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Men’s apparel from the Vineyard Vines for Target lookbook.

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Target was the first chain to master high-end fashion collaborations. Here’s how it pulled it off.

Vineyard Vines is the latest brand to debut an affordable limited-edition collection at the big-box retailer.

A large sand sculpture of a whale greets people as they enter the white tent. In one corner, a lobster shack is doing a brisk business in beer and bite-size lobster rolls, as a roving waitress in oyster-shucking gloves offers bivalves out of a shiny metal bucket. At least two women are carrying oars over their shoulders, and several men are wearing navy blue blazers with gold buttons. The scene has all the trappings of an upscale clambake somewhere at a Martha’s Vineyard beach house, and that’s the point.

But this is not the beach, unless you can call a concrete plaza outside a shopping mall near the Hudson River a beach. The event, held in lower Manhattan last week, was an invite-only party meant to introduce and celebrate the launch of the Vineyard Vines for Target limited edition collection. (Priyanka Chopra even made an appearance.) The tent, outside the Brookfield Place mall, turned into a pop-up that New Yorkers could shop a week before the collection goes live at Target stores nationwide and online on Saturday, May 18. As with all these types of collaborations, when the merchandise is gone, it’s gone.

The Vineyard Vines for Target “beach” pop-up in Manhattan.
Hagop Kalaidjian/BFA

Vineyard Vines is a preppy clothing brand. Its codes — plaid, stripes, prep school ties — trick you into thinking it came over on the Mayflower. The Vineyard Vines Target collection comprises some 300 items ranging in price from $2 to $120. It’s a broad range of products, from clothing to dishes to beach chairs. Garments feature nautical stripes, pastel colors, and beachy themes. A navy gingham shirtdress in this collection costs $35; a similar full-price version would set you back almost $100. And yes, there’s even a decorative oar (the one people were lugging around), which costs $69. It has Vineyard Vines’ smiling pink whale logo painted on it, along with the brand’s tagline: “Every day should feel this good.”

Vineyard Vines is not high fashion, but it’s understandable, aspirational, and potentially unaffordable to a swath of people, which makes it a perfect Target collaborator. Target has done more than 80 apparel collaborations dating back to the early 2000s, often punching well above its weight. It’s collaborated with established, well-respected fashion labels like Alexander McQueen and Proenza Schouler and those now lost to time, like Patrick Robinson and Justin Timberlake’s William Rast. In recent years, the Missoni and Lilly Pulitzer collections took it to a new level of chaos, crashing servers and causing in-store stampedes. Pieces regularly end up on the secondary market of eBay.

A Vineyard Vines for Target oar plus other merchandise.

These collections give Target shoppers a chance to own a garment from a brand they might not be able to afford otherwise. The smaller brands, in turn, get a huge bump in exposure and advertising they could never fund on their own. It makes sense that these collaborations happen at fast-fashion retailers like H&M, but it’s notable that a big-box store like Target really pioneered the concept on a large scale. After all, where else can you buy “designer” fashion alongside commodities like tampons and light bulbs? Target has spent almost 20 years perfecting the art of selling FOMO. It’s had some spectacular successes and its fair share of duds, but the model has persisted.

Why Target started collaborating with fashion brands

Target has always tried to cultivate a more upscale image than its discount big-box retailer competitors like Walmart and Kmart, and it’s mostly succeeded. Since the 1990s, customers have affectionately called it the French-inflected “Tarjay” to convey fanciness. (Its original founders claim that customers have called it that since the 1960s.) Regardless, the name has hung on, made clear when President Trump, probably not a customer, greeted the CEO of Target at a recent White House meeting with that alternative pronunciation of the company’s name.

Target’s first highbrow collaboration was with the architect and designer Michael Graves in 1999, who designed home goods for the retailer until 2012. But Isaac Mizrahi really gave the company concrete proof that the concept could work for apparel. It partnered with the then-popular designer in 2003 and the collection was an immediate hit, earning Target a reported $300 million a year for the five years it was sold.

