When fashion designer Halston did a line of low-priced clothing for J.C. Penney in 1982, the top-end stores that once favored the revolutionary stylist's designs suddenly dropped them from their racks.
Many fashion historians say Halston's attempt to bring highbrow fashion to the masses was one of the biggest mistakes for the designer best known for Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat, ultra suede and a hard-partying lifestyle at Studio 54. Not only was his low-end line unsuccessful, but the designer alienated his high-end clientele as well.
Twenty years later, it's a different story. With discount retailers like Wal-Mart and Target stealing sales from more upscale department stores, many designers are flocking to create lines of clothing, accessories and house wares for the mass market — with no stigma attached.
"With Halston, it sent shock waves through the industry," says John Mincarelli, professor of fashion merchandising at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "We weren't ready for people who spend $20 on a shirt to have a designer label. Today it's smart business."
Style for the Masses
Nowhere is this trend more evident than at Target, which has created a buzz among the fashion cognoscenti with products from clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, celebrity makeup artist Sonia Kashuk, and architect and designer Michael Graves. It's set to launch four new lines this year, from French interior and furniture designer Philippe Starck and clothing designers Todd Oldham, Stephen Sprouse and Marc Ecko.
"There is a tremendous amount of money being spent on fashion apparel, but not in department stores," says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group in Upper Montclair, N.J. "Designers have decided to go to where the money is, and the money is at places like Target and Kohl's."
Retail sales at general merchandise stores in March were $36.5 billion while department store sales for the month were $20.6 billion. Retail giant Wal-Mart recently topped the Fortune 500 list of the nation's largest company — the first retailer ever to top the list.
But it's not just money motivating designers. Contrary to the scarcity factor that many design houses cultivate by making their items available to only a select group of tastemakers, some designers are now saying they're attracted to the utilitarian value of getting their products out to as many people as possible.
Philippe Starck, the French designer known for his whimsical creations like a lemon squeezer that resembles a tall, elongated spider and his sleek interiors for Ian Schrager's upscale hotels like the Royalton in New York, will launch his long-awaited new line of 50 objects at Target later this month. Called "Starck Reality," the products will include a $39.99 jeweled baby monitor that a mother can wear around her neck and a $14.99 X-shaped hammered metal magazine rack.
Starck says his goal in creating the line was the "democratization of design," in which the maximum number of people can experience the pleasures of fine design. "Today we don't need more design, more pretensions — we need more happiness and more magic available to everyone," says Starck.