The RED-PILLING OF Kitson
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
It was the ULTIMATE AUGHTS shop—PARIS and LINDSAY and VON DUTCH HATS and JUICY SWEAT SUITS. Now its owner, FRASER ROSS, is PUSHING something even MORE popular: CONSPIRACIES.
Bridget Read

EVERYTHING OLD is new again,” Kitson owner Fraser Ross said with a sigh over the phone from West Hollywood in August. We were discussing the booming nostalgia market that is churning out early-aughts fashion and pop-culture trends for renewed consumption two decades later: low-rise jeans, mini-backpacks, Paris Hilton, Bennifer. They’re all back in the Zeitgeist, with only slight tweaks.

Ross opened Kitson, what he called a “general store for the rich,” on Robertson Boulevard in 2000, selling everything from designer cashmere to graphic tees, Swarovski-encrusted hairbrushes, and diet books. Ten years before the launch of Instagram, when celebrities still relied on People’s “Star Tracks” to publish their candid photos, they would pop into Kitson for a new set of True Religion flares before lunch on the patio at the Ivy. Stars and starlets—some A-list, many more C and D— would teeter out of its doorways laden with baby-blue shopping bags to see and be seen by a waiting swarm of photographers. It was where Britney Spears went on a shopping spree at two in the morning, in ripped-up tights, before being hospitalized. It was where Kobe Bryant bought bracelets (leather, diamond-studded, $3,000 each) for his wife after being accused of infidelity. Warner Bros. once threw a lavish industry party there in order to, in Ross’s words, “make Tweety Bird hip and hot.”

Ross and Kitson, seemingly, have an opportunity to cash in on the millennium reboot moment. He could sell a cool again baguette bag next to a picture of Hilary Duff carrying its 2005 predecessor. He could be a docent in the Kitson living museum, recounting the exploits of his favorite customers while selling their tell-all memoirs.

Instead, head to the Kitson Los Angeles Instagram page, on which you will find reposts from right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich about vaccine passports and a screenshot from Christian satirical news site The Babylon Bee making fun of Black Olympic athletes who refused to sing the national anthem. (“I thought you guys sold clothes?” one commenter wonders. Another writes, unsettled, “This feels like the QAnon of retail.”) Adorning Kitson’s large windows for a while was a banner that read #survivingchrissyteigen, sparked by Ross’s criticism of her pledge to bail Black Lives Matter protesters out of jail. When paparazzi come by these days, they catch Family Ties actress Justine Bateman—signing a petition to recall California governor Gavin Newsom.

Kitson is still Kitson, Ross, 57, confirms, but a righteous Kitson, a Kitson with a purpose. “A lot of people don’t want Kitson to evolve,” he says of the transformation in his branding, which one could describe, in terms of audience, as going from Us Weekly to Newsmax. “Some people want me to go back to the days of celebrities, paparazzi.” But others, Ross claims, a new group of activist customers, are thanking him for doing “the work of God.”

THE ORIGIN STORY of Kitson’s fame starts with the letter H, for Halle Berry. The star bought a monogrammed leather bag with her initial on it one day at the store in 2002; when she returned soon after wearing her purchase, Ross suggested Berry turn the bag around on her hip so it showed the H to the cameras outside. The photos of Berry, fresh off her Oscar win for Monster’s Ball, were picked up everywhere; Ross sold $1.3 million worth of the same initialed totes, by designer JAM, to the masses. The pattern would repeat with boots and belts, trucker hats and tinted sunglasses.

Kitson was not Ross’s first celebrity-focused foray into retail. Raised in Scotland and Toronto, Ross opened a highend boutique, Ice, in 1989. Kitson became Kitson after Ross met Jill Ishkanian, then an Us Weekly reporter who, in late 2002, dropped off her business card at the store. She wanted gossip. Other nearby spots, like Lisa Kline, had rebuffed Ishkanian; they didn’t allow photographers near their customers and certainly didn’t talk to reporters about them. Ross, however, gave Ishkanian a call. They worked out an efficient system: Ross would provide Ishkanian with details of his famous shoppers’ actions and moods, what they bought, and whom they were with, and she would get Kitson splashed on the pages of Us Weekly, effectively netting thousands of dollars in publicity for free.

The racket was a runaway success. By 2004, Kitson was doing $18 million in business. Crucially, celebrities benefited from the arrangement too. If they wanted to drum up press for a movie or debut a new relationship, they could rely on Kitson’s steady stream of paparazzi to keep them in the conversation with well-timed photos. It was the place to be if you were “thirsty and wanted to be photographed,” says Perez Hilton, whose gossip site took off in the same ecosystem. When blogs sniped at Lindsay Lohan for her weight, she left Kitson wearing a skinny bitch T-shirt; when Kim Kardashian wanted to break out of her former employer Paris’s shadow, she went on a shopping spree at Kitson, where she was mobbed by her own fans. Notorious The Hills villains Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag loved Kitson. “That block was hot,” Pratt says now, above the sounds of his son, Gunner, playing at home in the Palisades. “If Robertson was Disneyland, Kitson was like the gift shop.” Sometimes, he recalls, employees would hand them bags of kitschy goodies to hold when they exited the store. Eventually, Kitson carried team Heidi and team lc shirts during the fallout between Montag and her former best friend, Lauren Conrad. (Pratt purports that the team Heidi shirt was a better seller.) It also carried Montag’s clothing line, Heidiwood; Paris’s, Kim’s, and Nicole Richie’s too; and Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B., Victoria Beckham’s dVb denim line, and Lohan’s short-lived handbags.

Kitson married the high and the low in what People’s Revolution PR-firm founder Kelly Cutrone (who also did a stint on The Hills) describes as “bling-ring leisurewear.” It was luxurious and bohemian, decadent and sloppy. “It was grab-and-go fashion. It didn’t take itself too seriously,” Cutrone says. With brands like Wildfox, Ed Hardy, and Rebel Yell piled on its tables like a flea market, Kitson was more democratic than Fred Segal, Saks, and Barneys. “Kitson was just like the Statue of Liberty of L.A. fashion wannabes. They were just like, ‘Bring us everybody!’ ” says Cutrone.

Ross’s shop helped to pioneer what we can now identify as influencer culture. He understood that consumers prefer celebrities they can almost touch to the untouchable ones. It was still a store in one of the wealthiest Zip Codes in the country, but if you couldn’t swing $800 Great China Wall embroidered cargo pants, you could still leave with a $38 MRS. KUTCHER T-shirt or a Von Dutch trucker hat. “We were entertainment,” Ross explains, “because you could stand in the store and walk up to the headband area and buy that headband with Paris Hilton in a picture wearing it. You can’t go to the clubs, but you can always come to club Kitson.”

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