Customers love the concept because it gives them an opportunity to own a piece of luxury, or, at least, a luxurious name. Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail practice at Syracuse University, compares the high-low collaboration concept to what perfumers had done decades earlier. Can’t buy a Chanel jacket? You could probably afford Chanel No. 5 perfume.

“You get the ability to participate in the dream of a designer purchase without the designer price point,” she says. The fabric quality and fit is nowhere near the same, but there is still a bit of designer magic there.

For Target and for the rotating cast of designers, it’s primarily a marketing enterprise. It’s a point of differentiation for Target — look, fancy designers trust us! — and a way to get shoppers into their stores, says Nicholson. (Target declined an interview for this story.) The collections are so limited that they aren’t a big financial risk; the company likely doesn’t make that much money on them. The point is to get people talking.

Very limited-edition collections tap into a fundamental human desire: We want what is hard to get. If Target can convince someone to get in their car and drive to a store in hopes of scoring a cute salad bowl with lobsters on it, that’s a win. Maybe they’ll buy one of Chrissy Teigen’s “Cravings” collection pans while they’re there too, or a faux-antique kitchen scale from “Hearth and Hand” by Chip and Joanna Gaines, or even just a 40-pack of Charmin. People expect Target to do this now, and it gets people talking and shopping.

Designers often have very tight marketing budgets and a niche customer base, so getting their name and designs in front of a national pool of customers is invaluable and not something most can afford on their own. And since it’s a temporary thing, there’s little risk of brand dilution. Target does press and social media blitzes to create hype. “[Brands] completely broaden their brand awareness. And there’s a possibility that some younger customers will grow up and be able to afford the real thing one day,” says Nicholson.

The high fashion days: 2005 to 2011

After Isaac Mizrahi, Target went all in on elevated design and launched a collection with the Italian house Fiorucci in 2005. In 2006, the series was formally dubbed the “Go International” collection and the first collaboration was with British designer Luella Bartley. The collection featured plaid dresses, bold striped jackets, and lots of hearts and cherry prints.

It must have done well, because in 2007 Target debuted collections with five designers, including fashion darlings Proenza Schouler, cementing its fashion cred forever. Five more followed in 2008, then four in 2009, including the LA-based Rodarte, another high-concept label.

Instagram didn’t launch until 2010, so the job of hyping these collections fell largely to an engaged and enthusiastic group of individual bloggers and fashion blogs that also launched around the same time, like the Cut, Refinery29, Nitrolicious, and Fashionista (disclosure: I was a writer and editor there for several years), as well as the digital arms of traditional print magazines. Lookbooks were uploaded and exclaimed over, and Target hosted launch parties in New York City for editors and bloggers to attend. It also did traditional TV and print advertising. The word spread reliably for each collection.

McQueen (2009), Proenza Schouler (2011 reissue as modeled by Chrissy Teigen), and Rodarte (2009).

“I remember there being a frenzy around certain ones that had pop culture significance, like Alexander McQueen. You don’t have to be entrenched in the fashion industry to know how important and influential he was,” says Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor-in-chief of Fashionista and a 10-year veteran of digital fashion journalism. And that was in 2009, a year before the designer’s death and two years before Kate Middleton got married in a dress designed by his successor at the label, Sarah Burton. “Back in the day, the Target launches were insane. [One] was a carnival theme, with rides and snack bars. They spent so much money,” she says.

In 2010, Target did a collection with the British heritage fabric-maker Liberty of London, and it was the first really expansive collection that included a significant home decor selection. In 2011, Target said goodbye to the name Go International, sending it off with a 34-piece dress collection of some of the greatest hits from past collections.

Then came Missoni.

The post-Missoni era: 2011 to now

Missoni for Target coffee cup and saucer set.

In 2011, Target announced a collection with the Italian design house Missoni. Even if you had no idea that Missoni is best known for its zigzag pattern sweaters, you sure could recognize how appealing that stack of colorful coffee cups was. The collection was extensive, including apparel for the whole family, dishes, luggage, and even a bike. Famous Jessicas Alba and Simpson had a Twitter conversation expressing their desire for that bike, as documented by the New York Times at the time.

