High Fashion Goes Low


Feb. 10, 2007 — -- In New York this week, the fashion industry elite sat in rapt attention as designers fanned out their fall 2007 collections. But elsewhere in the city, things got a bit more physical.

While some looked, others leaped -- and grabbed, and snatched and perhaps, threw a punch.

Downtown from Bryant Park, the focus wasn't on the runway. It was on the racks of Proenza Schouler's limited-edition collection for Target. The line debuted at a SoHo boutique Opening Ceremony on Feb. 3, the same day Fashion Week kicked off and days before the collection hit Target stores across the country.

"It was a little frenzied because women just made a beeline for the nearest clothes rack and started grabbing things," said Sharmila Achari, a Columbia University law student and one of many people who hoped to get a piece of Proenza. "They had security there -- they were only letting in about 40 people at a time ... People were standing in the cold for at least two hours."

Beyond sheer necklines and hoop skirts, designers and mass retailers are latching onto a new trend -- creating low-cost lines that increase designers' profiles, enhance retailers' images and drive consumers to stores in droves.

Proenza Schouler's line for Target is the fifth installment of the store's GO International collection, which spotlights low-end collections from up-and-coming designers. John Remington, Target's vice-president of event marketing and communications, said GO International's philosophy is simple: Give consumers high quality and high design at prices they can afford.

Whether or not the average Target shopper knows the duo behind Proenza Schouler or can pronounce the label's name (Pro-en-za Skool-er) doesn't matter, as long as the clothes surprise and delight.

"Ultimately, what makes the collections very successful is the newness and surprise that we put in front of the guests," Remington said. "Bottom line, a lot of them may not know the designer's name but they just like what they see."

For mass retailers, the goal is to make consumers expect more than solid cotton T-shirts and hackneyed high-fashion rip offs. For designers, it's winning a wider audience.

"It's not about the same old, same old, it's about finding new ways to engage the consumer," said Marshall Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD group, a market research firm. "Being a designer that has the ability to design not only for the upper end market but for the lower end market -- that's true success."

Target has made "design for all" one of their mantras. Prior to GO International, Target partnered with Mossimo Gianulli, Issac Mizrahi and Liz Lange on clothing lines and renowned architect Michael Graves on a home collection. Remington considers the GO collection a logical progression.

"We started out with Mossimo, Michael Graves on the home side ? those are more evergreen," he said. "Now we're feeling that this is an evolution of getting things a little more quickly so that guests are constantly surprised."

With mass appeal comes mass amounts of money.

"You're going to make a lot of money in the low end if you're successful," Cohen said.

For those invested in the spread of design, low end lines offer the public easy access. As high fashion trickles down from New York, Paris, and Milan to Nashville, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, it becomes less elitist. While a Proenza Schouler linen shift dress retails for $1,950 on Neiman Marcus' Web site, a Proenza Schouler for Target frock can be had for $44.99.

"It's important that these people reach out to everybody," said W Magazine's Treena Lombardo. "It ends snobbery in fashion and makes fashion reachable to every strata."

H&M, the Swedish retailer beloved in the United States for its cheap-chic fashion, has brought the designs of Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Victor and Rolf to the masses. Women mobbed H&M's New York stores for the 2004 debut of Lagerfeld's line, snatching virtually every last thread off the racks. The publicity H&M received from the frenzy may have been more of a boon than its profits.

"Did they sell a lot of product with Karl Lagerfeld? No, but boy did they get people to rush into the store and fight over it," said Cohen. "It's all about buzz, it's all about image, it's all about momentum."

By collaborating with H&M, Lagerfeld may have secured a new generation of Chanel fans.

"The hope is that a kid will start out buying the line from H&M and gradually go to the high end," Lombardo said.

If designers can pull in droves of shoppers, imagine what an international superstar can do. The name behind H&M's upcoming collection is bound to strike a chord (or a pose) with consumers -- Madonna.

"She's been working extremely close with our design department to create these designs," said H&M's Lisa Sandberg. "It's totally inspired by favorites of hers, things she'd like to have in her staple clothing."

The M by Madonna line will hit H&M stores across the country in March. Sandberg said that with her history of reinventing herself and surprising fans, Madonna was the perfect style icon to partner with H&M.

"We really feel that we have the same fashion vision, Madonna and H&M -- express yourself, be yourself," she said.

With big names backing lines with limited quantities, retailers often struggle to meet the demand of shoppers. Achari walked away from the Proenza Schouler debut empty-handed, but with that got-to-have-it attitude that retailers love, she plans to scour a suburban New Jersey Target to get one of Proenza's tops before they disappear altogether.

"They're unique, there's a sense of urgency," Sandberg said of limited-edition collections. "People really want to have a piece."

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