DITA VON TEESE doesn’t so much enter a room as materialize there. Before you have quite registered her presence, she is shaking your hand and offering tea, the moment like some deft conjurer’s trick.
“I’m a magician,” she murmurs as if on cue. “I make you see something that wasn’t there before.” That bit of apparent sorcery, she says, is “the very definition of power and glamour.”
Watching Ms. Von Teese sip her lemon jasmine brew, her yellow dressing gown setting off jet hair and pale skin, you might take her at her word. You might even succumb to the darkly eccentric ambience of her home in the Los Feliz neighborhood, the waning afternoon light fixing on her menagerie of stuffed swans, a peacock and an imperious ostrich casting a haughty eye on visitors.
But she is quick to break the spell. “I want people to understand more about me,” she says. “People are always asking, ‘What is it that she does exactly?’ ”
What she does, of course, is drop her clothes onstage, as artfully as her idol Gypsy Rose Lee.
Fetish queen, fashion avatar, America’s sultry doyenne of burlesque, Ms. Von Teese, nee Heather Sweet of Rochester, Mich., is the toast of at least one generation of would-be calendar girls. And she is far too canny at this stage to even think of throwing down her scepter. Which may be why, at 40, she is redoubling her efforts to cash in on her notoriety by becoming the latest cult phenomenon to turn her name into a brand.
At a cocktail party last month at Decades, the luxury vintage shop here on Melrose Avenue, she peeled the wraps from a capsule fashion line, her first. Conceived with Lime Door, an Australian brand-development company, the five-piece collection of curvy-yet-covered-up, retro-flavored items is lavishly detailed with silk or tulle linings and touches of grosgrain.
The line is the latest in a series of recent product introductions that include a fragrance, cosmetics, lingerie and hosiery (seamed, of course) that are expected to cement her status as a purveyor of genteel kink. She is gambling that her fans, 80 percent of whom are women, she says, will take the bait.
Her champions don’t doubt it. “You can tell when somebody is the real deal,” said Ron Robinson, the president of the vanguard Los Angeles boutique of the same name, which stocks her fragrance and will, once they become available in the United States, carry her lipsticks and skin balms made by the German brand ArtDeco, as well as a separate line of scarlet press-on nails.
“Dita is mature and sophisticated, beautiful and approachable,” Mr. Robinson said. “Tell me that that’s not a brand.”
CERTAINLY, she has bewitched the fashion world, gathering admirers like Christian Louboutin, Marc Jacobs (whose front row she has graced) and Jean Paul Gaultier, on whose runway she once performed an exotically elegant strip tease. She has appeared in a MAC cosmetics Viva Glam campaign. Her act, provocative in an airbrushed sort of way, has emboldened Cointreau, the upscale spirits brand, to name her its global ambassador.
She has a string of imitators, most prominently Katy Perry, who has unabashedly appropriated Ms. Von Teese’s femme fatale persona, down to her loosely marcelled waves and winged eyeliner. And this fall she completed a national tour, her show, “Burlesque: Strip Strip Hooray,” playing to sold-out houses from Portland, Ore., to New Orleans.
All good. But if Ms. Von Teese hopes to become a household name, the kind that sells bijoux and bedding, she has her work cut out for her.
Her fashion line, sold exclusively for now at Decades and on shopdecadesinc.com, and priced from about $600 to $1,000, has performed well, said Melissa Dishell, Ms. Von Teese’s manager and business partner. “But our version of ‘well’ is not the Kardashians’ version of ‘well.’ ” Ms. Dishell provided no figures.
Unlike the Kardashians, Ms. Von Teese has yet to transcend her cult status. “She doesn’t make movies, she doesn’t sell albums,” Ms. Dishell said. “She hasn’t appeared on an American fashion magazine cover. That makes it far more challenging for us to get deals and sell the products.”
More artist than entrepreneur, Ms. Von Teese seems reluctant to talk dollars and cents. “I don’t really want to know the figures,” she says. “I’m just building a nest egg.”
A handsome one, admittedly, derived in part from fees of as much as $200,000 that she earns for a performance, enough to keep her in vintage cars like the ’53 Cadillac parked in her driveway. Yet, she says, “I don’t really know that much about business.”
That leaves Ms. Dishell, an events producer and a former manager for the Pussycat Dolls, to juggle numbers and put some muscle into what until recently has been a passive marketing effort, one as reliant on serendipity as on obvious strategy. Attempts to raise Ms. Von Teese’s profile have been haphazard at best. A guest appearance last year on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” was the product of chance. Ms. Von Teese is friendly with an actor on the show. “And I walk my dog with one of the producers,” Ms. Dishell said.