The day of the launch was, as Vingan Klein accurately terms it, “a shitshow.” Stores sold out within minutes, and the website crashed multiple times for long stretches, causing many shoppers to lose the items in their carts. Target said at the time that the traffic outpaced that of any Black Friday or Cyber Monday in its history. It dealt with the fallout and bad publicity for weeks, but some analysts considered it a savvy use of “intentional scarcity.”

In the ensuing years, Target had a dud with a non-cohesive collection it did with the upscale department store Neiman Marcus. Then in 2012 and 2013, respectively, it did collections with New York designers Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung. Vingan Klein suspects the two were primed for success thanks to a high-profile admirer: first lady Michelle Obama, who wore a Jason Wu gown to both of her husband’s inaugural balls and a day dress from the designer to Trump’s inauguration. She wore Gurung at several public events as well, so the names were already familiar. The Jason Wu collection, full of ladylike fit-and-flare dresses, was particularly buzzy.

Michelle Obama (with husband) wearing Jason Wu on her last day at the White House in January 2017; Jason Wu x Target, 2012.
Jim Watson/AFP; Target

After 2012, grumbling about collaboration fatigue started. Target was far from the only retailer doing it at this point. H&M’s first collection with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004 also spawned a successful run of collabs annually at the fast-fashion chain. Other retailers like Kohl’s and Uniqlo joined in, and there were one-offs like Nike x Levi’s, not to mention many collaborations by streetwear brands like Supreme.

In 2014, Target’s sales slumped, likely due to mounting competition from Amazon, prompting Money to snark that no one was calling it “Tarjay” anymore. A few smaller collections came and went, and then in 2015, Target brought out the big, girly guns.

A Lilly Pulitzer for Target nail file.

Lilly Pulitzer, whose bright florals are a socialite-wannabe mainstay, rivaled the scope and enthusiasm of the Missoni collection. Lilly fans stayed up all night, but once again, the website experienced glitches and delays. Many people, including Kristin “Charlotte from Sex and the City” Davis, weren’t able to snag anything:

Lines snaked through parking lots, and once again, the collection sold out almost instantly.

In 2016, Target hoped to replicate that with Marimekko, known for its colorful geographic prints, but the response was tepid. Collections with Hunter boots and Victoria Beckham (which included a girls’ collection) followed. Which brings us to now.

Why Vineyard Vines is a fit

Syracuse’s Nicholson chalks up Missoni and Lilly Pulitzer’s successes to the fact that those brands have a recognizable aesthetic, which also bodes well for Vineyard Vines. “It’s a very translatable look to multiple merchandise categories. You can make a teacup look like Lilly Pulitzer or Vineyard Vines, but I’m not sure you could make a teacup look like Jason Wu,” she says.

Vineyard Vines for Target women’s clothes.

Target has found its financial footing again with more robust sales in the past few years, largely due to a focus on its in-store private labels. The retailer doesn’t do as many collaborations as in its heyday but seems to be choosing the ones it does more strategically now. It is obviously looking for a repeat of its Missoni and Lilly Pulitzer glory here. Vineyard Vines is easy for shoppers to understand; it is not Proenza Schouler. It is, as Vox pop culture reporter and New Englander Rebecca Jennings tells me, “aspirational in a bluntly obvious way. You don’t have to think too hard about what it’s saying; you get it immediately.”

Vineyard Vines was founded in Martha’s Vineyard in 1998 by two brothers, Shep and Ian Murray, who left corporate jobs on Madison Avenue to make ties. The vibe is preppy, and loudly so. They told Racked in 2015, “We use icons of what we call the ‘good life’: boats, Nantucket, golf, tennis. It’s very classic American — prep school meets Wall Street.” Its grinning whale logo, the same one on the oar, appears on everything from tie prints to pockets, the equivalent of the Lacoste alligator or the Polo pony.

Its premise is simple: almost a caricature of moneyed (white) Americana, with a $30 upcharge added for good measure. But it resonates beyond typical preppy enclaves, appealing to everyone from dads in the Midwest to middle schoolers in Dallas. And it’s summery, just in time for beach and picnic season.

Plus, its prints look good on a salad bowl, and nothing is more American than that.

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