It’s been collaborating with high-end designers for 20 years. Now the products are being rereleased.
The first person in line at Target’s 20th anniversary “Design for All” press event and pre-sale in New York City is wearing a long, aqua blue Lilly Pulitzer caftan. Several excited friends — all in Lilly — meet her outside the Park Avenue Armory, where the event is being held. Inside, they beeline for the bright pink and neon green Lilly selection.
Elsewhere in the cavernous space, one woman clutches a sheer, snake-print, pussy-bow blouse by Altuzarra, explaining she had one from the original 2014 Target collaboration but was purchasing this one as a “backup,” because she still wore it all the time.
A younger man looks at backpacks from Phillip Lim and Hunter, trying to decide which one to buy; he chooses both. I, there supposedly as a neutral reporter covering the retail bacchanalia celebrating Target’s two decades of high-low designer collaborations, find myself buying a tray stacked high with John Derian melamine dishes. (Fine, I also buy the Altuzarra blouse.) An hour in, the cashiers behind the temporary checkout counter looked frazzled.
The scene was a precursor to what will likely happen at computers and Target stores all across America this weekend. On Saturday, September 14, in the middle of the night at a time Target will not disclose, the big-box retailer plans to drop over 300 items from its past design collaborations online. All 1,800 of its US stores will stock the collection upon opening that morning. The event includes some of its most popular and site-crashing collections, including Lilly Pulitzer and Missoni. Expect lines. Charge your phone.
Target was a pioneer of the affordable designer collaboration, as I wrote prior to May’s Vineyard Vines collection dropping. It is also a pioneer of FOMO-inducing marketing. Target touts its “Design for All” credentials, but really, as the collections have become larger and more hyped, it’s more like “design for whoever can get in line the earliest.” Still, fans plot, get in line, and fire up multiple laptops in anticipation. The added nostalgia embedded in this anniversary collection guarantees people will shop it.
Target knows it has a winner here. “We are prepared. This will sort of be like a Black Friday moment for us. We are very focused from a dot-com business and from a store experience. It’s all hands on deck,” says Target executive vice president Rick Gomez when I ask him about Target’s history of its site crashing during past collaborations.
Amber Katz, a writer in her 30s living in New York City, is emblematic of the enthusiasm shoppers have for Target’s collaborations. She bought practically the entire 2011 Calypso St. Barth collection and still wears a Patrick Robinson bathing suit from 2007; she bought another identical one on eBay recently, because she loves it more than expensive suits she’s purchased since. She even has a Target x Michael Graves toilet plunger.
“I know it’s ridiculous to even be excited about a toilet plunger. I still have it and it’s in great shape,” she says. “It’s the most stunning thing! If I have to buy a toilet plunger, this is the one I’m going to buy, obviously.”
Katz’s first collaboration experience was with the 2006 Luella Bartley collection and Target mainstay Isaac Mizrahi. British stylist and designer Bartley trafficked heavily in cherry print and colorful plaid while fashion designer Mizrahi, who had been designing expensive custom clothes for New York City society doyennes and fashion people, had been designing regularly for Target since 2003.
Katz was working at a job with a financial services company at the time and she was miserable. She skipped out of an anti-money-laundering conference and went shopping at Target instead, where she discovered the collection. “I bought a blouse and all of these Isaac Mizrahi shoes. I still have an Isaac Mizrahi suede skirt. Isaac and Luella were my gateway drug to Target fashion,” she says.
“You would have no masstige if it wasn’t for me,” the characteristically effusive and unfiltered Mizrahi tells me on a call, using a marketing portmanteau for affordable goods that seem like they should be more expensive. I can’t totally confirm his assertion, but he certainly helped cement Target as the faux-fancy “Tar-jay.” He stayed for seven years, producing cute and affordable clothes every season. This was different from Target’s collaboration model now, in which a small limited-edition collection drops and is gone. You could go in at any season and find something.
At the time, it was risky for his career. “I remember sitting with one of my clients and her going, ‘Oh, I can’t ever buy your clothes again because you make clothes for Target,’ and I was like ‘What!’ It really scared the shit out of me,” he says. Several of Mizrahi’s designs appear in the anniversary collection. You can still find them all over eBay and Poshmark.
But Mizrahi did blaze the way for other designers, who eventually wanted Target collaborations, too. It exponentially increased their exposure and name recognition. Gomez, the Target executive, says that after the 2015 Lilly Pulitzer collaboration, the brand saw increased traffic and sales on its site. The stock price of its parent company, Oxford Industries, even shot up the morning after the collaboration’s sellout.
It was also good for small designers like Erin Fetherston, whose giant red heart-shaped purse for her 2007 collection was reprised for this anniversary. She says the money she received from her original collaboration helped her to hire four people and move permanently to New York to design.
Fetherston was 25 and had only had a few collections under her belt when Target came calling. Her collection of sweet babydoll dresses was her response to the cultural moment in which US Weekly and Perez Hilton set the tone for the public discourse around celebrity.
“The girls in the spotlight in my age group are flashing the paparazzi out of cars not wearing underwear and releasing sex tapes. There was a vulgarity around femininity, so putting something out that was so saccharine and girly was actually very rebellious in a way,” Fetherston says. Zooey Deschanel and Kirsten Dunst were drawn to her designs.
Nostalgia is going to get people back into the store, as is the promise of a second chance. Katz is ready for another go at the Missoni collection, which produced her biggest Target haul to date. “That was one I deployed my mother for. I do that a lot,” says Katz, whose mom lives in Pennsylvania, where the hype is slightly less than in the New York City metro areas. She got the zigzag luggage, towels, clothes, and dishes. She also got a rug, but had to resort to the secondary market for that, paying about $500 on eBay for a rug that was originally $250 at Target. She has no regrets.
This is where Target’s “for all” proposition starts to break down a little bit. The manufactured scarcity and hype ensure that these collections will sell out, and it’s led to a lot of irritation from shoppers. A commenter on a post on the Today show’s Facebook page announcing the 20th anniversary collection is just one of many examples. She wrote: “No thank you, Target. The Lily [sic] sale last time was a madhouse! We were 80something in line, people were grabbing entire racks of clothes that were up for resale an hour later. It was insane. Everything was gone in 15 minutes.” On top of that, it took almost 15 years for Target to produce its collaborations in extended sizes, after years of criticism from plus-size activists.
Many customers love these collaborations, and they can be good for the designers. But above all else, they are good for Target. “Lilly Pulitzer was the biggest one we’d done from a sales perspective. Then we did Hunter and it was bigger than that. Then Vineyard Vines was bigger by sales than Hunter,” says Gomez. Partially it’s because the collections are getting bigger, as Target adds home, mens, and kids’ clothes to the mix, when it used to be primarily womenswear.
Still, he acknowledges, “part of it is also the power of social media, frankly.Now there’s so much hype and buzz leading up to these and pent-up demand. Twenty years ago it wasn’t an Instagram world.”
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