Taking in the atmosphere at a recent Fourth of July barbecue, Jaye Hersh noticed three well-heeled women with outfits that smacked of the latest hip mix of low- and high-brow fashion.
They paired shirts by Xhilaration and Mossimo, affordable mass-market brands found at Target Corp. stores, with $600 shoes and $300 jeans a clear sign that Hersh's latest endeavor, selling Target Couture clothing and accessories, was on the right track.
"There are no rules any more," said Hersh, owner of the Pico Boulevard boutique Intuition. "You have (fashion designer) Isaac Mizrahi, who has merchandise in Target and in Bergdorf Goodman."
The Mizrahi formula is now familiar: put a flashy, upscale designer's goods in a general audience retailer and wait for the customers to be wowed by items classier than most mainstream stock. It's an approach practically invented by Target, or what its customers often call "Tar-zhay."
Hersh's twist has turned the formula on its head.
Instead of haute couture designers selling to culotte-clad customers, it's Target and other mass-market brands that are making inroads into exclusive racks at boutiques and tony department stores where they once were barred.
Hersh's Target Couture features handbags, jeans, belts, necklaces and other items sporting Target's famous bull's-eye logo in different sizes and places.
"It was just something that has never been done before. There is a buzz going on about, 'What is this?'" said Hersh, who's not the only one on to something.
Mass brands wanting to bolster their chic credentials to appeal to stylish consumers with high disposable incomes include El Segundo-based toymaker Mattel Inc., which recently put Barbie Luxe duds into pricey and hip Lisa Kline and Fred Segal Flair shops. Clothing designer Anna Sui, handbag company Not Rational and accessory maven Judith Leiber have worked on Barbie Luxe items, which cost from $40 for a T-shirt to more than $2,000 for some Leiber designs.
And Van Nuys-based Bratz doll producer MGA Entertainment Inc. has signed a deal to create Bratz Couture for boutiques in the fall.
"It does, of course, help with brand awareness," said Ross Misher, chief executive of Brand Central LLC in Los Angeles, which manages the Target Couture brand. "It is a way to further associate the bull's-eye (logo) and (Target's) brand with fashion."
Hersh shops at Target and had for years for her two children, who are now adults. And she believes her customers a savvy and celebrity-driven lot are frequently found in Target aisles, searching not only for laundry detergent and toilet paper, but for clothing as well.
"There is nobody hipper than Target right now," said Hersh, who about a year ago decided to approach Target with the idea of licensing its famous bull's-eye logo so she could display it on her custom creations.
A deal was struck: Target allowed her to use the logo without any licensing payments. Hersh designed the handbags, while her vendors, including denim company J & Company and accessory designer Madeline Beth, have produced other items in the line.
Prices for the Target Couture collection range from $25 to around $3,000. And it's turned into a bonanza for Hersh, who sold 3,000 pieces in one month and recently fielded a call from People magazine about her collection.
Today's Hollywood has been a catalyst in changing the nature of luxury. With celebrities splashed across every magazine, high-end fashion has become more democratic. If Paris Hilton wears pricey jeans, everyone wants them and can actually get them at the boutique on the corner.
Hersh has seized on the phenomenon. She has sold products on QVC for customers, and her store's Web site is a bulletin board of pint-sized celebrities wearing the cool outfit du jour. The launch party for the line was held at Social Hollywood, a hot restaurant and night spot, with "One Tree Hill" star Sophia Bush as a host. Mattel's Barbie Luxe, meanwhile, has been highlighted on entertainment television.
Raphael Javaheri, chief executive of Resilience LLC, an offshoot of L.A.-based Eco Textiles Group Inc., which has secured the license to make Bratz Couture, said that not just any branded clothes will sell. He warned that mass brands can stumble if their boutique merchandise mirrors their own down-market products.
"The upscale has to be totally 180 degrees different," said Javaheri. "You cannot take the same artwork and repackage it and ship it to Bloomingdale's because that will be suicide."
Bratz Couture clothes contain no images of Bratz characters. There's a tasteful logo with a bedazzled B and the word "Couture." The word "Bratz" appears on the hangtag, but not on the items themselves. The word "Target" is also absent from the Target Couture clothes, which show their Target affiliation with the bull's-eye logo.
For his next collection of Bratz Couture, Javaheri has decided to veer away from Bratz' style guide completely. The guide instructs licensees on color palate and graphics, among other details. He will concentrate on the looks coming out of Europe and the contemporary market to completely avoid the cheesiness often associated with mass brands.
"Mass merchants want everything blinged out, everything screaming Bratz," said Javaheri. "In the specialty stores, they don't want to be a billboard."
Not Rational designer Fabiana Trosman, who styled handbags for Barbie Luxe, said her tactic was to make functional bags. The bags had to be adult, even if they hinted at Barbie with subtle touches like pink stitching and hanging charms.
"My main concern was that it could be useful and not only that, it is a Barbie bag," she said. "It is done a little bit more conservative."
Getting into the high-end boutique fashion line-up also means playing on a field where competition is fierce. That poses a pitfall for mass brands: becoming a fleeting fashion can harm whatever stylish reputation they were attempting to build.
At Intuition, Hersh said the key is to keep the Target Couture products on top of the trends. In addition, the collection's distribution is being carefully controlled. After months of only being offered at Hersh's store, the products will slowly move into other boutiques and better department stores where they'll be able to polish their high-end resume.
"We are really looking to establish this as a long-term brand, just like Lacoste or Polo," said Misher. "We are going to keep it fresh to ensure longevity."
However, Richard Dickson, a senior vice president at Mattel, said it may be harder than many think for mass brands to retain their haute appeal, though he believes Barbie's affiliation with legendary designers such as Bob Mackie and Oscar de la Renta, who made dresses for the doll, gives Barbie Luxe a genuineness that others lack.
He expects many other brands to slink back to mass retailing when the "mastige" (an amalgamation of mass and prestige) craze subsides.
"There is a certain amount of coolness today to getting a deal on a certain thing that is more socially the norm," said Dickson.
"(But) the high-end luxury customer will always be the high-end luxury customer."
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