Like many other women, one of my resolutions for the new year is to try to spend less money on clothes I already have; but spending less doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be getting less this year. It used to be that we had to save up for weeks for a coveted designer piece or wait months for a chance to see the same piece make its way to the sales rack. Thanks to lower-end retailers like Target and H&M, those of us with a modest budget and a penchant for young, trendy designers can have our cake and eat it too.
For some, designer collaborations with mass retailers are their only chance of getting an upscale piece in their otherwise designer-less closets. But frugal shoppers aren’t the only ones cashing in on this trend. Designers have discovered that producing lower-end collections can be what they need to promote their higher-end work as well. After successful collections at Target and H&M in 2006, designers who have ignored the mass market in the past are finally giving it some serious thought.
Target and H&M have been the forerunners in forging democratic fashion in America. Target began capitalizing on designer fashion for the masses back in 2002 when it teamed up with Mossimo Giannulli and Todd Oldham and Mizrahi a year later. And it is Mizrahi that has, by far, been the shining example of what benefits a designer may reap for going mass market.
Just six years ago, the American designer was a one-man show trying to revive his career. In the 1990s, Mizrahi, who opened his own fashion house in 1988, was once considered the “Designer Most Likely to Succeed.” The young designer earned the financial backing of Chanel in 1994 and won three Council of Fashion Designers of American (CFDA) awards, but continued to produce low sales on the retail market. Just ten year after the launch of his company, Mizrahi found himself without a backer and out of business. He took his show on the road, even to Broadway with his cabaret show “Les Mizrahi” in 2002, but his comeback would come in the form of a red bulls-eye.
Unlike his predecessors at Target, Mizrahi continues to maintain his high-end work including the couture pieces he sells at Bergdorf Goodman and the made-to-order pieces for his regular clients. It’s been three years since Mizrahi and Target collaborated and he is still basking in its success. Mizrahi has used his Target connection to promote his brand, which encompasses both media and fashion. He is fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a personality by sashaying his fame to film and television. He is the host of his own television show on the Style Network and launched a magazine, “Isaac’s Style Book.”
Last year, the Target Corporation launched a global fashion initiative to introduce designers from around the world to their shoppers – American designer Behnaz Sarafpour, whose collection premiered last November, is only the fourth installment of “GO International”. Fans will be happy to find Proenza Schouler making its way to their nearing Target later this month with its Spring 2007 collection of bright colored tees and button-down skirts, fitted blazer and bustier tops reminiscent of some of their favorite pieces since their major debut in 2003. For 90 days, shoppers can score an entire Proenza Schouler for Target outfit for under $100.
A year later after Mizrahi’s successful introductory collection, the Swedish retail chain H&M unveiled a limited collection from Karl Lagerfeld in its stores throughout Europe and the U.S. The collection sold out at various locations and boosted H&M’s sales for the month of its launch. H&M quickly followed up its success with collections from Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf, which launched last November as well.
Skeptics have said that going low is a point of no return for designers, but that all depends on what designers hope to achieve. Mizrahi told Businessweek in 2006: “I wanted to reach out, not sell out.” Low-end creations have given designers an opportunity to cater to both ends of the fashion spectrum and, as a result, more people. Mass market lines have given them more exposure as well helped them develop a relationship with a younger generation that pledges allegiance to stores like Target and H&M to meet their low-budget fashion needs. In a way it’s an investment to maintain a brand’s significance for years to come. With Target’s attractive marketing technique and access to millions of potential shoppers through its network of over 1,500 stores nationwide, a designer can get the additional boost of confidence to become a household name like that of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Donna Karen. These collections, though more accessible to the mass market, turn out to be just as exclusive as their original lines because of their limited fare. Pieces from Stella McCartney’s collection for H&M are still scoring up to hundreds of dollars on eBay – nearly twice as much as it cost at the Swedish retail chain last fall.
Working with mass retailers not only provides a great audience for lesser-known designers but also gives them more control over the design process and higher turnover of their product. Since the 1980s when privately own design houses began being bought by corporations, it became less about the art and more about building the brand for some designers. The freedom that comes with working with the mass market is some designers get an opportunity to maintain their sanity. “To keep my brain attached, I had to always have that balance between high fashion and mass culture,” Oldham told Fast magazine in 2005.
Designers have good reasons for going mass market with their brands. It’s benefiting everyone and it makes me wonder why we didn’t have these collaborations earlier.