Forever 21 is trying to turn foes into allies.

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The fast-fashion retailer, often criticized for copying designs, is taking cues from H&M and Target, and is joining forces with designers on collaborations. Los Angeles-based celebrity favorite Brian Lichtenberg is first up with a series of bold graphic T-shirts and tank tops.

Lichtenberg’s collection will launch Aug. 13 in the fast-fashion retailer’s top 200 doors with an initial run of 150,000 to 200,000 pieces, he said. It contains nine women’s styles priced at $14.80 each and three men’s styles at $14.90 each.

His edgy designs have gained attention on the red carpet and in music videos. Lady Gaga raised Lichtenberg’s profile by wearing his customized caution-tape outfit in her “Telephone” video and his geometric necklace in the “Poker Face” video. His thigh-skimming glitter dresses also have been worn by Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan.

“We wanted to work with Brian because he is a true L.A. talent who encompasses L.A. culture and style,” said Linda Chang, a spokeswoman for Forever 21.

Until now, Forever 21’s relationship with designers has been primarily through their attorneys. More than 50 lawsuits, including those initiated by Trovata, Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Sui, Bebe and Anthropologie, have been brought against the Los Angeles-based company with an estimated $2 billion in annual sales. In no case was Forever 21 found guilty, and out-of-court settlements have been the norm.

Lichtenberg is keenly aware that many designers have accused Forever 21 of selling knockoffs of their work, but he argued that the retailer is trying to elevate itself as a design resource by collaborating, and mentioned he’s a fan. “They [have] affordable basics and, I’m not going to lie, some of their jeans fit me well,” he said.

Lichtenberg hopes the Forever 21 collaboration will introduce his designs to a broader audience that finds his custom clothing or boutique line out of reach. The boutique line, which is entering Bloomingdale’s for fall and is available at about 40 stores in 17 countries, has tops wholesaling for $40 to $80 and dresses for $180 to $300.

“It is going to be for the customer that is younger and has seen my work on celebrities and musicians, but doesn’t have the money to plunk down for my main line,” he said. “This is definitely going to be a great opportunity to be on a more global scale.”

Not everyone is Lady Gaga, and Lichtenberg recounted one of the main challenges over the six months he spent crafting the Forever 21 collection was to make it appeal to a youthful, more mainstream shopper than he’s accustomed to, while retaining his aesthetic. He said T-shirts and tanks were the ideal vehicles for that because they allowed him to put his spin on everyday classics.

“They were very open,” he said of Forever 21. “At the same time, I was understanding of their customer. It’s more feminine than something I’d do [usually.]”

Still, Lichtenberg’s styles for Forever 21 aren’t bashful. In a nod to the Lady Gaga outfit in “Telephone,” there’s a tank crisscrossed with yellow caution tape that has “Lichtenberg” and “No21” scrolled across it. Lichtenberg predicted that tank will be the best-selling style in his Forever 21 collection.

Other looks play on a beauty theme. One shows nail polish bottles that are spilling to spell out “Lichtenberg,” while another has lipsticks shaped into Lichtenberg’s initials, BL, which are used frequently in the Forever 21 collection. Although Lichtenberg mostly avoided extremely masculine design elements in the collection, a dark helmet graphic adds a masculine touch to two styles.

In the long run, Lichtenberg is betting the Forever 21 collaboration will help propel his business. This year marks his brand’s 10th anniversary, and he projects it will generate close to $1 million in wholesale sales. Brand extensions are in the plans for next year, including possibly a T-shirt line, handbags, sunglasses and jeans.

“There are only so many places that a woman can wear a glitter dress; I want to open up my brand,” he said.

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