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He's Designed It, but Will They Buy It?

By BONNIE SCHWARTZ

IF 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 makers.

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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 quiet taste.

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 working."

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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Hisham/Todd Oldham Studio
From Todd Oldham's new Dorm Room line for Target.


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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Designer Todd Oldham in his offices in Soho with his Jack Russell Terrier, Ann.




Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
A table lamp from Todd Oldham's Dorm Room collection.






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