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Where Target Is Always 'Tar-zhay'

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fans of Target stores long ago nicknamed the retailer "Tar-zhay" for its cheap and chic clothes, the French accent lending the discounter a certain je ne sais quoi that made it acceptable among fashionistas .

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the company would spin the pet name into a marketing opportunity.

Target Corp. has licensed its bull's-eye logo and name to consulting firm Brand Central LLC for use in a new line of high-end clothing called Target Couture. (The line's logo even adds an accent mark to the "e" in Target to make it look more French.) Select pieces range from a pair of $140 skinny jeans with a glittery bull's-eye on a back pocket to a $3,185 gold-and-diamond bull's-eye necklace.

Target's red-and-white logo "has really become sort of a symbol of cool," said Ross Misher, chief executive of Brand Central.

But don't expect to find any Target Couture at actual Target stores. The line, launched last month, is sold only at the hip Los Angeles shop Intuition. After the summer, it will expand into other boutiques and high-end department stores across the country.

"Who we're targeting is the trendsetting market, the influencer," Misher said.

Not all Target shoppers are enamored with the concept, however. The Slave to Target blog, which features posts with subjects such as "where are you tara jarmon puff sleeve tee?" had this to say about the Target Couture line: "Target is a Sell Out though -- they are sellin' out to the fads and the faddiest store ever ... Intuition."

Michael J. Silverstein, a senior vice president with the Boston Consulting Group Inc., said he was skeptical of whether Target-branded merchandise would sell outside its stores. It may confuse customers, he said.

"People . . . would say, 'Well, why is that here?' They need an explanation," he said. "And in the world of consumer marketing, explanations cost money."

It remains to be seen whether the line will catch on, but it almost doesn't matter. The move is part of the retailer's efforts to hold onto the elusive and often ephemeral designation of "cool," according to Marshal Cohen, a senior analyst with consumer research firm NPD Group Inc. Target Couture allows the chain to elevate its brand beyond the walls of its big-box stores and into the glitzy arena of celebrity high fashion. Selling clothes is secondary.

"I think they'll be tickled pink -- or in their case, tickled red -- if they make money," Cohen said. "But I don't think they care about that. What they're most concerned about is maintaining the integrity of the brand."

Target helped pioneer the trend of bringing class to the masses six years ago when it signed designer Michael Graves to create a private line of sleek and affordable housewares. Shoppers snapped up the funky tea kettles and minimalist toasters, and Target quickly followed up with collections by Philippe Starck, home decor by Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig, and apparel by Isaac Mizrahi. Most recently, it has signed up-and-coming foreign designers Luella Bartley and Tara Jarmon to create limited-edition apparel for its "Go International" campaign.

The strategy has driven sales growth at stores open at least one year, a key measure in retail, that consistently outpaces that of its chief rival, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Last month, Target posted a 5.7 percent increase in sales at those stores, while sales at Wal-Mart stores rose just 2 percent.

Misher said he pitched the idea for Target Couture to the company two years ago. Target agreed to the deal, though it declined to disclose details. Brand Central oversees production and distribution.

Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition, is heading up the creative side of the project. She wanted the line to convey a cheeky and fun attitude but still be wearable. Some designers were reluctant to participate in the project at first. After all, Target is a discount store.

"It's kind of that fine line," she said. Designers think: "I sell to Neiman Marcus. Is that going to affect my business?"

Hersh signed J & Company for denim, Lizzie Scheck Jewelry, Madeline Beth for accessories, Mighty Fine for T-shirts and Raw 7 for cashmere. The launch party last month at the exclusive Los Angeles club Social Hollywood drew actresses Anne Heche and Gabrielle Union wearing the line.

Hersh said the campy T-shirts are the most popular. Designs include a crown over the bull's-eye logo and the embroidered word "couture" for women and one with a skull for men. Other items include a $150 Swarovski-crystal-encrusted bull's-eye pillbox and a $250 hobo purse with embossed bull's-eye.

Target is not the only big-box store trying to upgrade its image. Wal-Mart launched clothing lines Metro 7 for women and Exsto, urban apparel for men, in its stores. It has advertised in Vogue and recently held a fashion show in Miami's South Beach.

But Cohen said Wal-Mart's cool quotient -- not to mention sales growth -- still lags Target's.

Target "continues to look at Wal-Mart in the rearview mirror and say: 'Ha! Catch us again,' " he said.

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