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.”
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.”