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Cheap Chic: Couture Comes To Discount Retailers

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On Feb. 5, fashion designer Jason Wu is launching a limited-edition line for Target. Wu became famous for designing Michelle Obama's inaugural gown. He's the latest high-end designer to partner with a mainstream retailer and offer his chic couture at cheap prices for the masses.

On a bitterly cold morning in Washington, D.C., last November, hundreds of fashionistas flooded the street 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.

Customers swarmed the store. Versace jackets that normally sell for thousands of dollars were selling here for a shockingly low $129.

"People were just taking handfuls, like straight off the rack," customer Ryan Charchian says. "Like, everything. I could only get like three items."

It used to be unthinkable for high-end designers to sell their clothes at mass retailers. 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 cachet, lots of new customers and loads of publicity.

Designers make money because the retailer pays 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.

"It's different for designers at different points in their careers," he says. "For a more established designer, it can often help reinvent them."

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 feared that selling clothes through a mass retailer would cheapen their nascent brand.

Gaby Basora, who launched a collection at Target in 2010, says that's because "you're bringing your DNA to the market at a lower cost."

She says the retailer was able to advertise for her in a way she could never have afforded herself.

"You know, I'm years away from putting my logo on the side of a bus that drives around New York City for all the world to appreciate," she says.

Designer Rogan Gregory has teamed up with Target twice.

"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," he says. "I think designers are actually surprised at how good a quality they get from Target."

And the cash from the deal can help young designers put on fashion shows and grow their main collection.

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.

"Target has a great legacy of great collaborations," he says, "designers like Missoni, who's legendary, and McQueen — just to be in such great company is a huge plus for me."

But not all haute couture designers want to offer up bargain versions of their fashions.

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 that their clothes lack the quality of really high-priced fashion.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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