Fashion designer Todd Snyder has been hopscotching around the country — playing part tourist, part cultural anthropologist — to craft a series of city-specific themed T-shirts and knickknacks for Target Corp.
In Boston, he “discovered” Fluffernutter — a favorite local sandwich made of marshmallow fluff and peanut butter. In Chicago, he stumbled upon Superdawg Drive-In, one of the city’s renowned hot dog joints, which he quickly fell in love with. Both ended up as part of his collections.
When it came time to focus on Minnesota, Target’s home turf, Snyder felt the pressure.
“It was stressful,” he said as he let his double espresso get cold during a recent day trip to Minneapolis from his home in New York. “I just knew, ‘OK, here I am, I better know my game.’ And plus, I have family up here, so I was like, ‘Oh God, if I have to hear, ‘You missed it … .’ ”
He was relieved when he presented his Minnesota assortment to a roomful of Target executives and saw the reaction: knowing smiles and chuckles. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with the region’s trademark sayings of “you betcha” and “uff da.” Other pieces riff off the state’s treasured gems such as its plentiful lakes and much-celebrated state fair.
His Minnesota “Local Pride” collection, which includes a few dozen shirts, pennants, coffee mugs and pint glasses, hit Target stores around the Twin Cities late last month. It joins a growing roster of cities — Boston, Chicago, San Diego San Francisco, and Los Angeles — where Target and Snyder have rolled out similar collections.
The collaboration is one of the latest spins on Target’s much-celebrated designer partnerships. At the same time, the retailer is using it to hop on the rising popularity of regional-themed shirts and hats that have become ubiquitous at craft fairs and on sites like Etsy.
The collections are also one of the most visible manifestations of two of Target’s strategic pushes under CEO Brian Cornell: to localize the assortment in its stores and to build more cachet in the country’s bustling metropolises where Target is looking to expand and build its smaller-format stores.
“There is a great consciousness among big national chains of the need to act a bit smaller,” said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail. “In this world of, ‘I can shop anywhere anytime from anybody,’ there is this sense of how do I be seen as something more personal and intimate and how do I differentiate myself to the local community?”
Target’s effort has produced some controversy, exemplifying the challenges big companies face when trying to “go local.”
When the Boston collection first debuted over the summer, a local T-shirt firm took out a full-page ad in the Boston Herald asking why Target didn’t use a Boston company to design the shirts. “Outsourcing Boston Pride to NYC?” the ad asked incredulously. (The company, Sully’s Brand, also objected to Target’s “Green Monstah” shirt that was similar to one of its own creations. Target ended up pulling that shirt.)
Target officials and Snyder stand by their project, noting that Snyder’s design prowess was an important element and saying they needed some consistency nationwide.
“That was an unfortunate thing,” Synder said. “I’ve had a history of curating in my career — not just doing one-off T-shirts, but building an assortment together that sits well and makes sense for the Target customer.”
He added they often promote local businesses on the shirts, too, and those establishments share in the profits and get free marketing in the process.
Snyder worked at J. Crew and Polo Ralph Lauren before launching his own namesake sportswear brand five years ago. He also runs a vintage sports and city-themed memorabilia business called Tailgate, which has a store in his native state near the University of Iowa. Both of his companies were bought last month by American Eagle Outfitters, but he continues to run them.
He began talking a year and a half ago to Target. They decided to go in together on the local pride shirts, piggybacking off his work at Tailgate.
It hasn’t been easy, he said. It often takes a lot of convincing and negotiation to get local bars and restaurants on board. Of the 15 local businesses he may start off with wanting to feature on the shirts, only three or four end up signing on. Sometimes it’s just hard to get in touch with bar owners, he said. Others just aren’t sure.
“It’s a different business model for them,” he said. “Most of these people just sell hamburgers or they sell coffee or whatever. They’re not in the business of selling T-shirts. They don’t really get it. … Once we introduce it, then everybody wants to be a part of it.”
That’s what happened in Boston. After the collection launched there, he said about a dozen businesses reached out to him wanting to be involved, including many of the establishments that initially rejected him when he approached them.
Rob Jacob, owner of Nye’s Polonaise Room, the Minneapolis piano bar that is closing early next year, said he was skeptical at first when one of Snyder’s representatives called him.
But after he did some research and confirmed the Target connection, Jacob agreed to have the bar featured on one of the shirts.
“I was honored they would choose us,” he said. “It’s like why not accept the free advertising? And it could end up being a moneymaker for us.”
612 Brew, one of the city’s craft breweries, is also featured on one of the shirts in the Twin Cities collection. Ryan Libby, one of the brewery’s co-founders, said he went back and forth with Snyder’s team a couple times on the design when the first prototype they were shown was quite similar to the shirts they already sell at the brewery.
“We wanted something more unique,” he said.
He was happy with the final product — a beer mug in the shape of the state of Minnesota with the company’s logo on it.
A Target spokeswoman said the sales of the Local Pride collections so far have exceeded the company’s initial expectations. The retailer is still figuring out what cities it will expand it to next year.
In the meantime, Snyder is working on refreshing the current collections.
In Minnesota, he said items featuring Dairy Queen and Dinkytown were in the works. A Target employee sitting next to him suggested doing something with hot dish.
“It’s coming,” he said.
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113