image: Marimekko image: Marimekko

It was hardly a Lilly-lollapalooza. Target’s much-anticipated launch of the Marimekko Collection on Sunday did not spark the frenzied shopping of some of its past collections. On the bright side, the discounter didn’t have to deal with crashing websites and disappointed customers, according to the Associated Press. Target’s collection with the Finnish design brand known for its bold prints (looks from its S/S 2016 collection pictured above) includes products that range from $7.99 for sunscreen to $499.99 for a paddleboard and hit stores and online Sunday. But as of Sunday afternoon, less than 50 of the 200 styles had sold out online. The response at the chain’s 1,800 stores was equally as muted.

That’s a big difference from last year’s launch of Target’s partnership with Lilly Pulitzer, where demand was so heavy that Target took its website offline for 20 minutes. Ultimately, the items sold out online within a few hours and at many of the stores within a half hour. The same can be said of the Minneapolis-based discounter 2011 collection with Italian design house, Missoni, which drew Black Friday-like crowds and so much web traffic that Target’s web site crashed and was shut down for most of the day.

Target spokesman Joshua Thomas reflected on the mass retailer’s latest collab, saying: “These collaborations are not intended to sell out in one day.” He noted that the reception to Lilly Pulitzer was rare. Thomas said there were two sales spikes online Sunday, one in the wee hours of the morning and the other mid-afternoon. Usually, Target sees just one spike in sales online and then the pace levels off.

And he’s right. More accurately, the purpose of such collaborations is not entirely on sales of the special collections. In fact, most – with the exception of the Missoni x Target or Balmain for H&M, for instance – do not sell out in a matter of minutes, or at all for that matter. In many cases, the garments and accessories, which are a far cry from the quality and fit of their high fashion counterparts – often end up heavily discounted, and yet, these partnerships of sorts have not ceased. This suggests that actual sales are not necessarily the focal point for most brands.

As Associated Press columnist, Anne D’Innocenzio writes: “These limited-time-only partnerships don’t move the needle in terms of overall sales, but they can spark interest in brand.” Yes, the takeaways for both parties are pretty clear: Designers (most of which tend to be in the emerging stage – although there are some obvious exceptions) benefit from massive amounts of publicity (think: Vogue ads, television commercials, big celebrity-filled parties, and signs plastered on the walls at Target and on the sides of buses). This far exceeds the advertising budget of your ordinary young brand, and so, a collab with a mass-market retailer is a way to get their brand name on the radar of a lot of people, more or less, for free. (We won’t take the potential brand dilution into account, although that aspect suggests that such marketing isn’t without its own potentially hazardous implications for a brand positioning itself as a luxury one).

The mass-market brand has the benefit of gaining media impressions and also baiting the consumer into their stores and selling them an array of things other than the hyped clothing and accessories. Target, specifically, has used the approach in furtherance of its goal to raise the average unit retail prices in its apparel business.

So, what about the consumers? What can we glean from them in regards to why the vast majority of these collections don’t sell? Does it even matter? Well, it’s not actually as simple as pooling all consumers into one group and making a sweeping conclusion about their preferences and shopping habits. Or maybe it is. But it is probably best viewed a bit more specifically, putting the high fashion consumer into one camp and the average consumer into another. This is still a very simplistic view of the situation, but it is a bit more accurate than considering them all together.

High fashion shoppers have not been above a quick buy for a tiny fraction of the cost of a garment from the designer’s main line. It was hardy a shock to see that Prabal Gurung for Target fluorescent floral print sweatshirt on popular personal style sites and on individuals walking to work in Soho, New York. (Yes, I’m assuming these people purchased their PG for Target looks and were not gifted them. One obvious exception being Zoe Saldana, for instance, a close friend of the designer, who was likely gifted hers from Prabal himself).

These one-off collaborations may provide some temptation for the otherwise fast fashion adverse. Leandra Medine, the high profile blogger behind The Man Repeller, commented on the Peter Pilotto for Target collection on her site, writing: “The silhouettes, for one thing, weren’t compromised. The peplums still pop, the pencil skirts are still tight, the uneven hems maintain their contrast and the draping remains artful. The prints look pretty great too … Frankly, I’m thrilled.” (Note: She may have been compensated to post this, but without a disclosure we cannot be sure). The Pilotto collaboration, which was also stocked on luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter, giving UK shoppers a chance to shop it, was the site’s fastest selling collaboration.

So, it is not a stretch to say that a designer’s regular customers may be shopping a bit. The stigma of mainstream collections, which basically destroyed Halston when he signed on to do a collection with JC Penney in the 1980’s, is long gone. Designers even anticipate having their high end fans add a piece or two to their online shopping carts. Jason Wu spoke to this notion in 2012 when he launched a collection with Target, telling “It was about creating an entirely new collection that I think my regular customers will enjoy, too.” The Guardian also addressed this, writing: These collections are “taken home by fashion editors, style insiders and those who are able and willing to pay over the odds for a cheaper item, finding its value in its exclusivity.”

But what about those who aren’t regular Margiela or Proenza Schouler or Versace shoppers? These are the individuals that the collections and the democratization of fashion is meant for, no? This is who Karl Lagerfeld and his mass market counterpart, H&M, had in mind ten years ago when they debuted their collection, one of the first major collabs of this type, right?

Judging by the number of returned garments (which was so high for the Versace x H&M collection that the retailer prohibited returns for its subsequent Margiela collection) and those subsequently marked down, the general public does not really want these designer names for a steal. Furthermore, according to the Guardian, “It seems that the heavily hyped, lower-priced versions of high-end goods don’t end up in the hands of the people who have to budget carefully when it comes to non-essential purchases.” When it comes right down to it, these items, regardless of whether they result from the creative genius of Donatella or Jack and Lazaro (which they very likely don’t), they are still fast fashion-quality garments, but at a bit of a higher price point, which may not be a feasible option for the truly average consumer.

So, it seems the purpose or the stated purpose of these collections, the democratization of fashion (whatever that even means at this point), is failing – in more ways than one. We end up with a Christopher Kane themed collection (these pieces are a far cry from any designer’s main line and thus, aren’t really a democratization of any “fashion” at all, a notion shared by Eugene Rabkin) for a mass market retailer that will be arguably dilute his brand name, and be bought or not bought by middle of the road consumers who will wear the garment a handful of times and then discard it. Thus, it seems that an analysis in terms of sales is not even an appropriate one to gauge such collections because that really is an afterthought.