TREND CATCHERS

Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — As any retailer can attest, capitalizing on the right trends can make a season, and missing those trends can put a buyer in the doghouse.
Catering to today’s fickle youth — or just about any other fashion customer for that matter — is a risky crap shoot, and trying to understand and predict their mysterious ways is becoming something of an industry in itself.
Two former design directors of Target Corp., Rachel Matteson and Anne Cashill, have formed a creative trend consulting firm called Trend Rx, based in Minneapolis, to help companies understand what trends are important to their business and how to position products and services to react to what’s happening in the world.
Matteson had been at Target for four years, serving as design director of the children’s division, prior to which she was a senior buyer in junior sportswear at Dayton’s, Hudson’s and Marshall Field’s. She left Target in the summer of 1999.
Cashill spent the last five years at Target as ready-to-wear design manager and also directed the design process for bodywear and hosiery. Cashill left Target last spring. Earlier she was a merchandise manager for women’s apparel at Nike.
The duo went into business together in mid-June and are helping companies develop product lines and uncover trends.
WWD conducted a Q and A with them during a recent visit to New York about what made Target so on trend, why they’ve faltered recently, and what key cities, influences and categories are setting trends right now.

WWD: What is it about Target that made it so successful?
Cashill: One of the things is they had to change the point of view of what a discounter is. The company’s heritage is in department stores, and they brought a philosophy about merchandising into the discount arena. To differentiate themselves from the Wal-Marts and Kmarts, there was an opportunity to probe into price points not typically found in discount stores. Leather pants, for example, gave them fashion credibility.
Matteson: Their focus on brands and branding set them apart. In terms of apparel, they don’t carry national brands. A lot of Target’s success is attributed to advertising and marketing strategies, and their image marketing separated them from the Kmarts and Wal-Marts. Their ad message made them ‘cool and OK.’
Cashill: Their advertising made it seem cool to buy at a discounter. For the consumer who makes over $100,000, it’s kind of chic to buy cheap. That feels OK. Maybe you overspent on the pants, but you only paid $35 for the top.
Matteson: Target has always had a higher demographic in major markets that separates them out as well, especially in the Midwest. Since Target was owned by a department store corporation, everyone knows the Dayton Hudson company. Also, they had the good fortune of knowing what was happening at the department store level. Target was able to capitalize on that knowledge early on, which set them apart from the other discounters. In the last few years, their image marketing set them apart more, as well as their trend-right assortments.

WWD: Why do you think Target has stumbled recently?
Matteson: Retail, and the whole fashion industry, is soft right now. Their assortments look a little scattered. They lost their focus and they expanded and tried to be everything to everyone. I think they really have the right trends. I don’t think they missed anything, but maybe they look a little unfocused. Also, some of the quality standards went down a little bit. It’s a pretty quick fashion cycle, and they go with vendors with fast turnaround time. Typically they’re domestic and their quality isn’t always good, so it doesn’t always pay off.

WWD: Why do you think the Gap is having problems this season?
Matteson: Personally, they did the same thing. They were so scattered in their direction. They didn’t do a good job of standing for key messages. They try to capture an 11- and 12-year-old girl and a 35-year-old. It gets to be a mess. Some of the looks got really young and cheap, and they lost their focus. I understand they will now try and capture the career look that Banana Republic had. They feel they’ve lost the girl fresh out of college who can’t afford Banana Republic, but doesn’t want to wear the casual looks she sees at the Gap.

WWD: How important is picking the right trends for the season?
Matteson: I think it’s very important. The marketplace is so competitive and there is so much information. Kids ‘get’ what look is right and cool. It affects [the store] image. If you don’t get it, people wonder what you’re doing. It’s extremely important for companies trying to be up-and-comers, such as J.C. Penney and Sears. If they want to keep that market, they’d better hit on the trends. Otherwise they lose credibility.

WWD: What kind of clients are you currently working with?
Cashill: We’re working with the Minnesota Wild, a hockey team. They have a store in their arena. We’re also working for an outdoor retailer, Gander Mountain. They have 45 to 50 stores in the Midwest. We’re looking to produce a private label women’s clothing line. They sell Columbia Sportswear and Woolrich.

WWD: How important is traveling to your new business? And is it a problem that you’re based in Minneapolis?
Matteson: We’re traveling quite a bit. There’s a lot of opportunity in Minneapolis. With the nature of technology, there’s so much that can be done with computers and e-mails. We haven’t found any barrier in being in Minneapolis.

WWD: What do you think are the key influencers of trends in the junior market?
Cashill: I would say it’s probably a combination of the Internet, TV and music.
Matteson: For the younger customer, let’s say adolescent preteen, they want to look like celebrities. They want those looks. Preteens want to emulate the people they see in the magazines. What celebrities wear still has an influence.
Cashill: The things that Jennifer Aniston would wear on “Friends.” Teenagers would come in [to Target] and find those ideas.

