Tall, blond and casually elegant, Julie Guggemos lopes briskly through the four floors of design departments at Target headquarters like a palomino in premium jeans and high heels.
“Look at that soft bedding for under $20,” she said, stopping at a mocked-up dorm room where two staffers are amassing back-to-college furnishings for next fall. “I love how there’s cork incorporated into that lampshade.”
Down the hall, the denim team, surrounded by Mason jars full of rivets, snaps and buttons, has hung up a store-brand line of fall youth fashions for her perusal.
“How are you deciding where to distress the denim? Light wash is back. That’s so ’90s,” she said, high-fiving designer Louis Tappan. Pointing to a tiny faux-leather jacket, she said, “What little girl wouldn’t want that in her closet?”
As senior vice president of product design and development for the big-box retailer known as the queen of affordable chic, you might suppose she’d be as formal, and formidable, as Anna Wintour. But Guggemos, while clearly in charge, gives off an easygoing vibe, listening more than she talks.
On weekdays, the Roseville-raised executive projects a blend of glam and all-American-girl style while supervising 600 employees. Weekends, she’s up at the cabin near Spooner, Wis., where her family is looking forward to going snowmobiling.
What makes her unusual is what isn’t on her résumé — any formal training in design. Asking her colleagues for the secret to her uncanny knack for predicting trends that will fly off the shelves a year later will give you a variation on one theme: The woman just has an eye.
From the high-style Threshold home collection she helped develop in 2012 to designer partnerships with Toms shoes, Faribault Woolen Mills and Lilly Pulitzer frocks, Guggemos orchestrates how Target’s products are created and packaged. As many as 25,000 a year must pass her inspection. She travels the world and credits her “photographic memory” for retaining the flood of visuals that influence her choices.
Although Target can turn some novelty fashions in a couple of weeks — such as T-shirts bearing of-the-moment slogans from social media — it usually takes one month between concept and development of a product, and another 12 between signoff and completion. With six trend cycles rotating throughout the year, Guggemos has to look ahead at least a year, more often two. She lets her instincts identify macro trends, then determines which will best suit Target shoppers and prices.
“I wear something from Target every single day,” she said. (Today it’s shoes and a bracelet mixed with a higher-end silk blouse.) “It’s all about the mix.”
Guggemos is a stickler for product testing. No fewer than 1,000 baby bottoms were employed to perfect the fit on Up&Up store-brand diapers. When a staff group went camping a few years ago to test out a 10-person tent, they were surprised by a strong storm, and came back knowing that they had to make the stakes stronger and add some glow-in-the-dark features.
“We have over 200 patents, with another 160 pending,” she said, allowing a note of pride to creep into the genial tone that bears a trace of a Minnesota accent.
Trust and heart
Guggemos, 49, started at Target in 1990 as a toy buyer with a B.A. in marketing from the University of St. Thomas, working her way up the ranks. Unlike the “mommy track” woes that plague many professional women, her decision to go part-time for seven years after the birth of her second child didn’t derail her ascent.
Her talents lie not only in spotting trends but in “maximizing” them — in other words, acting ahead of the curve and flooding stores with a hot product before keen interest in it dies. She made her first big splash in 1992 with the help of a goofy purple dinosaur named Barney, star of a new PBS kids show.
“I bought enough Barney stuffed animals to test in the Dallas market, and it sold out in two weeks,” she said. “I quickly expanded the buy and distribution, so as popularity for the show grew, so did our sales. Barney quickly became the No. 1 toy” for Target.
Her boss, Trish Adams, executive vice president of apparel and home, gave Guggemos an outstanding trend merchant award in 2005 for hopping early onto lace-top camisole mania and producing a crinkle-fabric version that sold far and away beyond expectations. Equally valuable, Adams said, is the way Guggemos builds the “trust and respect” of the high-profile designers who form temporary partnerships to design lower-priced collections exclusive to Target, and the in-house designers who actually make them.
“Missoni was so particular about how a cut had to go up the seam,” Adams said. “Julie develops a rapport so they feel comfortable working with our internal designers.”
Guggemos was recently named to the Walker Art Center’s board, one of the most prestigious in town. For nearly two years, she has been enrolled at Studio/E, a leadership program in St. Paul that focuses on steering employees through times of change.
Co-director Tom Wiese calls her “one of those rare individuals who is always present when she’s talking to you, no matter how busy she is. She’s also constantly curious about things beyond what she’s doing, and really good at unleashing talent in others.”
An eye for four-leaf clovers
A career at Target may have been etched in Guggemos’ destiny early on. Growing up in Roseville, where her parents invested in properties and Dad drove a truck to supplement his income, she would go with her mother and siblings on weekly trips after church to that St. Paul suburb’s Target, the company’s prototype store, built in 1962.
“Mom would walk down the aisles, holding the ad from the paper,” she said. “I still love watching people shop.”
Her sister Maureen Haggerty, who founded the Canine Coach dog-training chain, shared a bedroom with Guggemos growing up.
“She wasn’t particularly arty,” Haggerty said. “I think she took a pottery class once. But she was always good at looking for stuff. When we were little kids and would go Up North, she was always the one finding the agates and the four-leaf clovers.”
At home in Eden Prairie
At her house in Eden Prairie, two little furballs streak into the room and wriggle all over her. They are Rudy and Piper, the family’s cocker spaniel and poodle. Her husband, former Vikings defensive back Neal Guggemos, and 14-year-old son Matt have just come in from a dog walk.
The couple met at O’Gara’s in St. Paul when they were students at the University of St. Thomas.
“He never mentioned football that night,” she recalled. “We became friends and I was thinking, ‘Who can I set this great guy up with?’ It turned out to be me.”
Matt, youngest of the couple’s three children, likes to tease his mom by hiding and popping out to scare her. “She’s too gullible,” he said, reaching for a chai latte whoopie pie (made with Target-brand Archer Farms mix). “But she makes good snacks after school.”
Guggemos enlists Neal and Matt on shopping trips, especially on Black Friday. When everyone else is scrambling to snap up bargains, “we’re standing back and observing the rituals,” she said.
Her house is filled with a mix of well-appointed furniture and accessories, including, of course, several items from Target — a Nate Berkus side table, a gold tray and wine basket from the current Threshold season, and the white ceramic and wooden bowls she collects.
She picks one up and holds it in the crook of her arm, like you would a baby.
“When you find just the right thing, it’s magic,” she said.