By now we should all be familiar with the basic components of Real Housewives style: orange tan, big hair, shiny lips, Botoxed brow, skimpy Barbie-doll dress, hooker heels and the occasional fur. But while the housewives of the hit TV franchise may appear indistinguishable to the untrained eye, there are subtle distinctions.
"I think all of us gals have such different style," insists Gretchen Christine Rossi, one of the Real Housewives of Orange County. "But for me, in particular, I am a very glamorous, girly girl. You see me in the fun, flirty dresses. I have to have my bling, of course." She wears heels almost every day: "Every time I put my makeup on, I typically have heels involved."
But Rossi is not, as you might expect, "a big designer girl." Indeed, it might surprise viewers to learn that today at the Topanga mall, at the debut of her new swimsuit collection, Rossi is wearing a dress from affordable Bebe with her spiky black Louboutin heels. And that this season on the show, she bought most of her jewelry from T.J. Maxx.
"People have this perception that, if you're an Orange County housewife, you're shopping at Valentino and Roberto Cavalli every week," she says. "And yes, I've been there. And yes, I have pieces from there, but you don't have to be spending a million dollars to look like a million bucks."
Which is a philosophy borne out by the swimsuits she created in partnership with designer Lisa Vogel, Rossi notes, sliding seamlessly into self-promotion mode. Though when, truly, is a Housewife ever out of self-promotion mode?
The pair, she explains, took a few of Vogel's existing silhouettes, "then put some Gretchen Christine flair to it."
The result is a handful of suits like the Gretchen Christine X Luxe Bling Triangle Bikini Top with Swarovski crystals, which retails for $113, and the matching Bling Tie Side Riviera Bottom, for $83. Yes, you must buy them separately. And yes, the bikini top is rather revealing; the crystals make your boobs totally pop. Rossi — a lean, sculpted size 2 — models the bikini herself on distributor SwimSpot's website. The Real Housewife look, she admits, is very body-conscious.
She is also offering a more demure (but equally bedazzled) tankini "with strategically placed front ruffle" for those "less comfortable" with their bodies: "I know that after I have a baby, I'm sure as hell not going to be showing my midsection."
They don't look it, but it is OK to get the swimsuits wet. Mostly. "I would say be careful with Jacuzzis."
Asked if there is competitiveness among the Housewives with respect to fashion, Rossi says, "I'm sure there is with the other women to some degree. Not with me." Then that high-pitched laugh, two distinct syllables: "Ha-ha!"
"For me it's about living within my means and being comfortable with who you are," she continues. "I'm not trying to impress anybody. I'm not a bajillionaire."
Rossi certainly is not as rich as some of the other wives — say, Adrienne Maloof of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, whose family owns the Palms Casino Resort and just sold the Sacramento Kings, and who truly is a bajillionaire. Or Lisa Vanderpump, Beverly Hills' shit stirrer, whose estimated net worth is $65 million.
Rossi positions herself as the populist Housewife. While she loves the retro looks of Trina Turk and Kate Spade, she is not above a Chanel knockoff dress from Forever 21. Neither is she a shoe snob. She'll wear Louboutins but also Steve Maddens and Jessica Simpsons.
The only label she consumes conspicuously, it turns out, is her own. "Every single thing that I create, you'll see me wearing." Today, for instance, she is carrying a Gretchen Christine handbag.
Or rather, her fiancé is carrying it. Slade Smiley is Rossi's self-proclaimed "guy who drives the car and opens the door and carries the purse."
While Rossi signs autographs, Smiley tells the story of how she started in the design biz. "She was carrying a $3,500 Versace purse. And everyone said, 'How do I get it? I could never afford that.' " Dramatic pause. "She felt so bad," he says, as if she'd run over someone's puppy. "That purse is what inspired her to take the same silhouette and, in limited-edition, pink crocodile, reproduce it for $125."
Online they sold 2,000 units of the bag in 50 minutes. Smiley walks to the dressing room to fetch said bag. He demonstrates the flap that lifts to reveal a hidden pocket, with cosmetics stacked neatly inside. They measured the packaging of the Gretchen Christine lipstick, lip gloss, mascara, five-color eye shadow palette and anti-aging foundation and had the pockets stitched to fit.
"Gretchen isn't someone who's on television who wants to be in fashion," Smiley explains. "Gretchen is someone who's in fashion, who happens to be on television. Because long after Housewives dies, this is her career."
Rossi is licensing in all categories — accessories, furniture, home decor. "Shoes and fragrance will probably be next."
If nothing else, the Housewife look is high-maintenance. Smiley should know. He not only carries the purse but also the shopping bags. Does Rossi shop a lot? "Really?" he says, staggering backward at the question. "She is a trained professional." She shops constantly. The show's wardrobe demands are relentless. Once you wear an outfit on air, you can never wear it again. The production, however, does not provide wardrobe stylists. "That's why some of the wives look really good," he says, "and some of them don't."
Smiley says, "A woman with a lot of money, she's very focused on shopping at Roberto Cavalli or Chanel. Gretchen's look is more evolved than that. She has expensive pieces. But she wants to be more approachable. That's her persona."
Rossi could afford to dress up. Real Housewives, Bravo TV's longest-running franchise, is a half-billion-dollar property for parent company NBC Universal. The cast is well paid.
However, according to Smiley, she is deadly serious about approachability. "She got mad at me when I bought her the Rolls-Royce," he says. "She made me take it back." (See season 8, episode 8.) He got her a Range Rover instead.
Nope, the only Rolls she'll drive is one she designs herself. That should happen in about a month. Rolls-Royce Newport Beach recently asked Rossi to design a limited-edition bespoke Gretchen Christine Ghost. It has her logo on the headrests, her nameplate on the door jamb and a pink bonnet.
Should her fans so desire, they can even buy clothes from Rossi's actual closet (which used to be a bedroom). "Many of you have asked where I got a certain item from, but it is no longer available in stores," she writes on her website. "So this is my way of helping you have access to those favorite pieces." Theoretically, anyway. As of this writing, her eBay store is empty.
There is, perhaps, a tiny bit of reality behind the reality TV. Rossi and Smiley both have dealt with the financial obligations of family members with cancer. "For us," Smiley says, "having the house paid off, no debt on the cars, money in the bank and preparing for the next chapter is far more important."
Personally, Rossi would rather put her money into her company than walk around in head-to-toe Hermès.
"For 'celebrities,' " SwimSpot's marketing guy offers, his fingers inscribing imaginary quotes in the air around the word "celebrities" — "they are very humble."
"I wear the gamut of it all," Rossi says. "I don't, what's the word, leave anybody out."
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