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Fashion designers angle for the aisles in retail

By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- It used to be that most designers clamored for the catwalks in New York, Paris and Milan, hoping to dress lithe, perma-pout models.

These days, some designers are scrambling for the retail aisles in mass-market stores like Target, Kmart and H&M, vying to dress regular folks, sizes 6 to 16.

Holy couture! What in the name of the classic tweed pencil skirt happened?

Consumers' dogged search for the best fashion deal -- whether found on store shelves or in the streets from less reputable sources -- got the attention of mass retail stores.

"Fashion found a new venue," explained Marshal Cohen, author of the book "Why Customers Do What They Do. "

Designers such as Kmart's Jaclyn Smith and Martha Stewart and Target's Mossimo, Isaac Mizrahi and Liz Lange started popping up on retail racks and furniture floors across the country.

And consumers pulled out their wallets en masse for designer duds and household items on the cheap. (Watch how some are renting instead of buying the latest fashions Video)

"Nearly a decade ago, only 31 percent of shoppers would admit to shopping mass retail stores in addition to department stores. Today, that number is 67 percent," Cohen said.

Courtney Spousta, a 30-something avid shopper living in Portland, Oregon, who buys from high-end department stores like Nordstrom as well as eclectic boutiques, combs the shelves at Forever 21 for cute, affordable tops and Target for handbags and gloves and guest designer lines.

"At this point in my life I've developed my own style, so I want to see what the crazy fashion world is doing, but I don't feel like I have to go get the hottest bag," Spousta said. "That's why I like Target and those other [mass-market retail] stores because I can go to different places for different things."

The mix-and-match fashion strategy is just good sense, Kmart's celebrity designer Jaclyn Smith said.

"I think the customer today is not a snob shopper -- she wants a good buy. Fashion is fleeting and innate style is forever," said TV's ex-"Charlie's Angel" who's been designing a clothing line for Kmart for more than 20 years. "Mixing and matching is the key. The really stylish shopper is the one that puts it all together."

Smith was first approached decades ago by Kmart to design a clothing line. She was hesitant at first, but decided to join the team after assurances that she would be involved at all levels of the design process.

"Jaclyn has enduring style. She was the first person to step out [20 years ago], wanting to have good taste not to have to cost a lot," said Lisa Schultz, an executive vice president at Kmart.

The opportunity to become a household name is what has today's designers clamoring to ink deals with mass-market retailers, Cohen said.

"Five years ago the adult market really started to take off and you saw designers like Isaac Mizrahi with Target and Karl Lagerfeld with H&M say it was almost more chic to be a designer for the masses than just a specialty market," Cohen said.

"They got chic because they say they can design for high-end, low-end and everything in between," he said.

That kind of market versatility is part of the reason designer Liz Lange joined Target. She'd been busy designing high-end maternity wear for celebrities and other wealthy clients, but decided in 2001 she wanted to design quality, attractive maternity wear for the everyday woman.

A partnership was born.

"I really think Target understands how to showcase a designer, how to price it and keep the integrity of the designer brand," she said.

"I really do think there's a cool factor with Target ... my customers on Madison Avenue probably love to cross-shop [with the Target collection]," Lange said.

And while retailers rake in the bucks from this hot shopping trend, designers get a boost, too.

"What was Isaac Mizrahi doing before Target? Nobody even knew who many of the designers were," Cohen said. "This gave them the opportunity to be a household name, icons of the industry.

"Some were making million-dollar deals," he said, "and some were making several hundred thousand-dollar deals."

Still, some fashion purists aren't tempted too much by the big names attached to small price tags.

"I shop at Target and Wal-Mart, but I never go there looking for clothes," said Julie Miyagi, 36, of San Francisco, California. "I have been curious enough to look at them, though.

"I think today you have a lot more choices about how you're going to emulate the trends and still stay on price point."

"Fashion is fleeting and innate style is forever," says actress and designer Jaclyn Smith, inspecting a piece from her line.




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