WALL STREET JOURNAL | CHRISTINA BINKLEY
BlackBerry Bold in one hand and chicken satay in the other, Loree Rodkin is juggling her schedule and her business over lunch at Mr. Chow in Los Angeles: Elton expects her in Vegas the next week, and Cher wants her to come to an upcoming Caesars Palace show. "I'm like, I've seen your show four times -- I could sing it," she says.
Well-connected in Hollywood and rocker circles, Ms. Rodkin has jetted to widespread fame as a jewelry designer since becoming Michelle Obama's go-to jeweler. Her medieval-looking pendants and signet rings are pitch-perfect for baby boomers who have fond memories of their peace-love-and-rock'n'roll days but have grown into diamonds and gold.
Now, Ms. Rodkin is ready to cash in. She has been telling friends that she would be willing to sell her company.
Recession or no, the dream of selling one's brand lives on in the luxury business. Investors can offer designers the joys of creativity without the headaches of operations and can bankroll global expansions. Louis Vuitton made luggage and ran his company until his death in 1892, when he passed it on to his son George. But these days, who wants to labor as an artisan into old age?
After last fall, it looked like the unstable economy might have killed those dreams. Yet there are signs that some investors are already regaining their stomachs for risk, says Robert Burke, founder of Robert Burke Associates, a luxury and fashion investment consulting firm. Indeed, he says he is forming a joint venture to invest in fashion brands. Mr. Burke declined to identify his partner and says he doesn't know enough about Ms. Rodkin's business to say whether it's of interest.
Ms. Rodkin owns her company wholly, has a lucrative licensing deal in Japan, and says she has little or no debt. With revenue of roughly $12 million a year, her business is small -- but big enough to grow into the $100 million range that investors often want.
If she finds a buyer, Ms. Rodkin says she'd like to stick around after selling her company, and be hired to do the pure designing. She talked about wanting more stores, including some in Europe and Asia, but not wanting to have to own and operate them herself.
What can't be known is how much of Ms. Rodkin's edgy style DNA would remain in a corporate version of her company. Such marriages are notoriously risky; often, designers' visions for the products that bear their name differ from the plans of people writing the checks. Designer Narciso Rodriguez recently split with investor Liz Claiborne Inc. after only 18 months, with both sides citing irreconcilable differences.
"Smaller companies growing and becoming corporate can culturally be challenging," says Mr. Burke. Indeed, his new venture is banking on his expectation that brands have become more needy, or at least more humble -- and thus more willing to accept strategic direction from outsiders.
For designers, making a successful deal can depend on finding a buyer who is like-minded about the company's future. Mr. Burke cites as successful the case of Ippolita, another jewelry designer whose company sold a stake in 2007 to private equity fund Castanea Partners. Ippolita has since expanded into new materials, such as a rose-gold line.
Ms. Rodkin, like J. Crew, is an atypical choice for a first lady. The designer is known for her expensive Goth bondage rings and macabre skull motifs, intricately carved and generally studded with diamonds, that put a subversive twist on high jewelry. Prices run between $5,000 and $400,000.
"It's beautiful, but it's not too pretty," says Shelley Aarons, a longtime customer and art collector from New York. She can be seen wearing a necklace and earrings by Ms. Rodkin in a portrait by Italian artist Francesco Clemente.
Ms. Rodkin, whose droll conversation is peppered with expletives, likes to say she's just a "crazy artist." "I have no idea how much money I make," she announces, an oversized Chanel logo bag thrown over her shoulder as she hikes up Brighton Way to her Beverly Hills office.
But she is, in fact, a canny businesswoman -- a former Hollywood talent manager who got her former boyfriend, the late ballet dancer Alexander Godunov, his role in the movie "Witness." Jewelry started as a hobby. Soon she was selling medieval diamond crosses and daggers to stores on both sides of the Atlantic.
"She makes things that cross barriers," says April Kramer, former wife of Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer. She has been wearing Loree Rodkin for years. "The pieces are feminine yet strong."
Mrs. Obama, who tends to pick Ms. Rodkin's least edgy pieces, chose a pair of 61-carat earrings, a 13-carat signet ring, and 13 white-gold-and-diamond bangles to wear for the inauguration balls.
While Ms. Rodkin was asked to donate the inaugural-ball items to the Smithsonian, other items are loaners -- the same system that designers use to persuade starlets to wear their creations.
That system has its risks. Ms. Rodkin loaned one pricey ring to singer Rihanna, who happened to be wearing it on the night she was allegedly beaten by her boyfriend. The ring was taken by the Los Angeles Police Department and held as evidence.