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Special Issue
WWD Year In Fashion issue 12/14/2009

From high-low collaborations to pop-ups, retailers employed creative strategies to cater to newly value-conscious consumers.

This story first appeared in the December 14, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Department and specialty store retailers are hungry for designer exclusives and other distinctive brands they can call their own. Years ago, a unique color of a popular style in a designer’s collection would have qualified as exclusive merchandise.

But today, retailers have been raising the bar, cutting deals with high-profile designers and asking more up-and-comers to create limited-time as well as ongoing collections. Such combinations have revolutionized fashion. Merchants from Gap to Uniqlo to Wal-Mart have done it. This year saw Target, one of the pioneers of high-low partnerships, intensify its Go International program with young designers such as Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte, and introduce collaborations with well-established talents like Alexander McQueen and Anna Sui.

Gap in 2009 tapped Stella McCartney for a children’s range, while Jil Sander +J for Uniqlo bowed in August. Sander, whose former signature collection commanded the top tier of designer prices, has a creative role at Uniqlo that extends beyond the +J collection.

Meanwhile, fast-fashion heavyweight H&M this year introduced its first designer collaboration in the footwear and accessories categories with Jimmy Choo. For a twist on the typical high-low apparel launch, H&M asked Jimmy Choo founder and president Tamara Mellon to design men’s and women’s fashion. In addition to above-the-knee boots and sophisticated handbags and clutches, there were dramatic one-shoulder suede dresses and a leather dress with suede fringes.

H&M also collaborated with Matthew Williamson in the spring for women’s and men’s styles, and with Sonia Rykiel on a 70-piece lingerie collection that went on sale this month.

The strategy has paid off for both sides in these partnerships: The Swedish retail giant has attracted existing customers of the designers it has collaborated with, and the designers gain exposure with another market level. The items often wind up on eBay, offered at several times their original prices.

Target grabbed headlines when it signed Isaac Mizrahi to design a line that reportedly did more than $100 million in annual sales. So what if many Target shoppers had never heard of Mizrahi when the collection launched? Target gave the label a heavy marketing push, putting the face of a bona fide designer behind the label, adding cachet to its selling floors.

Mizrahi, one of the pioneers of high-low crossovers, reinvented himself in 2003 when he signed a deal with Target to design the high-profile Isaac Mizrahi for Target line. At the same time, he continued designing a high-price collection sold at Bergdorf Goodman. He accepted a gig at Liz Claiborne when his Target contract expired at the end of last year, and his Liz Claiborne New York collection was introduced in department stores in March. In October, however, Claiborne decided to license its flagship Liz Claiborne brand to J.C. Penney, which shifted the Mizrahi-designed line to QVC. Mizrahi’s Liz Claiborne New York collection and his on-air appearances on QVC similarly add prestige to the home-shopping channel. And he continues to nurture the high-end side of his business with a store he opened on Manhattan’s East 67th Street in August.

This was also the year of the pop-up shop. The venue, whose temporary nature communicates urgency and exclusivity to consumers, discriminates against no one in terms of product, price or neighborhood for the venues. In New York alone, Yves Saint Laurent opened a pop-up shop steps away from the Bowery in lower Manhattan for designer Stefano Pilati’s unisex line, Jodi Arnold unveiled a temporary shop on New York’s University Place and even the grubby Port Authority Bus Terminal featured items by Lyn Devon and Charlotte Ronson in its Save Fashion pop-up in April.

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