Muses, Messes and the Search for Meaning

Last Friday on Retail Wire, I commented on department stores’ reliance on exclusive brands for differentiation in apparel.  Of course, just having exclusive brands can’t be a point of differentiation, since every retailer from Dollar General to Macy’s does. So by default, the differentiation has to come from a retailer’s choice of brands and from the total brand portfolio that they offer to shoppers.  J.C. Penney’s combination of Flirtitude, Fabulosity, Fergalicious, and so on, must be perceived as more compelling than Macy’s lineup of Kenneth Cole Reaction, the upcoming Material Girl line from Madonna, Kouture by Kimora (who also is responsible for J.C. Penney’s Fabulosity), and a host of others. 

But is exclusive branding long tail retail at its finest . . . or has it turned into a dart throw? 

After all, every retailer is chasing after the same shoppers (as a product development-guru friend of mine recently summarized, retailers are trying to reach: “Young. Old. Urban. End of story”). However, I believe many retailers have convinced themselves that their bursting-at-the-seams brand stables are proof of the diversity of their shopper base, rather than the other way around.  That must be why J.C. Penney currently offers over 25 exclusive brands in Juniors and Women’s apparel alone (and the Liz Claiborne exclusive and Mango shop-in-shops are on the way).

Moreover, the just-landed Jean Paul Gaultier collection for Target illustrates how this “more is more” point of view can actually get portrayed as a study in curation.  On the surface, it looks as though Target placed a big, singular bet on Gaultier as their summer feature designer. The vision for the collection as laid out by Mr. Gaultier was to “pay homage to the wide range of personalities that make up the diverse styles of American women.” 


. . . and evidently, one fully coordinating collection can't capture that diversity.  JPG for Target revolves around five "muses" that are identified as "ingénue," "rock ‘n’ roll," "Hollywood glam," "hip hop," and "punk." I won’t go into whether or not the average Target shopper truly identifies with even one of those personas because, after checking out the groovy video for the collection on the Target website, I thought I was all five.  That’s how good the video is . . . but it’s also why the program, in the end, is overambitious, and a missed opportunity. 

I intentionally went into the store before seeing the video or reading the vision statement in order to test whether the collection would make sense without any explanation. It didn't.  A red slip dress here, a brown and orange leather bomber jacket there . . . a lime green halter dress? And . . . ummm . . . what’s that all-on-one-hanger white cotton bustier shrug thing made out of—sheets? Is that a lamé-look swimsuit or a body suit? Is that orange-striped top with an anchor cut into the front a swimsuit cover-up? If so, why is it hanging with the tops?

According to a Huffington Post forum and other accounts, shoppers haven't been going online to learn about how it all works before hitting the stores (should they have to?).  And some who have taken a look home have been disappointed by the quality.

Also, since the Gaultier program is essentially five collections wrapped into one, it is little different from J.C. Penney’s stable of  micro-collections’ from I Heart Ronson (rock ‘n’ roll), to Southpole (hip hop), Olsenboye (ingénue), and others that target the same gals. However, Target’s marketing video for Gaultier is much slicker than any of the in-store or online marketing for Penney's exclusive brands and that's where Target really missed out. Why in the world didn’t they make the most of the opportunity by featuring the video in the stores? Doing so would calm the chaos of the collection and, in the process, add much-needed excitement and a shop-in-shop vibe to the floor. At the very least, they could have used in-store print pieces to prompt shoppers with the same invitation that is posted on their site—“Which muse are you?”—and provided a link to the video. 

Curation may be king, but more is only more when you make the most of it!