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The Store With Style in Its Cross Hairs

Target hopes a partnership will give its discount fashions cutting-edge appeal.

July 16, 1999|BARBARA THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Target wants to polish its fashion image, whom does the discount chain turn to? The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the elite group of some 200 designers esteemed for their style and taste.

The unseemly match of Target and fashion insiders was on full display Wednesday night at a fashion show at Milk Studios in New York. Seven hundred people, including fashion editors, writers and designers, previewed Target's fall offerings, most of which will sell for under $30.

With the council's warm embrace, Target--whose mundane red and white logo has become something of a fashion statement--gains a new level of fashion respectability. The chain's clever advertising campaigns ("C'est Targ'et") and good-quality basic clothes have put it at the vanguard of cheap chic.

The partnership with Target was an easy sale, says CFDA president Stan Herman. "I think it was a mutual admiration society. . . . The group unanimously agreed to enter the Target partnership."

The reason, he says, is that Target has made good, simple fashion available to the masses.

"It's fashion at a price that people can afford," he says. "Fashion should be available to people."

Herman himself admits to tooling around his house on weekends in $4.99 shorts from Target and a $60 Armani T-shirt.

The two groups came together last year when Target donated $100,000 to the council's scholarship fund. In return, the council assisted in a competition to find two design students to join Target. On display Wednesday night were the portfolios of the CFDA scholarship winners and the work of the two women who won positions at Target. Karly Dodson from the Academy of Art College in San Francisco was one; Parisa Parnian from Parsons School of Design in New York won the other spot.

So, what can we expect this fall from Target? "Hippie-inspired long tops, lots of khaki, even more olive drabs, more high-tech silhouette pants, some matte jersey . . . little gray flannel clogs and Doc Marten-inspired boots," says Minda Gralnek, Target's fashion creative director.

Target's carefully crafted, upscale discount image reflects its customer base. The median annual income of its customers is more than $50,000. About 80% are college educated. "Our customers are smart, intelligent, cool, witty people," Gralnek says.

Part of Target's success, Herman says, is because fashion has become very simple over the years, leaving room for discount chains to knock off designer silhouettes quickly, cheaply and well.

"Most of the things we make are simple because we do a good job of that," Gralnek says. "We're not going to make a ball gown with intricate details. We don't make business suits."

And a trend must be fairly wide-based for Target to join in. The store will offer cargo pants and utility purses, but not frayed clothing. It's the same formula used by other discount houses, such as Old Navy, Sears, Kmart and even JCPenney, according to Gralnek.

In the retail world, these chains stick to "flat design": Instead of hanging on a rack, the clothes can be folded on a shelf--polo shirts, capri pants, jersey skirts.

Owned by the Minneapolis-based Dayton-Hudson Corp., Target is the third-largest discounter in the country, after Wal-Mart and Kmart, but is definitely the style leader of the three. Home maven Martha Stewart has partnered with Kmart, but Target sought out cutting-edge architect Michael Graves to be its housewares design partner.

Even with Target's success, Gralnek says the chain is constantly looking for new talent. "There are good people out there who might not be thinking about working for Target."

So the Target/CFDA initiative deliberately set about to get young people into Target headquarters. Gralnek says even she was unsure if design students would even want to enter the competition. "Do they want to work at a discount store?" she asked. "Do they want to work in Minnesota?"

Still, 16 design schools across the country entered 47 portfolios and from those two were chosen for the Target positions. Dodson designed a children's collection and Parnian a utilitarian junior line; both designers have accepted jobs at Target.

And what will the future hold for them? It's quite shocking, actually. There are whispers of cashmere sweaters at Target by Christmas.

Barbara Thomas can be reached via e-mail at barbara.thomas@latimes.com.

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