the bright colors and patterns of Todd Oldham's new Dorm Room
line at Target stores don't appeal to you, that is perhaps
because they aren't supposed to. Target has already figured
out how to woo sophisticated shoppers with its hip bull's-eye
ads, Philippe Starck baby products and Michael Graves coffee
Now it has set its sights on consumers in their teens and
early 20's, Gen Y'ers, who like things bright and bold. These
first-time buyers, many of them furnishing dorm rooms or
refitting bedrooms in their parents' homes, embrace a vivid,
upbeat aesthetic more than the muted Pottery Barn style of
their baby boom parents.
Thus, the former fashion designer Todd Oldham (who was once
known for $4,000 blouses and bold-pattern ensembles for the
young and wealthy) has addressed these roughly 40 million
potential shoppers with housewares made with funkadelic star
bursts, multicolor stripes, argyle-pattern fake fur and many
shades of orange (the brighter, it seems, the better).
When in doubt, he adds sequins. "Those sorts of things,
where you can sense a human's touch, go a long way to humanize
mass-market products like these," he said. Mr. Oldham, whose
preferred get-up is jeans, Teva sandals and a striped sweater,
began his fashion career in the early 90's, when the business
was fun, he said.
Two years ago, Mr. Oldham and his family sold their
manufacturing operation and many of their trademarks and
headed into mass retail with Target. "It all clicked for me
when I started to hear editors complain about how many shows
they had to go to and how onerous it all was," he said.
And so he has turned to designing a little furniture (a
butterfly chair, lamps and ottomans) and a lot of bedding,
rugs, pillows and cushions decorated with stars. He doesn't
explicitly celebrate his name as a brand (as is still done on
his jeans line, which he retained), but the letters of it do
turn up scrambled on towels in the Dorm Room line. If some
shoppers get it, great. Besides, the Gen-Y shopper, who might
be in favor of picketing the Group of 8 meeting in Alberta
next week, has been known to use a safety pin to pick a logo
off a T-shirt.
Target, which has 1,081 stores nationwide, has asked other
fashion designers to join its stable. Stephen Sprouse and Mossimo Gianulli have
successfully contributed clothing to Target's line, and a new
line of products called Swell is in development, from Cynthia
Rowley, the fashion designer, and Ilene Rosenzweig, a former
editor at The New York Times, based on their book of the same
name. The line is expected to offer housewares for hip young
women who are très casual about setting a table.
Mr. Oldham was asked to design an extensive back-to-school
line — Target's second-biggest product season after Christmas.
"When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot," Mr. Oldham
said. "It helped me feel more comfortable to carry something I
really liked, like a binder plastered with my favorite
stickers or a cool embroidered backpack."
People born in the 80's are, like youths before them,
seeking individuality. They would rather be stimulated by too
much than bored by too little. And many don't have the cash
for a shopping spree at Ikea, much less at West Elm, Pottery
Barn's less expensive little sister. Crate & Barrel hoped
to capture just such shoppers with its CB2 store, which rolled
out a line of bright (mostly plastic) furnishings in Chicago.
The effort stumbled, and so did Herman Miller's Red line,
aimed at 20-somethings.
"The 20-something market has been an elusive one for
retailers to get a hold of, particularly in the home area,"
said Warren Shoulberg, editor in chief of HFN, a home
furnishings trade magazine. "Decorating seems pretty far down
on their list of priorities. As a result, the industry has
never been able to get a hold of what they want."
Urban Outfitters, he
said, has had some success in selling to those consumers, and
so has Anthropologie, but they are smaller than Target and can
afford to experiment. So trendsetters are left to puzzle out
how to sell individuality in mass quantities.
Mr. Oldham combines mass market prices with what parents
might call lurid design. His laptop bag for Target ($14.99)
comes with oodles of pockets and zippers and in four duotone
color combinations. Three colorful pins stuck on each marks
them for teenagers or college students, not Wall Street bond
traders. His bed-in-a-bag ($49.99 to $59.99) and bath-in-a-bag
($14.99) sets are meant to look randomly pulled from a closet.
It's the anti-Martha Stewart look, the opposite of coordinated
Mr. Oldham's signature piece might well be his
Lite-Brite-inspired lamp, which seems destined for the Olson
twins set. It has hundreds of removable pegs and comes with
more, to let buyers create their own patterns. The price is a
reasonable $19.99. At 40, Mr. Oldham may seem a little old to
make stuff that appeals to people half his age, or less, but
his design sensibilities remain preternaturally youthful. "His
color and pattern choices always look fresh, and he's so
thoughtful about making simple things multifunctional," said
John Remington, the vice president for events marketing and
communication at Target.
One of Mr. Oldham's most practical designs is a series of
oversize alarm clocks ($9.99 to $14.99), which have extra-loud
alarms. Some have rubber padding, in case they are thrown. "We
found that one of the biggest problems kids have is waking up
in time for class," Mr. Oldham said.
So will the intended consumers buy it? Mr. Remington of
Target said: "Our goal is to produce products that are
affordable in price and that exceed expectations. Then we sit
back and watch what happens."
And what is likely to happen? Target's Mossimo
youth-oriented sportswear from Mr. Gianulli alone contributed
$700 million in sales to the chain's bottom line between
February 2001 and February 2002. Richard Leonard, the vice
president of the Zandl Group, a New York trends research firm
that specializes in the youth market, believes that Mr.
Oldham's upbeat aesthetic could draw similar customers.
"These kids are looking for style at an accessible price,"
Mr. Leonard said. "We've been hearing great buzz on the
Sprouse stuff, even though many of these kids have no clue who
Stephen Sprouse is."
Target is planning a marketing campaign with Mr. Oldham and
his grandmother Mildred Jasper. Advertising has given Target a
hip profile, not necessarily matched by the store experience.
Still, the ads lure young shoppers who may well find things
they can afford to buy. If not, Mr. Shoulberg said, "Target is
very quick to pull stuff off the shelves that isn't
Mr. Oldham understands the risks of large-scale marketing.
"I'm petrified," he said. In the two years since he redirected
his studio's work, Mr. Oldham and his designers have worked on
hotels and bars in Miami and New York, Moroccan-inspired tiles
and personal projects like an enormous treehouse and gardens
at Mr. Oldham's Pennsylvania hideaway.
But Target is for now their most important client.
Royalties will pour in — if Target has been as astute in
choosing Mr. Oldham as it was in choosing Mr. Gianulli, and if
nostalgia for his television test patterns, Lite Brite lamps
and fame as a former fashion darling can attract a group of
kids with no memory of any of them.
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