Competition heats up for 'cheap chic' wares

The Baltimore Sun

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.

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 Swedish retailer H&M;, a relative newcomer to the United States, 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.

A reinvigorated J.C. Penney signed a deal with Ralph Lauren to create the American Living collection of clothing and housewares, which made its debut 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 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 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.

Sandra M. Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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