Reality Check

Jill Zarin’s Fashion Savvy Reaps Reality TV’s Rewards with a Line Called Skweez Couture

The former cast member of The Real Housewives of New York City has parlayed her fame into a successful line of shapewear, which expands this month. Misty White Sidell reports.

When they’re not cat fighting in reruns, the women of The Real Housewives of New York City are pretty busy: Ramona Singer has her own label of pinot grigio, and Bethenny Frankel created an empire out of her cookbooks and Skinny Girl drinks. But Jill Zarin (who appeared on the show from Seasons 1 through 4) has done something pretty different: she’s designed a line of shapewear.

Since leaving the Bravo show in 2011, Zarin has introduced her own version of Spanx, called Skweez Couture, which has recently grown its distribution to include the one of the Eastern region’s largest clothing chains, Bon-Ton Stores. Forbes recently named it one of the top five emerging shapewear brands, poising her to take on Spanx’s billionaire founder, Sara Blakely.

Zarin created the line in 2011 with her own needs in mind: her plain-Jane Spanx were once documented on Real Housewives when she “stepped out of the car at a wedding, and you could see my whole girdle on national TV. I told my husband, ‘With God as my witness, I am going to make prettier shapewear, and when I step out of the car the next time, you are going to see lace.’” Combining personal strife with her knack for fabrics (honed by serving as Zarin Fabrics’ marketing director), Skweez Couture seemed like a logical venture.

Zarin said that the idea for her line comes from the idea that “beauty begins with a great foundation. If you don’t have the proper things underneath your clothes, they won’t look right.” The result is plush with lace, lattice mesh, animal prints, and textured panels—fabricated in an array of predominantly neutral tones. It all retails for under $100. “You could wear it to bed,” says Zarin. “You look at all this lingerie out there, and 90 percent of women can’t wear it. This makes you look thinner and smoother, but still sexy.” (The brand is already a hit: it’s sold in places like Lord & Taylor and Macy’s and was a runaway success on HSN.)

For Zarin, it’s just been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. “The whole [shapewear] industry really woke up in the last two years,” she says. Part of the revival is owed to today’s brutal tabloid cellulite fodder, where celebrity’s thighs are unforgivingly zoomed in on for dimpled double-page spreads. But technological developments also have something to do with it. Shapewear has “really evolved. Girdles used to be all hook and eyes. It was like corseting yourself,” Zarin explained.

In her characteristic saleswoman way, Zarin explains that Skweez is for women of every shape and size. She says she’s “learned that women who are smaller want shapewear just as much, if not more than other sizes in the market ... Everyone just assumes that if you are skinny that you don’t need shapewear, but you might need smoothing.” Her products are offered in three degrees of restrictiveness (tight, tighter, and tightest) for this reason.

But aside from fulfilling the needs of America’s unevenly surfaced derrieres, Zarin’s line packs another punch. Its name, Skweez Couture, isn’t a moniker of your average celebrity label. “I needed to come up with a name, and it could have been ‘Jill Zarin Shapewear,’ but I didn’t want to associate my name with the brand,” she says. “Frankly, I’m a reality star, and the reality is that people have opinions of me, and I didn’t want my product to be affected by what I’m doing on TV.” She tried to spell out ‘squeeze’ in the typical way, “but it was taken.”

As for the label of “couture,” she says, “I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Dior Couture with Skweez Couture,” Zarin explained. “I’m not saying ‘haute couture,’ because that is a virginal phrase, what you think of with Chanel.” Zarin owes the term’s widespread appropriation to a different “couture” brand. “I think Juicy Couture did the dirty work for me by taking that word and changing it,” she explained.

Zarin was by no means New York’s most likable Real Housewife, but her off-the-air persona is far sounder than her brash television personality. “I think it’s harder to reap the rewards now. There’s so much more competition out there,” Zarin explained of the current reality-TV climate. “I’m proud of 90 percent of what happened on Real Housewives. That’s life; nobody is perfect. But I think overall people still respected me as a businessperson. I don’t want my customers to buy products because of me. I want to make the best product out there for them to come back and become lifetime consumers. I’m looking to build something long term.”

And she’s showing no signs of slowing down: next up, Zarin says, will be a line of jewelry.