Michael Graves’ product line at Target began with a $35 teapot in 1999.Mct file photos
Avril Lavigne performs at the 2007 American Music Awards in November.
Isaac Mizrahi arrives at the 2004 re-opening gala for MoMA in New York.
CHICAGO — Rock star Avril Lavigne, the singer with raccoon eyeliner and skull-and-hearts style, is about to start selling a clothing line at Kohl’s Corp., the traditional discount department store from Wisconsin that has been dabbling in trendier fashion.
The deal, announced early this month, would have been unfathomable five years ago, before Isaac Mizrahi teamed with Target Corp. to make discount shopping cool. Now it’s just the latest iteration in the swelling establishment of cheap chic.
While the idea of marketing trendy apparel and home goods to the masses — an idea pioneered at Target — has been building for years, the cheap chic phenomenon is seeping into everything from candles to bath towels to baby blankets to lamps, and bringing together such unlikely combinations as Wal-Mart and Norma Kamali.
It is also presenting a headache for Target, whose sales have stalled since late last year. It’s hard to say how much of the slowdown is a result of the economy and how much reflects rivals’ latching onto Target’s model. A decade ago, when Target hired architect Michael Graves to bring some flair to teapots and toasters, the retailer captured the imagination of shoppers and set Target apart from the crowd. Now J.C. Penney offers Moroccan-inspired dinnerware from Chris Madden, and Kohl’s carries baby-doll-pleated tunics from Vera Wang.
“Target used to offer sophisticated design at a price, and now everybody else is getting close and closer to that,” said David Wolfe, creative director at Doneger Group, a New York-based fashion merchandising firm. “Everybody else is pushing the fashion envelope. It’s hard to find ugly cheap stuff.”
Retailers who in the past wouldn’t have had access to style icons are now wooing designers and celebrities to create product lines for the mass market.
Fast-fashion retailer H&M, a relative newcomer to the U.S., rolled out a line from Madonna last year and in November sold limited-edition collections from such designers as Roberto Cavalli. Steve & Barry’s, the purveyor of college sports team apparel, hired “Sex in the City” actress Sarah Jessica Parker to create its Bitten line where every item is under $20.
A reinvigorated Penney signed a deal with Ralph Lauren to create the American Living collection of clothing and housewares, which debuted in February as the biggest brand launch in Penney’s history.
Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc., known best for low prices, recruited designer Kamali this month to create an in-house lifestyle brand that will span clothing to housewares.
Before landing Lavigne, Kohl’s set fashionista tongues wagging in the fall with a highly anticipated collection of apparel, shoes, accessories, jewelry and linens from luxury designer Vera Wang.
Just as Target’s rivals get more fashion-savvy, the Minneapolis-based retailer is losing Mizrahi, who put Target on the map when they joined forces in 2003. Mizrahi, whose contract ends this year, is taking a job as creative director for the Liz Claiborne brand.
Target has played down Mizrahi’s departure, saying it’s got a good thing going with the Go International program that brings in an emerging designer about every three months to create a limited-edition collection. The retailer also launched new in-house brands with sportswear maker Converse Inc. and home company Dwell Studio.
Gregg Steinhafel, Target’s president, told Wall Street analysts in late February that Mizrahi makes up about 3 percent of Target’s apparel and accessories business, adding that Go International could “very easily” replace the four or five racks of Mizrahi apparel. Target executives declined to talk more about the cheap chic trend, but spokesman Joshua Thomas said the retailer is “confident” its focus on design “will continue to prove a successful strategy.”
Mizrahi was Target’s most recognizable designer name and served as an ambassador of sorts for the company. He made women’s clothing and expanded into children’s clothing, handbags, shoes, luggage and bedding. When Target decided to experiment with selling wedding dresses online last year, it turned to Mizrahi to design them.
“While Target will likely replace the designer’s collection with new offerings, it will potentially take some time to ramp up a new designer to Mizrahi’s level of sales and status,” Citigroup Global Markets Group Inc. analyst Deborah Weinswig said in a Feb. 20 report.
Weinswig downgraded Target to a “sell” in the report, listing among her concerns a “lack of focus” in women’s apparel and price competition from Wal-Mart.
Target has been hurt, like other retailers, by the slowing economy. But in the past Target has weathered tough economic times because it attracted more upscale shoppers than other discount chains. It also flourished by tempting shoppers to throw a few extra things in their shopping carts simply for fun.
The design world of clothing and home goods used to be compartmentalized with exclusive stores offering high fashion with high price and mass merchants settling on safe, affordable styles.
But as any Hollywood star can tell you, the line between edgy and passe gets thinner with each passing year. The Internet transmits runway fashion from Paris and Milan at lightning speed. Celebrity culture is rampant. World travel is easier. And affluence, once marked by striving to look like your well-heeled neighbor, now means trying to stand out as an individual.
The result: Consumers have a voracious appetite for the undiscovered, the next new thing, and they are getting better at recognizing good design.
“There is a great tectonic shift in the ability to hold objects that used to be held by the very rich,” said James Twitchell, an English professor and mass culture guru at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “There is almost nothing a rich person has that you can’t also have.”
You can’t own a Gulfstream jet, but you can upgrade to first-class with frequent-flier miles, Twitchell said. You can’t afford the $109 Michael Graves teapot at Italian boutique Alessi, but you can buy a $12.95 Michael Graves teapot at Target.
A generation ago, that would have been impossible. Fashion expert John Mincarelli recalls in the late 1970s when iconic designer Halston sold his label to Penneys and created Halston III, one of the first cheap chic lines. The deal marked the beginning of the end for Halston. Luxury retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman stopped carrying his collection. Women shunned the notion of wearing a high-priced Halston gown when the masses could find his name on labels at a mainstream store.
“We weren’t ready for it then,” Mincarelli said. “Back then if you bought cheap clothes, they weren’t in fashion.”