Jessica Rich's personal Instagram feed is filled with exotic cars, designer logos, luxury hotels and stars like Jennifer Lopez and Kylie Jenner wearing her namesake shoe line. The Los Angeles-based entrepreneur projects a lifestyle of glamour and success — at the same time, she's clear about the fact that this success didn't come overnight. It was the result of a somewhat winding career path, a knack for making connections and a refusal to give up, despite a number of hurdles.
Rich did get her start in reality TV, but a stint on VH1's "Real Chance of Love" in 2008 didn't exactly turn her into Hollywood royalty overnight. She was, however, able to parlay that into a TV hosting career in Los Angeles. When she wasn't working, she was going out and networking.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, I have this 10, 15 minutes of fame, let me just get in every room I can,'" she tells me.
Rich's gift for befriending influential people led to her launching a PR company in 2012. "People kept asking me, 'Hey, Jess, can I give my product to you? And you can give it to these celebrities?' I'm like, 'Yeah, I could do that — but I'm not going to do it for free. I'll charge you a retainer.'" Rich signed a few clients, but apparently did her job so well that, after a couple of years, they got the exposure they wanted and didn't need to retain her anymore.
Rich's next move was a namesake e-commerce site where she sold clothing from third parties. But after a couple of years, she says, Fashion Nova came along and started to kill her business by selling similar styles for a fraction of the price. Hoping to further differentiate herself, she started designing shoes in 2017, and her first style, the PVC "Fancy Stiletto" pump, took off like wildfire.
It was that perfect storm of timing, originality, recognizability, price point and influencer and celebrity placements that made the style go viral. In fact, Rich's wealth of industry connections and social currency quite literally made up for her lack of actual capital, or experience producing her own product.
"My factory said, 'Hey, you need to order 500 pairs of shoes,' and I was like, 'There's no way I'll sell 500 pairs of shoes. That's crazy,'" she remembers.
Instead of placing the minimum order, Rich took the sample, photographed it in 10 different settings, and sent different photos to 10 different influencers, asking each of them to post the photo on Instagram as if the actual shoe were in their possession. In exchange for the (albeit slightly deceptive) promotion, Rich promised each one a free physical pair. Those posts generated enough sales for Rich to buy her stock and send out her orders.
It's a perfect example of Rich's innate resourcefulness. "I don't know why, I just feel like I can always get around things," she laughs. "Like whenever there's a problem, I have a way of solving it in the weirdest, craziest way."
The brand's transparent styles became its signature, and garnered many famous fans including Lopez, Jenner, Cardi B, Joan Smalls and Rita Ora, right as the PVC wave continued to rise.
After two years of running the entire business, from marketing to customer service, alone in her apartment, Rich got an office and hired a staff in 2018. Wanting to give her customers a place to try on her shoes, she also opened her own store on Melrose in West Hollywood, later relocating into the Beverly Center mall nearby in 2020.
But even as her signature PVC stilettos became ubiquitous on the red carpet and Instagram, and as she grew her direct-to-consumer business, support from big retailers was elusive. She found that buyers were unwilling to take chances on new brands, instead stocking the same legacy designers season after season.
"Not to pull the Black card, that's not who I am, but... I would get so angry at retailers," she says. "In order for a new designer to come in and be on the floor and have another customer trust them for 20 years, someone has to give them the opportunity to be able to be on the floor. And I'm like, 'I have to be this person.'"
Then came 2020, when the tragic murder of George Floyd brought about renewed discussions around systemic racism and its effects on the Black community. In the fashion industry, this led to efforts to spotlight Black designers and entrepreneurs like Rich, as well as new commitments by established retailers to stock them. This year alone, Rich launched her collection with DSW, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.
It's bittersweet, Rich says when I ask about the impact of the recent upswell of support for Black-owned brands: "We've had to take the backseat this whole time. And it just wasn't fair. It's like, why didn't we have this support from day one?"
"I got a lot of [visibility] on my own," she continues. "And I guess some people just respected me because they just had to; they had no choice. They'd see me all the time on Instagram, and see me all the time on celebrities. But after this whole Black Lives Matters thing, I definitely feel like it finally leveled up to where it should have been from day one."
Working with Nordstrom in particular has been a full-circle moment for Rich, who reached out to the Seattle-based retailer in 2017 when she launched her debut transparent collection, which, at that point, consisted of only three styles.
"They told me, 'Hey, we can't really pick up your line because you don't have enough styles,'" she recalls. "I designed eight styles that year just to try to get a compelling line sheet for them. When I finally go with my line sheet together, I'd already found my shoe on the floor, replicated by Steve Madden. At that point, they were like, 'Oh, we already have this on the floor.'"
Rich was disappointed, but didn't push back. While may have taken longer than it should have, she got the opportunity she wanted.
"It's just a dream come true now that I'm in the store, because that was always my goal."
Nordstrom has been exceptionally supportive, Rich says, beyond simply stocking her growing range of accessibly priced, sexy footwear. Suddenly selling to a big national retailer can be challenging for a small, independent brand used to smaller quantities, but "they've been so accommodating, so overly understanding of us being a small brand."
The chain obliged Rich's request for a deposit to help with production costs. A rep for the retailer (which used its own PR resources to pitch Rich's brand to press) says customer response to the line has been "incredibly positive," and the brand's in-store footprint will expand from five to 20 stores this month. It's a heartening story, and a great example of a retailer making an effort to set a new Black-owned brand up for longterm success, rather than simply placing an order to check off a box.
Rich isn't stopping here: She hopes to get to 50 Nordstrom locations and expand into international retailers like Farfetch and Net-a-Porter. Still entirely self-funded, she'd also like to raise capital to help accelerate that growth.
"I've been looking for investors my entire life. It's been very hard to find," she says. She could finally put money into events and marketing, which has all been organic thus far; she's never paid to play, so to speak, but what if she did? She's also considering expansion into bags and men's shoes.
"I want to maintain the business, grow it a little bit more and then let it just flourish," she says. Ultimately, she's thinking big: "I'd love to be, like, the new Steve Madden, where I'm everywhere, but I'm also not everywhere, too."
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Jessica Rich