On the evening of Monday, April 30, an unseasonably hot wind blew through New York City, and many women’s thoughts turned to their summer wardrobes. At the crowded Target in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal, Lisa Simon, a 34-year-old artist, was pawing through the denuded racks of Isaac Mizrahi’s down-market line, most of which sells in the neighborhood of $19.99. “His clothes are clean-cut, cool,” she said. “It’s really nice. Accessible.” Ms. Simon said she often pairs her bargain finds with fancy brands like Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton, but she praised the ever-growing democratization of designer fashion. “I don’t think it should be really expensive,” she said magnanimously. “I think that everybody should be able to purchase designer clothes if they feel like it.”
Well, apparently, everybody does feel like it—at least judging from the dominant retail offerings this spring. Seventh Avenue has exported itself to Main Street, and Main Street is regurgitating it right back to the willing gals of Gotham. At Target, the jaunty “popu-luxe” pieces of Mr. Mizrahi—his image now thoroughly rehabilitated, almost a decade after Chanel stopped funding his eponymous label—have been joined by lines from Proenza Schouler, Luella Bartley, Paul & Joe, Behnaz Sarafpour and, beginning May 6, Patrick Robinson, a veteran scissorhands at Giorgio Armani, Perry Ellis, Paco Rabanne and Anne Klein. “I dig that design is for everyone,” Mr. Robinson told The Observer.
On the cover of the May Vogue, meanwhile, 10 young models pout into the camera, clad in white cotton shirts from the Gap: limited editions designed—in a collaboration masterminded by Anna Wintour herself—by Thakoon, Rodarte and Doo.Ri. ‘Who-Ri?’ one might legitimately ask. Wasn’t it just yesterday that the Gap was the haven of anonymous dressing, a corporate purveyor of uniforms to the masses: first, the hippies (“fall into the Gap”); then later, apple-cheeked young people cavorting in generously cut chinos? Is nowhere safe from the tyranny of good, affordably priced design?
It would seem not. In 1996, the actress Sharon Stone made the minimalist statement of the decade when she eschewed her favorite designer, Vera Wang, and wore of a Gap turtleneck with a ball skirt to the Oscars; now, the Gap sells a cut of jeans called “Williamsburg,” and Ms. Wang, the empress of bridal wear for the Park Avenue set, has produced her own cheap line, Very Vera, for Kohl’s, as if she were Jaclyn Smith or something. As for Ms. Stone, no one would be surprised if she dipped a toe into the clothing biz. After all, every other celebrity on Earth has. On May 8, Barneys—Barneys!—will begin selling cheapo clothes that the only temporarily disgraced model Kate Moss designed for the British chain Topshop, a favorite of Gwyneth Paltrow. And M by Madonna is but the latest offering from Ms. Moss’ erstwhile employer H&M, one of whose stores is on the site of the old (sniff!) Daffy’s on Fifth Avenue. Gone is the late-1990’s frisson of sifting through bins of last season’s discount designer rejects; with the sudden ubiquity of fast-food fashion, one can have a reasonable facsimile of the latest thing, right now, with minimal effort.
And the ladies are lovin’ it. “I want this!” said Jenya Walters, 17, a high-school student who was shopping near Ms. Simon at Target, clutching at a pair of Mr. Mizrahi’s mass-market gray dress slacks. “You basically get the same stuff that’s in every other store at literally a third of the price,” said another shopper, Amber Fatone, 26, who works in publishing. Nearby, Diane Watson, 46, a make-up artist, was waiting for her daughter, Emelia, 11, while she sampled finds in the Mossimo section. “I think it makes people more knowledgeable about designers,” Ms. Watson said of the incursion of name brands into chain stores. “It makes it more interesting, more fun for people. It changes the way people think about dressing themselves.”
“I can tell you what I’m wearing right now,” said Cece Gehrig, 24, calling from her job as a fashion assistant for a high-end, old-school Manhattan department store she preferred not to identify and proudly describing her outfit: Gucci leather classic ballet flats, a dress by Veronica M., a brown Louis Vuitton tote bag and a trench coat from H&M. “It’s great,” Ms. Gehrig enthused of the coat. “The clothing is pretty nice-looking. It’s not like it looks any different. People are always surprised when they find out it’s H&M.”