Jennifer Last, 26, is a financial analyst who could easily afford to shop on Madison Avenue, but prefers the cheap-chic outlets: Forever 21 for “the really sort of seasonable fashionable items that I’ll spend less on,” she said. “But at a store like H&M, you can buy something that’s a knockoff of a really classic cut. They try to copy something that’s like a Chanel jacket.” It was at H&M that Ms. Last found an Audrey Hepburn–style black cocktail dress that she wore, accessorized with Jimmy Choo leopard-print high heels, to a Change for Kids charity benefit. “It was just perfect,” she declared. “Really cute. You can make it be more dressy; you can make it more business.”
One hardly expects couture-like exclusivity at such stores. But thanks to the high turnover of the merch, it’s quite rare that discerning mass-market shoppers have an Alexis and Krystle dressing-room moment. “I never see it—isn’t that weird?” Ms. Last said of her black frock. “They probably made a bazillion of them.”
And when one does spot another woman wearing the same mass-market item, it is less likely to produce a hiss of jealousy than a cozy, insiderish little moment of mutual acknowledgement. Call it the “Target nod”: approving recognition of a stylish bargain scored in a city where, increasingly, nothing feels like a bargain. (From, of all places, a chain store; for most for us urbanites, Soho notwithstanding, a mall still feels like exotic tundra.) “I saw a Zara dress on someone else, one of two that I purchased recently,” said Kathryn Allen, 23, who works at the Doyle New York auction house, where vintage clothing routinely sells in the four and five figures. “I thought it looked really good on her—she was blond; she looked cute. She paired it with this little brown clutch, and I kind of made a mental note that I should maybe do the same at some point.”
With the democratization of designer fashion, dressing in Manhattan is no longer a clawing-at-the-sample-sales competitive sport for women; now, there’s more than enough fabulous to go around. And one doesn’t need to be a sample size to reap the benefits of the cheap chains; it’s a well-known fact that mass-market sizing is considerably more generous than its upscale counterpart (the better to accommodate those fleshy automobile-coddled thighs out in the Midwest). Are you squeezing into a 10 at Carolina Herrera? Go on—try the 6 at Target!
The churlish might complain that the proliferation of cheap chic produced an unpleasant jumble of looks on the street. Are hemlines up or down? Is it gladiator sandals or ballet flats this season? Who knows? Who cares? Certainly not the new breed of reality-show fashion “personality,” on whose shoulders the blame for the new “couture” ubiquity may at least partly be placed.
“Whenever fashion is expanding into new geographies, I’m thrilled,” said Project Ru
nway’s Tim Gunn during the most recent Fashion Week. “As opposed to just having a bunch of dumb clothes! So many of the younger designers, they really have a voice, they have a message, and I think it’s wonderful that the industry is willing to embrace them and sort of prop them up.”
“It’s almost cooler—in fact, it is cooler,” said Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Carson Kressley. “You don’t have to spend all your money, which is cool—and also, it makes it more individual, and it makes it more of a challenge …. The thing I hate to see is when you go to see a show and see somebody immediately following it that has the look from head to toe. Pretend your body is the United Nations and spread it around a little bit—you know, a little Australia, a little U.S. of A., a little Italy!”
Or (ahem) a little Florida, where Bettina Zilkha, the author of Ultimate Style: The Best of the Best-Dressed List, recently found a Behnaz Sarafpour T-shirt at Target. “It’s a steal, babe!” she screeched over the phone. “It’s not even a deal—it’s a steal! It was incredible. I didn’t even have to try it on; I just looked at it.”
Patricia Mears, the deputy director at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, also had kind words for the trend (though she cautioned not to expect the same collectibility for an Isaac Mizrahi item from Target—“very interesting, but not a great example of craftsmanship”—as for one in his original line). “I just think the high-and-low phenomenon is one of the most exciting ones I’ve seen in a long time,” Ms. Mears said. “It allows people who have the expendable income to buy on both levels, and it allows young people—especially those that are starting out in the market to work—it really gives them wonderful style options: much better-quality style options that I don’t think we even had five years ago.”
As for the designers, they’d be the last to complain. The year that Ms. Stone had her Gap T-shirt moment, Mr. Robinson was a wunderkind of 29, named one of Vogue’s top 100 people to watch. But his star never really rose as expected. Now, he’ll have a second chance.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different houses around the world,” Mr. Robinson said of his experience with Target so far, sounding grateful. “In the designer market, you’re making a message, but then you’re selling the perfume, the hand bags—those are the things keeping a company viable as an enterprise. Here, it’s all about the clothes.”