Designers Flock to Mass-Market Retailers

Similarly, Todd Oldham, the clothing designer who gained prominence in the 1990s with his eclectic fashions and guest stints on MTV's House of Style, left the world of high fashion in 1998 to pursue other creative interests, telling Women's Wear Daily, "I just didn't want to be part of $ 1,200 blouses anymore. It was just not modern anymore."

Now Oldham's line of home merchandise aimed at the college dormitory crowd will hit Target stores at the end of this summer.

While not as heavily design influenced as Target's new lines, other retailers have been offering exclusive lines or stocking their shelves with big-name labels to differentiate themselves from the competition. Kmart, which recently filed for bankruptcy, tapped into the country's nesting trend with its wildly popular Martha Stewart Everyday line of household products and recently launched exclusive lines of Disney clothing for infants and children (Disney is the parent company of and the Joe Boxer brand of apparel, accessories and home furnishings.

"The goal is to drive more people buying sweaters and house wares and scarves to make real money," says retail analyst Eric Beder of Ladenberg Thalmann in New York.

Indeed, Stewart's line, launched at Kmart in 1997, had been expected to generate sales of up to $5 billion by 2001. A Kmart spokeswoman would not comment on whether or not the line had met that goal, but the domestic doyenne's products are seen as one of the now bankrupt retailer's most valuable assets.

Badge of Honor

The mass distribution has also been good for Stewart's bottom line, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by other designers. Revenues from her company's merchandising segment rose 42 percent to $11.1 million in the first quarter, primarily because of a revised contract with Kmart that went into effect last August.

"Frankly, we've had many calls coming here from all sorts of different designers and celebrities wanting to hop on to what they see is an attractive bandwagon," notes Target spokesman Doug Kline. "We look at those very critically. We are only interested in those partnerships that are a true collaboration."

But with all of this design hitting the mass market, is there a fear that today's Philippe Starck baby monitor will be tomorrow's lava lamp? Fashion insiders say as long as these new lines hit a nerve with consumers, the fact that they're sold in the big box stores will be no badge of shame.

"If you can incorporate it with Lalique or your Dome vase, so much the better," says Mincarelli. "We're Americans, we respect a marketer, we respect success. If it makes millions it will only raise [the designer's] esteem."

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