Moving Target: The evolution of the designer collaboration

Lilly Pulitzer for Target
The Lilly Pulitzer for Target collection launches Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Courtesy Target

Consider this your warning: There could be mayhem at Target stores this Sunday. That's when the retailer's latest limited edition designer collaboration, Lilly Pulitzer for Target, hits the racks.

Affordable designer collaborations are the new Beatlemania. Or One Direction Mania, depending on your generation.

"People like the idea of designer fashion at an accessible price point," said Allison Kaplan, senior editor of shopping and style for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. "It's democratizing something ... that seems out of reach."

Target pioneered the concept of designer partnerships with Michael Graves and Sonia Kashuk more than 15 years ago and continues to look for ways to put a spin on the model, a spokesperson said. To date, the retailer has collaborated with more than 150 designers in various partnerships.

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Some are bona fide hits (see: Missoni). Others miss the bulls-eye (see: Neiman Marcus). But along the way, Target has learned and evolved with its shoppers.

Timing is everything

It's no coincidence that the Lilly Pulitzer collection is hitting stores now — or that any collaboration arrives when it does.

Lilly's 250-piece collection features the resort wear brand's signature colorful prints and patterns and includes apparel, accessories and shoes for women and girls, as well as home accents, travel essentials and outdoor entertaining accessories — there's even a hammock. It's all perfectly timed for spring and summer, when consumers are thinking about sunny skies, the beach and fun in the back yard.

Similarly, the Altuzarra for Target collection that was released in September 2014 was geared toward providing shoppers with fall pieces to freshen up their wardrobes.

The TOMS for Target collection, timed for the holidays last year, allowed consumers to buy gifts but also tap into the season of charitable giving. Each item purchased resulted in the donation of meals, blankets and shoes to those in need.

TOMS for Target
A look from the TOMS for Target collection, which launched Nov. 16, 2014.
Courtesy Target

Timing also proved to be a big factor in 2012's partnership with Neiman Marcus, which fizzled. A Target spokesperson told Forbes it was ill-timed during the holiday season — it debuted after Black Friday and was still full-priced when shoppers were looking for last-minute bargains.

Ask and you shall receive

When Target started the Go International collection in 2006 featuring Luella Bartley, pieces rolled out bit by bit over a longer period of time.

Lilly Pulitzer for Target
A look from the Lilly Pulitzer for Target collection, which launches Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Courtesy Target

But guests wanted to see everything at once, said Jessica Carlson, a Target spokesperson. Now, an entire collection is available on the same day.

Target also listened to shoppers for the Lilly collection. This is the first design partnership to offer plus-size clothes since the Calypso St. Barth collection in 2011.

"We've heard from our guests that they loved to see plus-size offerings within our designer collaborations, so we've included it with this collection, available on," Carlson said.

There's no such thing as bad publicity

Even when Target has made a misstep, some say it hasn't really been a failure because of the buzz.

The Missoni partnership in 2011 was so popular that it crashed Target's website the day it launched, which irked many. Shoppers lined up outside stores hours before doors opened and racks were picked clean soon after.

Missoni for Target
A look from the Missoni for Target collaboration, which was released in the fall of 2011.
Courtesy Target

The retailer learned from its mistakes and invested resources to improving its site, the Star Tribune reported. Target also tried to better forecast demand for its next collaboration.

But overall, Missoni's overwhelming success means it's still considered a benchmark for collaborations.

Similarly, people are still talking about the Target + Neiman Marcus misfire more than two years later. In addition to the timing problem, the retailer also blamed inventory overload and high prices.

"There's been a lot written about the economics of it, that the product didn't move, but look at how much buzz they got," Kaplan said. "It's really about marketing. They're getting tons of press so they're happy."

Buzz surrounding the Lilly Pulitzer collection has been mostly positive — but even the early negative rumblings have been a hit. Some fashion mavens were (still are?) a bit miffed the design house is partnering with such a bourgeois retailer.

The reactions were widely mocked on Buzzfeed and other fashion sites.

What's next?

Kaplan said Target is starting to change the way it displays merchandise in stores and suggested it work on better creating a boutique experience for shoppers, especially for limited edition products.

"A lot of times there's a disconnect between the advertising and the lookbook," she said. "It's all very flashy and looks great but when you walk in the store and see it on an an end cap, the experience doesn't really translate."

Meanwhile, Target hasn't revealed who it is partnering with next, but Carlson promises this with its ongoing collaborations: "It's really about bringing newness and always searching for this sort of next best and beautiful designer," she said.

Timeline: Recent Target collaborations

• April 19, 2015: Lilly Pulitzer for Target
• March 15, 2015: Target Collective
• Nov. 16, 2014: TOMS + Target
• Nov. 16, 2014: Annie for Target
• Nov. 2, 2014: Faribault for Target
• Sept. 14, 2014: Altuzarra for Target
• Sept. 14, 2014: Wit & Delight for Target
• June 22, 2014: Poppytalk for Target
• March 16, 2014: Oh Joy! For Target
• Feb. 9, 2014: Peter Pilotto for Target
• Sept. 15, 2013: Phillip Lim for Target
• June 30, 2013: FEED USA + Target
• April 28, 2013: Vera for Target
• April 14, 2013: Kate Young for Target
• Feb. 10, 2013: Prabal Gurung for Target