While her ultra-feminine, domestically minded approach may seem anachronistic, it never comes off as preachy. Conrad freely admits that the level of perfection found on Pinterest can even make her feel inadequate at times. She is unfailingly positive and encouraging on both her website and social media outlets. Recently, she banned the word "skinny" in an effort to combat body-shaming.

"There is a warmth to Lauren that makes people feel good about themselves, and it makes people trust and respect what shares with them," says Bevin Bailis, Kohl's svp, communications and PR, who has worked with Conrad for the past year and a half.

Adds Joanna Coles: "Her aesthetic can be prissy, but I think that most people want to insert niceness and prissiness into their homes."

 

LC, the brand

Conrad's good-girl persona has made her a hot commodity among brands looking to reach millennial women. She inked her first endorsement deal with Hasbro in 2006 to promote a fashion-themed game called Designer's World. The following year, Conrad was tapped as the inaugural face of Mark cosmetics, an Avon spinoff. Since then, she has appeared in ads for AT&T, Downy and Malibu.

LaurenConrad.com has also benefited from Conrad's brand relationships. In recent weeks, the site has run articles, posts and email blasts sponsored by brands like Lindt ("How to Host a Ladies' Night In"), Blue Diamond ("5 Steps to a Stunning Tablescape") and Jessica Alba's The Honest Co. ("How to Detox Your Bathroom Cabinets in 5 Simple Steps").

"We make it very organic and very natural" says Norton, who helps produce LaurenConrad.com's sponsored posts. (All the site's native content, including photography, is done in-house.) "A lot of them are brands we'd be working with anyways, like Lauren will have a brand of Champagne at her house that she'll love, and the company will end up reaching out to us," says Norton. "So there's always a narrative for our readers."

Conrad's biggest business coup to date, however, is her partnership with Kohl's, which began in 2009. At the time, the Wisconsin-based retail chain was looking to attract more young, female shoppers, says Bailis. "We were looking at some of the regional influences that the rest of the country was really appreciating, like the 'California girl' lifestyle, and I think that Lauren was a natural choice for us."

That October, a limited collection of apparel under the LC Lauren Conrad label rolled out to 300 retail stores and Kohls.com. Featuring Conrad's signature feminine flair at very affordable price points, the line was a hit with Kohl's shoppers. Eventually, the brand expanded to include jewelry, shoes and home decor, as well as co-branded Cinderella and Minnie Mouse collections. It is now offered at more than 1,200 locations nationwide.

While Conrad's notoriety as a reality star was certainly key to cementing her partnership with Kohl's, her social media prowess has proved even more crucial to sales, says NPD Group chief retail industry analyst Marshal Cohen. "That social media piece—connectivity—is critical for success," he says. "The ability to be able to tap into the entertainment and social media component and maintain that [customer] relationship through social media is more important today than even the element of the television program."

When it comes to marketing her designs, Conrad's social media accounts and websites have indeed provided an ideal platform for seamless product placement. "If we're doing a shoot for LaurenConrad.com on throwing a dinner party, the girls are usually wearing Paper Crown or Kohl's dresses and we're using Little Market dishes," says Conrad. "There's a lot of cross promotion, but it never feels forced."

Her own public transition from reality star to grown-up lifestyle guru shows in her products. Last August, following her engagement, Paper Crown launched a collection of fashion-forward bridesmaid dresses. Similarly, her website has become a destination for everything wedding related, from engagement rings to party favors. And although Conrad hasn't yet reached the mommyhood stage, the site has already started posting the occasional content for new parents.

Conrad's Kohl's line is also taking a big step forward with the release of the new limited-edition runway collection, which debuted during New York Fashion Week—a first for both Conrad and Kohl's, neither having shown before in the high-profile setting. "I think the fact that we chose to do that with the LC brand is a testament to how much we believe in the brand," says Bailis.

The new collection elevates Conrad's existing line with more luxurious materials (lots of velvet, leather and crystal embellishments) and fashion-forward designs. The price point is also slightly higher (the most expensive item, a strapless tulle gown, is $200), but still affordable compared with most everything else that will be shown during Fashion Week.

When it came time to promote the collection, Conrad and Kohl's naturally turned to social media—and, in this case, Twitter's nascent livestreaming platform Periscope.

Twitter had brought Periscope to Kohl's not long after acquiring it, and while the retailer's marketing team was eager to try it, they hadn't yet found the right application. "When we thought about what we should do from a unique digital experience with the LC fashion show, we realized that Periscope would be the right tool," says Bailis.

In addition to Periscoping behind-the-scenes preparations for the runway show, Kohl's livestreamed the event on its site and even let customers shop pieces directly from the feed as soon as it wrapped. As a result, traffic to Kohls.com increased by 600 percent on the day of the show.

Brands want Conrad to help them reach millennial women.

Welcome to New York

Despite the nervousness all around, the show goes off without a hitch. The front rows are packed with celebrities and fashion editors. The models, in Pinterest-worthy braids, walk the runway in shades of dusty rose, muted blue and deep green. Romantic tulle dresses and embroidered blouses are paired with cool-girl staples like faux-suede jackets and floral neoprene skirts. It's almost as if Conrad's Instagram feed has come to life.

After the finale, Conrad, dressed in white lace (fittingly, since, as she later tells InStyle, producing the show was "almost like a wedding"), appears for the requisite wave to her audience, both in the room and across the country.

By the following day, the runway show will have ended up garnering more than 75 million impressions across Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook—proof that Conrad's spotlight is still shining as brightly as ever. Only this time, it's on her own terms.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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