Michael Graves put the cachet in Chez Tarzhay.
The architect's 13-year partnership with Target Corp. ends this year, but his impact will continue to reverberate at the Minneapolis-based retailer for years to come.
"Target remains dedicated to bringing our guests innovative design in new and meaningful ways," Stacia Andersen, Target's senior vice president of merchandising for home goods, said in a statement.
The celebrated collaboration with Graves helped establish Target as the destination of choice for trendy designers and fashion houses hoping to broaden their appeal to the mass consumer. And thanks to Graves' modern art sensibilities, Target gained a reputation for urban-centric style and design, an aesthetic that would permeate throughout its stores, website, and television commercials.
Graves "really gave Target specialty-store superiority in artistic innovation and design," said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group consulting firm in New York. "He gave Target consumer cachet that was unchallenged by any another general retailer. People have tried to copy [the partnership] but haven't been able to duplicate it in terms of artistry and innovation."
Aside from architect enthusiasts, few people had heard of Graves when Target debuted his home line in 1999, a colorful, almost cartoon-like collection that ranged from $3.99 spatulas to a $499 table and patio set. To promote the collaboration, Target commissioned Graves to design and completely outfit a model home in Minnetonka, the 4,300-square-foot Cedar Gables Home.
"What interests me is to take something we're very used to and say, 'Is there another way you can do this?'" Graves previously told the Star Tribune. "And it might be the kind of thing that puts a smile on your face. I don't want to sound like a Boy Scout about this, but there's no reason for a spatula to be overtly serious."
Graves' sensibility may have been lighthearted, but Target's strategy was anything but. At the time, Target was trying to distinguish itself from other mass market competitors such as Wal-Mart and Kmart. If Wal-Mart was the place where you could buy anything for very low prices, what did Target stand for?
Retailers, especially department stores, had been investing in private label, in which they create and market their own brands and products. With Graves, Target took it a step forward by working with an outsider with some name recognition to develop an exclusive line based on his design ethos, said Flora Delaney, a Minneapolis-based retail consultant.
He provided clout
Even more importantly, Graves gave Target the necessary clout to form similar partnerships with other well-respected designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Josie Natori, Missoni, and, most recently, Jason Wu.
Graves' success with Target made it OK for the highbrow fashion and design world to embrace the mass market, Delaney said.
"We always have been in the high end," Natori, who designed a lingerie line for Target, previously told the Star Tribune. "Clearly, the world has changed. Target has been so successful in their other collections."
Target is now a regular fixture at events like New York's Fashion Week. And it's not uncommon for celebrities like Jessica Alba to gush about Target's Missoni bicycle over Twitter.
Selling at "Target can make a designer's year," Delaney said.
Target is hardly a passive player. With its own large team of New York-based designers, it doesn't merely sell the collections but also co-creates and markets them.
Other retailers soon copied the strategy: Kmart and Martha Stewart, Macy's and P. Diddy, Kohls and Jennifer Lopez.
To keep its competitive edge, Target over the years has tweaked its formula. Whereas Target mixed Graves products with its regular merchandise, the retailer later devoted store space to its design partners to create the feel of a shop, Delaney said.
Target also pioneered the limited-time collection concept, in which the retailer would only sell a small quantity of merchandise from Missoni and Wu for a month. In reality, the collections sold in out in days, if not hours, creating a kind of marketing frenzy any retailer would salivate over.
Last month in New York, Target announced what it called "the next stage," of its design partnerships. In May, the retailer will debut "The Shops at Target," in which Target will sell exclusive goods from a rotating cast of five boutique shops across the country.
Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113