RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This Sunday, fashion designer Jason Wu is launching a limited-edition line for Target. He became suddenly famous when Michelle Obama chose one of his designs for her inaugural gown. Wu is the latest high-end designer to partner with a discount retailer and offer his couture at cheap prices. NPR's Asma Khalid has this report.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: On a bitter cold Washington morning, hundreds of fashionistas flooded the streets in front of the low-priced fashion chain H&M. Italian luxury label Versace was launching a collection there and customers were waiting for the doors to open.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's Versace. What do you not love about Versace?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I've been waiting for this to come out. So hopefully I can get what I need and get out of here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We've been here since about 4:30.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Y'all ready to shop?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)
KHALID: Customers swarmed the store.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa...
KHALID: Versace jackets that normally sell for thousands of dollars were selling here for a shockingly low $129. Ryan Charchian was in the crowd.
RYAN CHARCHIAN: People were taking just handfuls, like straight off the rack. Everything. And I was only able to get like three items. And they're already - they're not the size that I need, but I'm just having everything tailored.
KHALID: It used to be unthinkable for high-end designers to sell their clothes at discount shops. But now they regularly team up with Gap, Macy's and Target to bring cheap chic to the masses. The partnership is lucrative for both sides. Retailers gain cache, lots of new customers, and loads of publicity.
And designers make money because the retailers pay them to create a unique collection. Steven Kolb, head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, says the payment can be anywhere from $200,000 up to $1 million, plus royalties. And it's not just about the money.
STEVEN KOLB: It's different for designers at different points in their careers. For a more established designer, it often can help reinvent them.
KHALID: Few people had heard of Missoni until the venerable Italian fashion house partnered with Target last year. The launch made headlines after Target's website crashed from all the traffic.
Some younger designers fear that selling clothes through a mass retailer could cheapen their budding brand.
GABY BASORA: Because you're bringing your DNA to the marketplace at a lower cost.
KHALID: That's Gaby Basora. She launched a collection at Target in 2010. She says the retailer was able to advertise for her in a way she could never have afforded herself.
BASORA: You know, I'm years away from putting my logo on the side of a bus that drives around NYC for all the world to appreciate.
KHALID: Rogan Gregory has teamed up with Target twice.
ROGAN GREGORY: The exposure isn't taboo anymore, and the manufacturing process has gotten very sophisticated, so you can get really good quality at a low price.
KHALID: By now it's become commonplace to sell cheap chic, a few aisles over from diapers and light bulbs. Designer Jason Wu even considers it a badge of honor.
JASON WU: Target has a great legacy of great collaborations. I mean, designers like Missoni, who's, you know, legendary, and McQueen. Just to be in such great company is a huge plus for me.
KHALID: Not all haute couture designers want to offer up bargain versions of their fashions. Big name fashion labels like Dior have steered clear of the mass market. And Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana recently told the industry publication Women's Wear Daily that low-priced fashion retailers like H&M are cheap and trashy and their clothes lack the quality of really high-priced fashion.
Asma Khalid, NPR News.
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