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Target will launch its first new apparel brand since 2008, when Converse OneStar made its debut.

Ava & Viv, which will roll out to stores in mid-February and bow on on Feb. 22, also carries the distinction of being the first apparel brand created at Target Corp. from the ground up to be introduced in several decades.

Rather than aim for a wide swath of consumers — men, women, girls, boys and toddlers as OneStar does, or cater to women and men like Mossimo — Ava & Viv will zero in on plus sizes, an area where Target sees a void waiting to be filled. Target wants to grab a hefty piece of the rapidly growing $17.5 billion plus-size market. While Target declined to discuss sales projections for Ava & Viv, the retailer has said that 10 of its owned brands, including Merona, Cherokee, Mossimo, Xhilaration, Circo and C9 by Champion each do at least $1 billion a year in sales.

Ava & Viv will encompass sizes from 14W to 26W and X to 4X. Target’s existing brands Merona and Mossimo Supply Co. go up to size 18 in stores. To further underscore its commitment to plus sizes, Merona and Mossimo Supply Co.’s range will be expanded online to include plus sizes. Xhileration is available up to size XXL in stores and on and C9 by Champion offers plus sizing up to 4X on “We’re expanding our online plus-size department with the introduction of other lines we’re buying from the market to create more breadth for the consumer,” said Stacia Andersen, senior vice president of merchandising for apparel and accessories at Target, citing Psst, Lily Star and Sugar Kisses.

“The plus-size market is large and it’s growing,” Andersen said. “We feel Target has an opportunity to capture a larger share of the market. We have an opportunity to provide a better experience to the plus-size guest. The experience will be much more distinct and much more compelling. We can increase our share of the market and become more distinct and declarative by offering something that we feel doesn’t currently exist.”

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, said 37 percent of consumers in the U.S. said they wear a plus size on the top or bottom. “Plus sizes only represent 15 percent of the total apparel business’ $116 billion in annual sales. That means it’s underserved.”

Long overlooked by high-end designers and contemporary labels, the plight of the plus-size shopper has been well-documented. Target conducted focus groups with these shoppers, who said that they want to partake in the same trends as their smaller-sized cohorts. Typically, large-size options tend to be bland and boring, devoid of the personality and point-of-view seen in regular-size assortments. Experts said it takes about a year for trends to trickle down to the plus-size market.

“This guest is really a fashion-forward woman who happens to be a plus size,” Andersen said. “She wants something happy, fun and bright and made just for her. She wants the same thing found on the ready-to-wear pad. When we put out pieces that stand out a little more, items that are more chic, more trend-driven and more statement in nature, they tended to perform. We’re excited to launch with a very clear aesthetic and point-of-view based on guest research.”

In the past, Target’s plus-size assortment was, by its own admission, disjointed. “The internal design team would pick and choose different pieces from each of the brands and extend that into plus,” Andersen said. “You’d walk into a store that had bits and pieces designed for different consumers by different teams.”

Target is taking a more coherent approach with Ava & Viv. “We’ve developed one team internally that is focusing on this brand,” Andersen said. “One team works on design, fit and trends. We’re staying abreast of the trends and how to interpret the trends for the plus-size market. This one brand, Ava & Viv, will serve as our centerpiece in all of our stores. All plus-size merchandise in stores now will be moving online. If you love a plus size in Merona you can still find it online.”

Andersen said plus-size consumers “are a very vocal group” who’s not shy about complaining about the lack of sartorial options. Target for the last couple of years “ignored plus sizes,” said Nicolette Mason, plus-size blogger for Marie Claire, who is one of three bloggers hired to help Target promote the brand. “A lot of the plus-size merchandise at Target has been decreased. To have a line and have the real estate in stores devoted to plus sizes, especially a line that’s being designed in-house by Target’s design team, is huge. Target represents great leadership in design. Before, a lot of the plus-size apparel had been bought from the marketplace. Now, there will be standardization in terms of fit and sizing. A really cohesive collection with a direction and point-of-view is being created. It’s something you can mix-and-match, from day to night and work to weekend. I’ve seen the first couple of deliveries of the collection. The colors are fantastic, the prints are great and there are exciting silhouettes and shapes. The plus-size customer is going to be very happy.”

The biggest issue with the plus-size market “is that there hasn’t been a lot of variety,” Mason said. “Lane Bryant is the biggest [plus size] brick-and-mortar retailer in the U.S. They’ve made some headway there.” Mason was referring to Lane Bryant’s partnership with Isabel and Reuben Toledo and an upcoming hook-up with Lela Rose. “Most of the market has exclusively been online.” Web sites catering to full-figure shoppers include ASOS Curve, Modcloth and Fullbeauty, a $1 billion e-tailer with labels such as Woman Within, Jessica London and Roaman’s.

“It’s very fragmented,” Andersen said of the plus-size market. “Guests wouldn’t tell you there’s one dominant place that’s winning in terms of stores.”

Target could have some competition on the plus-size front. “Retailers such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney are trying to energize that business,” Cohen said. “Plus size lost its floor space to the accessories boom and never got it back. The women’s business has leveled out. We’re seeing a renewed interest by retail to find growth in new places.”

Target has had a complicated relationship with the plus-size community. Chastity Garner, the Garner Style blogger, in August called for a boycott of Altuzarra for Target, because the collection didn’t include any sizes over 16. Garner said she’d stop supporting the retailer until it became more inclusive. “Year after year, season after season, you put out these gorgeous designer collections and you almost never include a plus range,” Garner wrote on her blog. “Every time each of these collections is about to be released, it feels like a slap in the face. To add insult to injury, over six months ago, you took most of your plus-size clothing out of the store, promising something new and improved and that has yet to happen.” Garner said she would only return to Target when it would “include true plus sizes in your designer range collaborations.”

In a twist, Garner is one of the three bloggers hired by Target. The other is Gabi Gregg, whose Gabi Fresh blog encourages large-size women to wear what she called “fatkinis,” revealing two-piece swimsuits that celebrate large sizes rather than shaming them. The bloggers, who served as Ava & Viv’s look-book models, spent time at Target’s Minneapolis headquarters, immersing themselves in the brand. “Our public relations team, social media team and merchandising team tapped into them,” Andersen said. She was quick to point out, though, that the bloggers “didn’t design the line. We took some of their input on things we’re thinking about for fall. We have asked them to be 110 percent authentic. Their loyal followers would be able to smell something that was awry a mile away.”

“One of our goals with the line is to show the versatility of it,” Andersen said. “We started to look at these fashionable women [bloggers] who happen to be plus size, who have a really good pulse on how to dress for your body. They know what’s trend-right and what consumers are responding to. They are a main source of news and inspiration for their plus-size audiences. They’re not afraid of fashion. They all have a very different aesthetic.”

Ava & Viv will consist of wardrobe basics such as tops and T-shirts as well as blouses, pants, jeans, skirts, shorts, sweaters, dresses, outerwear and swimwear. “There’s a lot of denim, trend-driven statement pieces and jackets,” Andersen said. “We created a brand for a woman who loves fashion and just happens to be plus. There’s botanicals and a lot of other spring prints that will be a little brighter and happier. The fabrics will be super flattering.”

The brand will be updated with new products monthly. “We want to give her reasons to come back to the floor,” Andersen said, noting that Ava & Viv’s prices will range from $10 to $79.99. “When we launch a new brand we want to make sure there’s an approchable price point.”

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