WWD: Which cities do you think are currently setting the most trends?
Cashill: Personally, I feel really strongly about London. It’s been hot the last couple of years. It’s a good place to go, especially for the youth market. I still feel L.A. is a legitimate shopping place and for watching and looking at what people are wearing. I was really influenced by Antwerp. Anne Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten have a huge influence there. As a culture, they really have a high level of interest in fashion.
Matteson: Another area that’s had influence is Japan. Just seeing the images and the characters from “Hello Kitty” in Japan shows me that they have had an impact. They’ve tried to Westernize so much.
Cashill: There’s a younger sensibility in Japan, and a junior sensibility. Especially with all the cartoons.

WWD: In what categories are you specializing in?
Cashill: We’re kind of bridging some different categories. With Rachel’s background in children’s and accessories, and mine in activewear and ready-to-wear, we bring different points of view. We’ve been picking up some home projects.

WWD: Which age group is setting the most trends? And can you name a few trends that came and went?
Matteson: To me, it’s always the youth. They change so frequently. As a designer, you get inspired by them and frustrated with them.
Cashill: Decorated denim happened [last fall] and then it didn’t. It came and went.
Matteson: Corduroy for back-to-school two years ago came and sold and had a pretty quick life.
Cashill: We sold 50,000 units in velour (such as mock necks at Target four years ago) and when it died, it died fast.

WWD: How do you go about developing a line for a client?
Cashill: We’re doing research for fall 2001. We’re designing the line for Gander Mountain. We’re doing the color markets, and we’re meeting with the Color and Trends Service, ESP, and we’re meeting with Margaret Walsh with the Color Association.
Matteson: We attend the print show in New York and Premiere Vision in Paris.

WWD: Where are the style influences coming from?
Cashill: We’ve definitely found in our careers, going to color services and getting trend information, whether it’s home or kids and ready-to-wear, some of the influence comes from sports. The scooter’s hot right now, and we’ll see what influences that might have. There’s the whole idea of Pilates that embodies health and how it impacts clothing.
Matteson: Snowboarding and skateboarding are affecting the young men’s market.

WWD: What do you think is the best way to reach the youth market?
Matteson: I would advertise in the bigger magazines, such as Seventeen and Teen People. I would do in-store Seventeen fashion shows in key major markets, which Target did.
Cashill: MTV Spring Break events, guerrilla marketing ideas, teen movies, popcorn bags. It’s a struggle to figure out how to communicate with the teen market. A lot of kids (in pre-driver mode) know their mother’s going to Target for toilet paper, and they figure if they go with her, they can score a new CD. It’s not as tricky to talk your mother into buying you $19.99 pants versus $58 pants at Abercrombie & Fitch at the mall.

WWD: What do you see as some of the big trends for teens?
Matteson: The whole tech aspect of what teenagers wear is important right now — cell phones on wrists or having them on your backpacks. Also, everybody’s into leather. Last year the Gap messed themselves up because they advertised so much leather and you couldn’t find it at the stores.
Cashill: If you’re going to go out with a marketing message, you’d better be sure to be in stock on it.
Matteson: Eighties rock ‘n’ roll is happening.
Cashill: The whole Eighties retro thing, even in music, with Abba. All the Eighties music is coming back in full force.
Matteson: Pat Benatar and Bon Jovi are making a big comeback. For a lot of kids, it’s new to them.

WWD: Do you think dressing up for work will make a comeback?
Cashill: I’m really skeptical on that. So many work places have adapted a full casual work week…I think sexy will make a comeback. Sexy denim, done with gold. Indigo [a dark-washed denim] has the Eighties throwback feel, and you wear it with high heels. Adapting a little bit of glamour. The leather pant and chain belt. It’s all happening again.
Matteson: I’ve seen a lot of ads for animal prints and printed snakeskin pants.
Cashill: The whole ribbed knit thing, and multistriped sweaters. There’s also the whole tweed thing going on.
Matteson: And cotton nylon pants. We also see little influences of Western, and an animal feeling and snap-front pants.
Cashill: The whole idea of traditional back-to-school, and mom going out and buying a whole wardrobe is over. Our approach to fall [at Target] was to use seasonless fabrics. It’s 80 degrees in September. We delivered new tanks and new shorts for back-to-school which was new for us. It was wear now. Nowadays, it’s a smoothing out of sales [without the big spikes for back-to-school]. It’s evened itself out.

WWD: Which demographic do you believe has the most power?
Matteson: Generation Y and a little younger [the Echo Boomers], encompassing 8-to-15-year-olds. They have the most impact in trends and change. It’s such a big group. They’ll still have an influence. People won’t stop marketing to them.

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