BOSTON — L is for Latina, lifestyle — and, perhaps for Kmart, longevity.

At a press conference at a Miami store today, Kmart president and ceo Julian Day will officially unveil a wide offering of lifestyle merchandise licensed from Latina pop star Thalía Sodi. Day is expected to tout the launch as one of the retailer’s major statements for back-to-school and to frame it as emblematic of future initiatives.

The collection is part of the Troy, Mich.-based Kmart’s broader bid for corporate longevity — its most pressing concern — through proprietary lifestyle collections the retailer hopes will differentiate it from competitors like Wal-Mart and Target.

The Thalía line, which bows in 335 of Kmart’s 1,512 stores, breaks new ground for the retailer. It’s the most comprehensive brand launch the discounter has ever presented, with merchandise ranging from shoes to shower hooks to back-seamed stockings.

It will also be presented as a shop-in-shop at the front of the apparel department, a new strategy for Kmart and perhaps a blueprint for future store layouts.

At a December press conference, Day predicted the Thalía collection would generate revenues of $300 million to $500 million in its first year — a projection a spokeswoman for the retailer declined to update.

But Thalía is only one plank in Kmart’s reinvention. The retailer is now recasting itself as a “design house,” according to insiders, with its future hinged on being able to swiftly interpret and source trends, among other things. It’s also focusing on regionalizing its assortment under a plan it has dubbed “store of the neighborhood” — a strategic direction with obvious parallels to Wal-Mart’s “store of the community.”That initiative has been under way at the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer for more than a year.

The launch of the Thalía collection comes at a significant moment for Kmart, exactly three months to the day after the retailer emerged from bankruptcy under the watchful eyes of creditors and vendors. The coming season could help the retailer recoup some of its lost credibility, while a poor performance would underline skeptics’ belief that Kmart is rudderless and drifting back toward bankruptcy court.After the Christmas season, back-to-school is the second-biggest selling period, according to the National Retail Federation. Kmart’s biggest competitors have both struck strategic alliances for back-to-school: Target has an exclusive new line, Blu Jeans by the Makers of Lee, while Wal-Mart has Levi Strauss’ new Signature brand as a de facto exclusive.

Kmart is countering with Thalía and with the Latina customer she is expected to attract. Latinos, the fastest growing population sector in the U.S., make up 17 percent of Kmart’s sales, according to its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sodi, 32, appears poised for breakthrough in the U.S., with the release of her first English language album, Thalía, in mid-July and its single, “I Want You,” getting decent airplay. A singer and soap opera star in her native Mexico, Sodi appears to be angling for J. Lo’s broad-platform diva status. Married to music mogul Tommy Mottola, she is known as a tireless promoter. Today, after the press conference, she’ll hobnob with 10 lucky fans and their guests in a parking-lot tent, handing out autographs and goodie bags.

Over the next several weeks, she’s got guest appearances lined up on “Live with Regis & Kelly,” “Last Call with Carson Daly” and “Good Morning America,” where she’ll wear something from the collection. She hasn’t decided what yet, she said.

“I’ve been so excited to be able to share my vision to such an audience,” Sodi told WWD about her four-year contract with Kmart. “I have been involved in every detail from the design of the pants to the little tag attached to the face towel. I’m a control freak, absolutely.I’m like that with my career and my whole life, no exception.”

The Thalía launch includes women’s and girls apparel, lingerie and hosiery, footwear, handbags, jewelry, hats, belts, sunglasses, bath accessories, towels, bedding, and home accents. A lavender-scented fragrance and body products will follow in September, according to Sodi.

Price wise, the merchandise pushes the outer limits of Kmart’s range, comparable with Joe Boxer and Martha Stewart.A Thalía king-sized bed-in-a-bag set rings at $109, for example, while a leather denim vest goes for $44.99.

The apparel combines junior trendiness with a true misses’ fit, according to Kmart senior designer Fabian Molina, a veteran of Yves Saint Laurent and Anne Klein who joined Kmart a year ago specifically to oversee the Thalía project.

That curvaceous misses’ fit, combined with a sexy, girly flavor, differentiates it from the sporty, junior Joe Boxer, said Molina.

Joe Boxer, which includes men’s wear, will remain the retailer’s broadest merchandise presentation, but Kmart has rolled that brand out in stages. In the case of Thalía, it has decided there’s more impact in bringing everything to the table at once.

“The way we will go forward with product launches is definitely in a comprehensive manner,” said Joe Wagner, Kmart’s divisional vice president of product development and trend. “A lifestyle approach absolutely fits with our proprietary brand philosophy, which is an essential part of the business at Kmart.”

He said Thalía — which will be sold in areas with a strong Latino customer base — is part of the “store of the neighborhood”


“We will be expanding our brands in the neighborhoods where they need to be and shrinking them where they aren’t appropriate,” he said. “The philosophy is to really localize our brands.”

Festooned with jumbo, fuchsia-tinted portraits of the singer, the Thalía branded enclave will be at the front of the apparel department, according to a Kmart spokeswoman. It includes the singer’s new CD offered at a cut-rate price, along with clothing, jewelry, accessories and a representative selection of shoes, bedding and home decor presented as “everything they need to put together an outfit or decorate a home, for a true feel of the person at the helm of the brand,” said the spokeswoman.

But while customers can see the synergies of a $17.99 grommet stiletto paired with $24.99 satin cargo pants, they will still need to visit Kmart’s footwear department to pick up a pair in their size.

Other Thalía fashions, six racks’ worth, include a leather-and-denim vest and matching jeans, a tank and jeans with an Eagle emblem, and an activewear set with an all-over T logo.Screen T-shirts will come with English or Spanish phrases, such as “Besame” (“Kiss me”). A Spanish-language television spot, created for the launch, will begin airing shortly on Spanish-language stations. The line will also be promoted in Kmart’s 1 million circulation in-house publication, La Vida, as well as in its weekly circulars.

Molina described Sodi’s personal style as “sporty. She’ll do a Cavalli jacket, jeans and some great boots.”

Cavalli is “a great friend,” Sodi said, mentioning Valentino, Versace and Ungaro as other favorites.

But the self-described “control freak” is apparently watching her own line like a hawk. She’s already checked the chat room of her official Web site for scuttlebutt on the styles that tested early. Thus far, tank tops — embellished with a rhinestone T or the singer’s visage — received high praise and some grumbles that a particular store had run out of the style, she said.

“To me, this is very important,” said Sodi. “It’s my people and I want to give them the best.”

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