Strange Bedfellows: A-List Designers Slum it for Kohl's, Target, H&M, and Payless

Patricia Field's really big shoe propels me to Brooklyn. I even go to New Jersey.

"Where's the shopping mall?" I ask the nearest likely stranger, trapped as I am in a glass-towered office park on the other side of the Hudson—I'm in a whole different state! I have taken the PATH train (like the subway, but cheaper! Different!) to a stop called Pavonia/ Newport—is there even such a place?—to visit the nearest Kohl's, a discounter with stores every place from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Nampa, Idaho, to Owasso, Oklahoma, but none, alas, in Manhattan.

I'm on the trail of Kohl's because I want to examine the Simply Vera line by Vera Wang. Wang is only one of a crop of A-list designers slumming in the cheap stores this season—the esoteric Englishwoman Alice Temperley has a deal with Target; the Italian roué Roberto Cavalli, he of the bejeweled tiger-striped caftans, has an arrangement with H&M; and every day the mail brings news of still more unlikely bedfellows. Erin Fetherston, a very sweet young woman (full disclosure: I like her! She likes me!) is set to debut her poufy confections— you look like an ice-cream sundae with legs, but in a good way—at Target later this season.

But it isn't until I receive an invite to a party for Patricia Field for Payless that I feel this whole business has hit critical mass. Patricia Field, with the radioactive purple hair and the legendary boutiques staffed by drag queens, and Payless, whose former spokesperson is the wildly unhip once-bodacious-but-now-shrunken Star Jones?

Patricia Field Payless party. More photos from the Bowery boutique event here.
photo: Staci Schwartz
Patricia Field Payless party. More photos from the Bowery boutique event here.

If Pat can go to Payless, I can go to Jersey. So I embark on a series of mysterious elevators, travel down a concourse lined with places with names like Maggie Moo's Ice Cream and Treatery, and arrive at Kohl's, where I finally locate a lone employee who looks at me as if I'm a talking fish when I ask her where the Simply Vera stuff is. "Downstairs," she snaps. Oh, am I upstairs?

But I finally find it, and suddenly the creepy hollow charmlessness of Kohl's disappears and I am in a fantasyland where I buy simply everything—the trademark Vera bubble skirt, the ruffled cardigan, the bejeweled cotton shell, the smocked coat. It's not readily apparent how much all this costs, since Kohl's has a penchant for discounting prices by odd amounts—33 percent off, 55 percent off—and posting some but not all of the computations over the clothes. So a brocade coat, which looks exactly like the one Dries Van Noten has in his line at Barneys this season for around $2,000, is either $128 or 20 percent off that amount . . . but who cares? I pile my arms high and head for the deserted fitting rooms—no limit on the number of things you can try on because no one works here! I love it!

Though it is my original intention to buy everything, I end up purchasing nothing because (a) it all fits a little funny—though plenty of really expensive things fit funny too; and (b) if I change my mind—and I am a notorious shopping bulimic, buying and returning at a feverish pace—the inevitable returning will necessitate a trip to another state.

Still, I am strangely buoyed as I return to Manhattan and ready myself for my next adventure, a trip to Target in Brooklyn. "You're not really even in Brooklyn!" a friend chides me when I arrive at Target on Atlantic Avenue, a destination that does not necessitate actually going out onto the street. "It's like changing planes in O'Hare and saying you've been to Chicago."

I am frankly very disappointed in this Target. There are no winsome Alice Temperley ensembles on display, though her designs are available on the Target website. In fact, the only designer whose wares I find, after a detour through the frozen-food department, is the stalwart Isaac Mizrahi, who found an unlikely home at Target after his own business tanked in 1998.

For better or worse, the Target-Isaac items evince the same hallmarks as the original Isaac line—double-knit jersey orange shift dresses, pink corduroy jackets, car coats straight out of Love Story—the whole collection an homage to American fashion design in the pre-hippie 1960s, an era that Mizrahi has always been inordinately fond of.

The truth is, he likes this era far more than I do. So I head back to my beloved Manhattan and straight to H&M, where I have over the years purchased more than a few items, including two identical chiffon flapper dresses from the Karl Lagerfeld for H&M collection, the collaboration that started it all. (I never wore either of them.)

Unfortunately, exhaustive searching does not turn up even one designer label. Disconsolate, I search H&M's website, where I find out that I am just a little too early—on November 8, the Roberto Cavalli line is set to debut, an event heralded on HM.com with a short black-and-white film so sophisticated it could have been directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. (H&M knows it rules the world. It even has its own magazine, which this season focuses on Rome, and is confident enough to recommend other stores, among them Fendi— reasoning, quite rightly, that today's shopper, no matter how much money she has, goes to both H&M and Fendi.)

You might argue that Kate Moss is, strictly speaking, not a designer, but because her personal style is so famous and because she has lent her name to a line issued by London's Top Shop composed of clothes theoretically copied from Kate's own closet—couture mixed with thrift-shop finds—I decide to go up to Barneys and take a look.

A funny thing happens when you're in Barneys: So casually are four-figure price tags attached to T-shirts and ballet flats that after a half hour anything less than $1,000 seems cheap. Just as $128 feels pricey at Kohl's, where under-$50 is the law of the land, the $380 Moss–Top Shop motorcycle jacket seems like a throwaway. The Moss items have an undeniable cool quotient—apparently Moss's problems with narcotics only served to enhance her allure—even if she does ask $102 for a short-sleeved cardigan whose only arresting feature is its multicolored heart-shaped buttons.

Thankfully, no such daunting tags affix themselves to the Patricia Field for Payless shoes. At the launch party, held in Pat's Bowery boutique, the usual suspects have been rounded up: guys in dresses, high-hatted dandies, sloe-eyed mini-skirted damsels swinging faux chain-handled Chanel bags. All of them are shoving their feet into the Payless shoes—even the men, one of whom, a big guy, claims that women's size 11 fits him with room to spare. The style getting the most attention is a $55 platform boot, which features a high stacked heel covered in faux metallic snakeskin; they're way too high for me, but I'm vaguely tempted by the matching $25 clutch purse lined in ersatz leopard.

I find Field chatting in a corner, beaming. She tells me that actually she's been styling Payless's advertising campaigns for years—who knew?—and that they're such nice people, "they're like from Kansas or something."

So are these styles just for the Bowery, or will her platforms platform at the Payless in Wichita? She looks uncertain. "I guess so. Why not?"

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