On a recent Glacial night in New York City, a gaggle of fashion editors flocked to a Seventh Avenue studio to sip piccolos of sparkling wine and collectively rhapsodize over a new clothing collection by Patrick Robinson for Target. "I want to order a few things," one editor blithely declared while admiring a rakish pleated dress with chocolate medallion print that will sell for $34.99 when it arrives in stores in May. Her Astrakhan coat and patent-leather boots might have been wildly expensive, but few—not even style arbiters—can resist the allure of fast fashion.
Absent from the preview was Target executive Trish Adams, the woman responsible for green-lighting the New York City designer as the retailer's latest glamorous liaison. Adams, it turns out, was more than a thousand miles away at the company's Minneapolis, Minn., headquarters. Nose down, no piccolo. Adams, like Gina Sprenger, her counterpart at Target's furniture division, is accustomed to toiling behind the scenes, brokering profitable alliances at a time when almost every mainstream retailer is craving a dose of designer cachet. These days you are nothing without your boldface co-conspirators. H&M has Madonna. Kohl's has engaged Vera Wang to produce an affordable line. Gap boasts dresses by Roland Mouret. Meanwhile, across the pond, Topshop has enlisted the taste and services of style icon Kate Moss. The upshot? Masstige has emerged as the look of the moment—arguably the biggest trend in fashion.
Behind each joint venture is a flurry of wheeling, dealing and massaging of egos. Suddenly the role of designer matchmaker is more critical than ever. "Our goal is to find people who share our philosophy on offering high-quality design for excellent value," says the razor-sharp Adams, who consulted 20 fashion luminaries in the U.S. and Europe for the store's GO International initiative before whittling the list down to a handful. In 2006 alone, Target partnered with Luella Bartley from London and Tara Jarmon and Sophie Albou, both from Paris, on limited-edition cheap-chic clothing collections. Behnaz Sarafpour from New York City was number four.
Keeping the lines voguish has ensured a stream of recent hits for Target, perhaps even a few bull's-eyes. In stores now is an effervescent new collection by the New York City--based sophisticates behind Proenza Schouler. Designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez conceived bustier tops, jersey dresses and tropical prints that evoke their main line in everything but price. "We want the customer to know it's authentic," says Adams, who joined Target in 1983 as an assistant buyer and was promoted to senior vice president of softlines six years ago. Authentic, relevant and fun are her buzzwords. Not surprisingly, they are Sprenger's too.
A recent runaway hit in the home realm was Isaac Mizrahi's collection of bedding festooned with large Pop-art poppies. "We thought it would be good—but it was great," says Sprenger, who joined the company in 1985 and became senior vice president of hardlines five years ago. She was instrumental in welcoming interior designers Thomas O'Brien and Victoria Hagan to the fold. O'Brien's lighting designs have resonated most brightly with customers, and you don't need to be Thomas Edison to work out why. A handsome desk lamp at Aero, O'Brien's high-end SoHo store, runs upwards of $1,000. The Target version, almost as spiffy, is a mere $50.
Cheap chic has street cred now, galvanizing a new breed of shoppers. If Karl Lagerfeld endorses H&M, the label shame is pretty much gone from any mass-market brand that has smarts. Target has long proved adept at assembling a dream team of cohorts from various disciplines. "Sometimes it's just in and out for one season," says Sprenger, when asked about the store's less triumphant partnerships. Philippe Starck's line was something of a storm in a kooky teacup. In contrast, the architect Michael Graves signed on nine years ago and is still going strong. Next up from Mizrahi: a budget-priced bridal collection.
The success of these numerous forays depends on an elaborate support system. Target takes care of the heavy lifting—fabric sourcing, sample production, marketing—and allows the rotating design stars to focus on what they do best. Adams and Sprenger oversee a swat team of merchants and marketers. Volume helps keep costs down. "We have so much buying power that it drops fabric prices dramatically," says Adams, explaining why a cropped suede jacket by Proenza Schouler for Target sells for $139.99 while a jacket from its own line is likely to be 10 times as much. Or why an elegant beaded bag by Rafe has a $19.99 price tag. It's sticker shock in reverse.
Adams and Sprenger share an intuitive ability to foresee how a garment or object will best play for the store. They know their customers—or "guests," as they quaintly refer to them—better than anyone. The designers they partner with, themselves unassailable control freaks and not always familiar with the vagaries of large-scale production, are inclined to see their point. "It's like a whole new world to figure out," admits McCollough. "Target interested me because they are more mass market than my company," says Sarafpour. Exposure in 1,494 stores, as well as royalties, doesn't hurt either. Neither Target executive considers these arranged marriages a flash in a Graves-designed pan. For now, at least, a matchmaker's work is never done.