Target Practice

The Low (Cost) Road to Fashion

"We are on a mission to democratize style and fashion! We want our guests to know that they can bring style and fashion into their everyday lives!" declares John Remington, Target's vice president for special events, opening the company's catwalk show at Chelsea Piers, an occasion that has all the hallmarks—front-row scamming, gift-bag filching—of far tonier fashion events. The 600 reporters, editors, and industry executives in the audience, many of whom no doubt owe their high spirits to the preshow cocktail party, are more than happy to applaud Remington and the succession of models who follow upon his remarks, a troop of blank-eyed mannequins loping around a crimson, bull's-eye-shaped runway dressed in belly-baring T-shirts, baggy pants that unzip to become Bermudas, Heidi-sleeved peasant blouses, puffy vests, snakeskin-printed handkerchief-hemmed skirts, tiny denim jackets, cropped pants with embroidered hems, heinie-revealing short-shorts, and other versions of contemporary sportswear that fall somewhere between function and fashion.

The loudest clapping of the evening is reserved for a pair of roomy trousers printed with the Ziploc bag logo, a garment that Target has made especially for the show and does not intend to sell in any of its 900 shops. The pants, along with other hybrids—Jolly Rancher-printed Western shirts, Mr. Clean tank tops—are an homage to Target's wildly successful television commercials, which feature models dancing in front of a kaleidoscopic array of Puffs, Tide, and other products lifted from the store's shelves. The ads are as slick as a Gucci campaign, and their result has been to lend Target (Tar-jayin the company's own tongue-in-cheek take on its crossover appeal) a cachet that Kmart and Walmart, its putative competitors, have yet to achieve.

The day after the fashion show, Target invites members of the press to an open house where they can meet the Target Trend Team, a group of employees with titles like "trend merchandiser" and "director of trend and design." Though certainly pleasant enough, the Trend Team speaks a language popular with a lot of fashion professionals, a dialect that turns genius into an adjective and uses fabricationas a fancy way of saying fabric. Asked exactly what the Trend Team does, one member offers, "We drive trend and image," and another adds, "We interpret things for our guests." Guests? The Trend Team titters, then the bravest volunteers: "Well—it's just that—Target wants to make everyone feel like a guest!"

Lee Lurquin, a nice young man whose title is "director of soft lines for trend," walks a group of visitors through a room full of garments that appeared on the previous night's runway, a tour that begins with "Travel-Inspired Essentials" and goes on to visit "Alternative West," "Modern Hippies," and "Animal Accents." As is the case in many designers' showrooms, even those belonging to the loftiest couturiers, the clothes look a little forlorn off the runway, like puppies in a pet store waiting for just the right master to take them home.

"Urban Traveler is multifunctional! It's cotton-nylon blended fabrications with a splash of color—like these pants!" says Lurquin, fingering a pair of Prada-esque army green baggies that have lime-colored facings and a drawstring waist. "Here's a great microfleece vest in pumpkin! This pink cashmere sweater—it's ribbed, we did ribbed this year—is only $69.99. Here's the boho collection—the '60s. Even the belt has flowers!" And here indeed, in a corner of the room, next to the lingerie rack (pajama-party-worthy pj's, mildly bawdy brassieres), are decorated denim items whose ancestors long ago made the scene at Altamont and Woodstock.

It's easy enough to decorate a pair of jeans, but how is Target interpreting the glitzy, fur-dripping, square-shouldered, big-money look of Fall 2000, a style The New York Timeshas dubbed Park Avenue Princess? The trend team looks around dubiously, then points out a small gray flannel rectangular purse, the shape of which is vaguely reminiscent of a Fendi baguette. But if the purse is not fully up to the level expected by, say, the Miller sisters, other stuff fares better, even in the harsh glow of the showroom: a $120 peacoat is not nasty vinyl but real leather, a denim jacket has classic lines and a lean fit, and that ribbed sweater is a whole lot of cashmere for $69.99.

Unfortunately, procuring any of these items presents a bit of a challenge for Manhattanites, since Target, despite springing for billboards on Houston Street and mounting fashion shows in Chelsea, does not make it easy for city residents to become guests. A field trip to a Long Island branch, located on an unpromising strip of highway in a town called Lindenhurst (Target's only store in the five boroughs is in College Point, Queens), is an adventure requiring a whole afternoon and an automobile. And though butlers with tea trays don't meet you in the parking lot (so much for this guest business), the staff is friendly—it's the interior design that is such a letdown: Unlike its studiedly hip sisters, H&M and Old Navy, Target apparently takes its decorating cues from Kmart. The clothing department—really just a charmless expanse of racks and signs—is right next to the lunch counter (called the Food Avenue Express, though there's no avenue to speak of), and the whole store smells like popcorn mixed with plastic, not the greatest olfactory accompaniment to clothes shopping.

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