Wal-Mart's fashion sense tells it to tailor cheap chic

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- Marc Jacobs, DKNY, Tory by Tory Burch, Wal-Mart?

Not many people think of the land of bargain basement prices and blue-smocked cashiers as the place to go for high-fashion shopping. But the discount chain has been trying for the past year to attract its hip, younger customers to its clothing sections by introducing a trendy, style-conscious line of women's apparel - Metro 7.

Metro 7 started last October with of-the-moment fall selections: velvet blazers, rhinestone-studded denim and sequin tanks - all from $9.94 to $29.94.

Yesterday during Fashion Week, the company unveiled new spring and holiday lines that up the style quotient - and the price.

On an office-building terrace overlooking Broadway (a few blocks from the tents at Bryant Park, where designers are showing this week), Wal-Mart's mannequins and three young models were cleverly dressed in the line's newest looks: skinny jeans, wide belts, cargo capris, patent-leather pumps and layered jersey tees for spring; faux-fur vests, empire-waist dresses and crisp white shirts with puffy sleeves for the holiday season.

There was even a cropped leather jacket for $99 - by far the most expensive piece of clothing Wal-Mart has ever offered.

This latest installment of sleekly cut, on-trend pieces takes Metro 7 to another level. While fall's offerings had been better than average Wal-Mart clothing, the items still looked cheap and sometimes overdone.

In fact, last year, CNNMoney.com, in a review of the company's finances, said Wal-Mart's Metro 7 line was a step up, but "not runway worthy."

Here, among the country's leading fashion designers - and in earshot of some of the most fashionable women - such a criticism could have been a kiss of death.

But Wal-Mart isn't necessarily trying to attract the Chanel-toting woman.

The company is after younger women, in their teens, 20s and 30s, who are familiar with Wal-Mart, but until now ignored the aisles of frumpy, dowdy clothing in favor of cheap accessories, beauty products and other inexpensive items.

Wal-Mart's spring line will be in more than 1,500 stores starting in December.

The gigantic handbags, some with heavy gold-colored hardware, faux python or trendy braided handles, are beautiful. Especially when they're priced under $30.

Black patent-leather peep toes - reminiscent of a popular pair by Charles David - and platform Miu Miu-esque pumps are obvious knockoffs but done jaw-droppingly well.

Models wearing the skinny jeans, layered tops and sexy holiday dresses declared the clothes "comfortable" and said yesterday that the outfits were made of "good material."

Indeed, a good tug on the line's "embellished" dress - with a comely shiny beading around the bust area - revealed a surprisingly strong stretch.

No word on how well the clothes hold up in the wash or at the dry cleaner, but they feel good hanging on the rack.

How can cheap clothes feel like quality clothes?

It's no mystery; it's just math.

At the presentation yesterday, an official with the company that is helping to market Metro 7 said Wal-Mart can buy better materials cheaper because they produce such large quantities of clothes. If you buy more material, it costs less. That savings is passed on to the customer.

Wal-Mart hasn't skimped on advertising, however.

Last year the company ran a full-court press to introduce the line, wooing fashion editors with gifts and running multipage ads in Vogue, one of the nation's leading fashion glossies.

The juxtaposition - Wal-Mart and Vogue - isn't surprising considering the fashion climate. Everyone from suburban teens to celebrities has jumped on the high-low bandwagon when it comes to style.

In last month's issue of Lucky magazine, editors paired a $19 silky gathered blouse from Metro 7's fall line with a pair of $278 Marc Jacobs pants and a $100 tweed vest from Michael Kors.

Stores such as H&M; and Target, with its successful Isaac Mizrahi- and Missoni-designed lines, have made names for themselves by offering customers a variety of this relatively new "cheap chic" clothing.

Wal-Mart is just getting a piece of the action. And it seems to be doing it well.


For Tanika White's daily online fashion digest and coverage of Fashion Week, go to baltimoresun.com/fashionweek.

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