High fashion, low-end stores: Will it work?

Wal-mart hopes so as it targets the frugal yet fashion-conscious with trendy new clothing lines and ad campaigns in Vogue.

Target is my new Gap.

I gave up on the Gap, that staple of malls across America, long ago. I've also abandoned higher-end Banana Republic with its air of business casual (what happened to the simple safari T-shirt?) and J. Crew (once a source for affordable chinos, it now sells wedding dresses). They're too fancy and too expensive, especially for basics. Besides, if I'm going to spend upward of $100 on something trendy, I don't want the same velvet blazer or baby alpaca poncho worn by every seventh person I pass on the street.

In Target, amid boxes of Swiffers and jumbo rolls of toilet paper, I like to imagine I've uncovered some great fashion secret. Of course, as America's second-largest discounter, Target is no secret. In fact, because of its success - women's apparel was one of the chain's strongest categories in the third quarter, according to a spokesperson - it has now become a target. Those footsteps you hear are from America's No. 1 retailer, Wal-Mart, trying to lure fashion- yet budget-conscious shoppers.

While Target has long branded itself as a big box with hip quotient, Wal-Mart has been singular in its desire to play the discount game - "always low prices." But in September, Wal-Mart unveiled a series of new ads in Vogue. That same month the retail giant made an appearance at New York Fashion Week - a first. And last month, in 500 of its stores, Wal-Mart launched Metro7, a house label geared toward a more "fashion forward" demographic.

Retail analysts say that the growing popularity of discount stores with frugal and fashion-savvy consumers is part of the larger democratization of fashion. For some, these stores make the latest styles accessible to those who can't afford designer labels. For others who may be able to splurge on a $190 pair of Habitual jeans at a trendy boutique - but only by pairing them with a $6 tank top - they put the higher-end items within reach.

"Trading down to trade up is something that's become readily acceptable with lots of consumers," says Wendy Liebmann, whose company puts out the report "How America Shops" every two years.

For women in households earning more than $100,000 a year, Target has a particular appeal. Once customers cross that threshold, they choose Target almost exclusively as their discount retailer, says Laura Rowley, author of "On Target: How the World's Hottest Retailer Hit A Bull's- Eye." A Salomon Smith Barney analyst once told Ms. Rowley: "You will see a person in a pair of Ferragamos in Target - you will not see that in Wal-Mart."

On a recent trip, no one in Ferragamo shoes was visible at either store. But at Target there was Meghan Cook, a marketer for a Boston bank, dressed in navy Saucony sneakers, jeans with a fashionably wide leg, and carrying a black Fendi handbag. As the analyst had predicted, no such shopper appeared at Wal-Mart.

Sharon Stone is widely credited with popularizing "cheap chic." At the 1995 Oscars she walked the red carpet in a Valentino skirt and Armani jacket over a Gap T-shirt.

It was five years later that Target brought in its first design partner, sportswearmaker Mossimo Giannulli, who created a line exclusively for the store.

"The designers that we partner with," says Lena Michaud, a spokeswoman for Target, "are part of our way of differentiating ourselves."

In 2002, Liz Lange developed her maternity line. The following year, onetime industry darling Isaac Mizrahi joined the fray, to a cacophonous fashionista buzz. (The only other Mizrahi retailer is the ritzy New York department store Bergdorf Goodman.) In a 2004 fashion show sponsored by Target, Mizrahi blended his Target and Bergdorf collections. Meanwhile, though Wal-Mart's appearance at Fashion Week didn't exactly set the couture world ablaze, at least one fashion writer found the show to be refreshingly "regular" and the clothes "eclectically cool."

Ms. Cook doesn't necessarily go to Target for apparel - but will often walk out with it. "I'll buy [clothes and accessories] if I come for something else - electronics, housewares," she says. "I'll pop over if something catches my eye."

If Wal-Mart wants to win fashion dollars from people like Cook, it appears to have a ways to go. When asked whether she ever buys clothes at Wal-Mart, Cook hesitates. "Maybe a Hanes T-shirt," she offers diplomatically.

Which clothes are better?

To the sound of screaming children and with an admitted bias, my fashion team steps into a crowded Wal-Mart in the Boston suburb of Framingham. We're here to determine how Wal-Mart's streamlined and more stylish new brands stand up to Target's.

Misa Numano, a native New Yorker who worked in a boutique on Boston's tony Newbury Street, loves Target as much as I do. Our leanings are somewhat tempered by Melissa Watson, a co-worker from Spokane, Wash., who Misa is charged with dressing. Not yet a Target convert (although no fan of Wal-Mart) she goes in with a more open mind.

Inside, we have free run of the clothing section, and at first it makes us a little giddy. Wal-Mart carries Jordache? We feel nostalgic fingering the '80s label on faux-velvet blazers.

Once in the dressing room, though, the thrill wears off. The Jordache blazer hangs strangely on all three of us, even though we represent a range of sizes - from 2 to 10. Melissa tries on a pair of Levi's jeans. They're tapered - not exactly a modern look. Meanwhile, I scour the aisles for the stylish customer Wal-Mart is trying to appeal to: the Vogue reader. I find one. When asked how frequently she buys clothes at Wal-Mart, she replies, politely, that she's there for football attire. She leaves with a sweatshirt bearing her team's mascot.

Unfortunately, Metro7, which "has been flying off the shelves," according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Gail Lavielle, had not yet made it to Framingham.

After two hours, we're pleasantly surprised with the results. Though nothing fits perfectly, a brown George tweed skirt ($15.57) is a hit. There's also a gold hobo handbag ($12.96), which, to me, looks not unlike this season's slightly garish high-end metallic bags retailing for $500.

After Wal-Mart, Target is a balm. Yes, the clothes are more expensive. (A blue tweed skirt by Merona costs $19.99) And the number of options are as overwhelming as they are tantalizing. (I keep losing track of my shoppers.) But we manage to pull together our outfits in under 30 minutes.

Melissa kept a houndstooth coat ($59.99) and a pair of jeans ($19.95), both by Mossimo, as well as a paisley satin camisole (Xhilaration, $7.48). Misa opted for a bolero sweater with a safety pin clasp (Mossimo, $19.99)

It's a Target outfit - the tweed skirt paired with a lacy, cream-colored Xhilaration top ($12.99) - that elicits an apt comparison to the romantic pieces from a considerably costlier chain. "Anthropologie," says Misa, admiring her handiwork, "but half the price."

Bottom Line: Wal-Mart is less expensive, and once Metro7 arrives it may be worth another trip. But it's no Target.

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