Designers Flock to Mass-Market Retailers

ByCatherine Valenti

May 1, 2002 -- 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.

Starck Reality

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.

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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