Isabella sequin gown, Rachel Zoe Collection ($795). Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-550-5900. Velour classic hat, Eric Javits ($350). Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-550-5900. Diamond and black enamel earrings ($39,000) and diamond, turquoise, and black enamel necklace ($119,000), David Webb. 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-858-8006. Heelless wedge, Giuseppe Zanotti Design ($1,025). 9536 Brighton Way, Beverly Hills, 310-550-5760.

Eleven minutes past our appointed meeting time, Rachel Zoe breezes into The Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel. “I am so sorry,” she says, citing traffic as she slides into the banquette while nearby diners crane their necks for a glimpse of the impeccably coiffed überstylist. “I really hate being late.” In dealing with celebrities, one tends to hear that line a lot. But coming from Zoe, who wears her perfectionism on her well-tailored sleeve, it rings sincere.

After a waiter jots down her order (English breakfast tea and bottled water), Zoe proceeds to rattle off the day’s designer credits. Her tuxedo pants and fitted leather jacket with faux-fur cuffs come courtesy of her still-new ready-to-wear label, Rachel Zoe Collection, while her towering platforms (a signature) are Givenchy. A cocktail ring shaped like a panther’s head with jagged points “that will make you bleed” is Cartier. Aside from the ring, which is 24k gold, the entire ensemble is black—a color Zoe has found works best in combating her one-year-old son Skyler’s spit-up. “All you have to do is take a baby wipe, and it comes right off,” she says brightly. Toddler expectorations aside, the look speaks to the luxe ’70s glamour that has long been Zoe’s sartorial wheelhouse—first as a stylist and now as a designer. “It’s a problem,” she admits. “I try to stay diversified. But I think everyone has a certain period with which they identify most.”

The thing about Zoe, of course, is that while her style sensibility may hark back to an era of sequined minidresses and Le Smoking tuxedo jackets, her business instinct has always been one step ahead of the pack. Arriving in Hollywood in 2002 (with a résumé that included stints at YM and Gotham), she capitalized on the then-emerging trend of round-the-clock tabloid surveillance by offering clients round-the-clock styling. After all, what star wouldn’t prefer to be snapped impeccably turned out in Chanel, rather than looking frumpy and “just like us”?

Outfitting young starlets including Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Mischa Barton in her former uniform (flowing caftans, chunky jewelry, oversize “It” bags) made Zoe something of a celebrity in her own right as she garnered recognition as the godmother of fashion’s boho-chic moment. A tabloid scandal in 2006 only further cemented her fame. “I still to this day am baffled about why and how that happened,” she says, in reference to press accusations the petite, 5-foot-4 stylist was furnishing clients with diet pills. “I was functioning as an older sister and a mother to some of these people.”

Yet behind all the glitz and glamour, styling was—and still is—a service industry and as such, Zoe’s star was inextricably tethered to the fame quotients of her clients. In 2007, a profile in The New York Times Magazine asked pointedly, “Without the girls she dresses, who is Rachel Zoe?”

A mere five years later, the answer to that question necessitates several slashes. At 40, Rachel Zoe is a best-selling author (she penned the 2007 how-to style tome Style A to Zoe: The Art of Fashion, Beauty, & Everything Glamour), reality-TV star (she stars in and executive-produces Bravo’s The Rachel Zoe Project), editor-in-chief and chief creative officer (her daily style e-newsletter, The Zoe Report, has 475,000 subscribers and counting), and designer (in addition to her aforementioned ready-to-wear collection she produces the QVC fashion and accessories line Luxe Rachel Zoe). In short, she’s a personal-branding virtuoso. And what makes her brand so appealing is that it marries exclusive fashion-insider access (Zoe rubbing elbows with Marc Jacobs at the Met Ball) with the chitchatty voice of a style-savvy BFF (Zoe spouting fashion tips to her one-million-strong Twitter followers). Where the red carpet meets Main Street, that’s where you’ll find Zoe.

Ironically, for someone so seemingly hyper social, Zoe says she was a bit of a loner in high school. “Girls, to me, growing up were very, very petty and didn’t want me to succeed and didn’t want the best for me,” she says, adding that she spent most of her time with her “bad boy” boyfriend.

Even in adulthood, the stylist still faces her fair share of backbiting and the occasional feud. But these days, she says, she’s grown a thicker skin. Proving her point, she becomes serenely diplomatic when asked about Brad Goreski, a former style director with whom she’s rumored to be in a tiff over stolen clients. “All I know is I have the best team in the world,” she says. “And that’s the first time I’ve ever felt that way.” And is she tuning into Goreski’s new reality show? “No, no,” she says with an arch chuckle. “I don’t think I can watch that.”

Made-for-reality-TV drama aside, the sun doesn’t seem to be setting on the ever-expanding Zoe empire. With her husband and The Rachel Zoe Project costar Rodger Berman at the helm, Rachel Zoe Inc. has ballooned into a 28 full-time-staffer operation with offices in New York and LA. In December, the company’s digital-media arm, Zoe Media Group, whose flagship property is The Zoe Report, expanded to include e-newsletters Zoe Beautiful and AccessZOEries. Next up? A production company. “A creative production company,” qualifies Berman, referring to the still-under-wraps project. “We won’t own cameras or equipment.”

Amid the swirl of activity and blossoming ventures, the ready-to-wear collection clearly remains Zoe’s top priority. “I felt there was a void in what I was looking for, just as a shopper,” she says of her reason for launching the line, which she did in partnership with global supply-chain-manager Li & Fung Limited last fall. “I wanted to be able to go and buy a beautiful tuxedo or a suit or a great little party dress that wasn’t, like, $2,500.” With a price range of $150 to $900, the line cannily hits the retail sweet spot where, according to style.com executive editor Nicole Phelps, “aspiration and attainability meet.” Nevertheless, when first announced, the line was met with some skepticism. Zoe’s fame—while a boon to her brand—did her no favors in the fashion world, where she was coolly received as yet another celebrity designer. But when the collection finally debuted, industry insiders were pleasantly surprised. “The fit is good,” says Phelps, adding, “I especially liked the velvet pantsuit. It had shades of Tom Ford’s velvet suits from his Gucci heyday.”

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