Ms. Von Teese has no plans to follow up with other roles. “I couldn’t be an actress and not be Tilda Swinton,” she says. And though she is no foodie, she was approached last summer by the Bravo network to appear as a guest judge on “Top Chef Masters.”
“It feels very piecemeal, random, coincidental,” Tom Julian, a fashion branding specialist in New York, said of attempts to market the performer. “It’s almost as if her team had been thinking, ‘Let’s put her out there and see if anything sticks.’ ”
Ms. Dishell is chasing high-end retailers like Jeffrey New York and Ikram, the Chicago boutique, where Ms. Von Teese once performed a modified version of her act. But until recently her primary role has been to act as a gatekeeper, the stern guardian of Ms. Von Teese’s retro-glam image, turning down more offers than she accepts. A fur line was vetoed. Ditto an earlier fragrance, and jeans.
“Dita doesn’t wear jeans,” Ms. Dishell said flatly. And she discourages Ms. Von Teese from baring all onstage or oversharing, Kardashian-style, on a reality television show.
It is not by chance that despite bloggers’ best efforts to link her with the actor Peter Sarsgaard and the French nobleman Louis-Marie de Castelbajac, Ms. Von Teese’s love life retains a bit of mystery. There was her yearlong marriage in 2005 to the goth rocker Marilyn Manson, a union that raised her visibility but ended in divorce.
She shared with her husband a penchant for self-invention. Problems arose in part because, she says, “I liked being Heather Sweet from Michigan, but I don’t think he liked being Brian Hugh Warner from Ohio.”
There are indications that reticence pays. “There are plenty of people who don’t know who Dita Von Teese is,” said Cameron Silver, an owner of Decades. “But the right people do. She’s got the influencer crowd.”
The filmmaker and writer Liz Goldwyn attended the unveiling of the Dita Von Teese collection at Decades dressed in one of the siren-cut gowns. “She has great style,” Ms. Goldwyn said. “More than that, she sends a good message to young women that you can be sexy and classy at the same time.”
In Europe, Ms. Von Teese has a kind of mass appeal that eludes her at home. The debut of her fragrance on a rainy weekday morning last spring at Liberty in London drew more than 400 fans, many dressed in her image.
“What you get from Dita is a curtain lifted now and then on her life,” said Ed Burstell, the managing director of Liberty. “You are offered just a glimpse, and ultimately that is so much more engaging and interesting, and aspirational.”
IT doesn’t hurt that she shows off curves that, she acknowledged, have been surgically enhanced. Even her beauty mark is a tattoo. “Every stripper should have a beauty mark by her left eye,” she says lightly.
You suspect that her character, part temptress, part old-fashioned girl, has been just as carefully crafted, especially when she talks about love. “I don’t need somebody to buy me things,” she says, and you expect her to croon like an old-time chanteuse. “I just need someone to feel like he’s a man.”
She sounds kittenish, but in fact Ms. Von Teese has been pivotal in the mainstreaming of a fetish aesthetic infiltrating fashion by way of harness belts, leather bras, blackened nails and nickel-studded chokers. She appears to be riding the crest of a widening soft-porn obsession that made an international best seller of a lurid tale of a female submissive.
“When they make the movie,” Ms. Dishell suggested playfully, “they should be thinking cross-promotion.” As in “Fifty Shades of Von Teese”?
For now, Ms. Dishell is ironing out terms with the Home Shopping Network to sell the fragrance, and a second scent, Rouge, as well as a lower-priced fashion line. She is also seeking mass distribution for a variety of wares, but the hurdles have been tricky. Target in Australia sells Von Follies by Dita Von Teese, a lingerie collection of high-waist panties, bustiers and balconette bras. But a more conservative climate in the United States makes retailers here skittish about carrying the line, Ms. Dishell said. It is sold internationally on Asos.com and Stylebop.com.
MS. VON TEESE seems unconcerned. Sitting very erect on her Art Deco-style divan, she summons a last bit of bravado.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a warrior,” she says. “I like a challenge.” She identifies with popular overachievers like Liberace and Madonna. “They had to work harder to get somewhere,” she says. “If people were just born beautiful and gifted, I’m bored watching them.”
She herself is “manufactured and proud of it,” she declares. She knows a little war paint will always see her through. “Heels and red lipstick,” she tells you only half in jest, “will put the fear of God into people.”