By and  on October 5, 2009

PARIS — After designer collaborations and celebrity tie-ups, it’s now time for stores to pair up — even Davids with Goliaths.

As fashion retailers continue to feel the pinch from the worst recession since World War II, they’re becoming increasingly creative to offer more exclusive products and experiences that can persuade regular shoppers to open their wallets and hopefully attract new customers as well.

Over the weekend, Gap and edgy Parisian boutique Merci wrapped up a monthlong project in which each hosted a selection of the other’s products in their New York and Paris stores. Also over the weekend, Parisian department store Printemps christened the opening of a Maria Luisa location within its recently revamped Boulevard Haussmann flagship here.

Uniqlo recently set up shop in hip Paris concept store Colette as a teaser for the arrival of its Paris flagship, which opened last week.

And Target is mulling a one-off collaboration with Britain’s Liberty to launch clothing and accessories bearing the store’s trademark flower prints.

“In an effort to lure back the consumer, retailers are increasingly having to be more creative by devising events and promotions that promote the concept of uniqueness, exclusivity and scarcity. The partnership with an exclusive brand is just one example,” said Patricia Pao, founder of New York-based fashion consultancy The Pao Principle. “I think we are going to increasingly see more of the big brand-little brand pairings.”

Through these kinds of partnerships, large retailers acquire a degree of exclusivity and scarcity, as well as the prestige of carrying the smaller but highly desirable brand. The smaller retailers gain brand awareness and a degree of exposure they couldn’t afford to buy on their own, as well as trialing their products on new consumer segments.

“I do think it’s the next thing,” said Robert Burke, president of Robert Burke Associates, a New York-based consulting firm. “The designer collaborations have been played out quite a bit. This is a new angle. It’s one of those win-wins.”

He noted that for giant stores, “there’s a great deal of cachet with these small retailers, particularly French retailers.” Whether big or small, all retailers jockey to carry exclusive designer brands and products. Now big retailers are competing to gain access to buzzy specialty store banners, Burke said.

Indeed, according to market sources, Galeries Lafayette recently made overtures to Dover Street Market, the quirky multibrand emporium in London masterminded by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, which has everything from vintage Cutler & Gross sunglasses and Christopher Kane dresses to Rose Bakery pound cakes under one roof.

“It allows us to bring in new talents, which can’t really stand commercially on their own feet in a big space, but which we think have potential for our customers,” said Maurizio Borletti, chairman of Printemps Holdings, which controls France’s Printemps and La Rinascente in Italy.

Industry experts pointed out there has to be synergy between each brand’s customers, because both brands still need to produce and sell merchandise to their core customer.

“These arrangements need to be more than merely puff and noise. It requires consistency in terms of brand identities so the hype around the event and cobranding does not dilute any of the brands,” said Florian Gonzalez, a London-based brand consultant. “Hopefully, by sharing their customers, products or retail spaces, brands experience cross-fertilization, rather than cannibalization or confusion.”

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