NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

Free Subscriptions

Editors, to be emailed when new stories are posted, contact: mary.dambrosio@nyu.edu

NY Stories

Publish Cutting-Edge Stories from



Latest Stories


Past Stories

Our Subscribers

Our Subscribers


Designer Labels Slum It

Recession and hopes for profit lure high-end labels to malls of the masses

Email icon  kep276@nyu.edu

A woman is bragging about her outfit. She instructs her friends to feel the fabric, to smell it, and she delights in their lustful gazes. This scene seems lifted out of “The Devil Wears Prada;” adoring fashionistas handling a dress worth thousands of dollars. However, this woman happens to be a thrifty college student, and her sartorial source of pride is a Zac Posen for Target dress. Retail price: $39.99.

Zac Posen, whose Target collection hit stores April 25, is only the most recent high-end designer to do a low-market collaboration with Target. A list of his predecessors reads like a who’s who of the fashion industry: Anna Sui, Karl Lagerfeld, the Mulleavy sisters at Rodarte, and the late Alexander McQueen all, at one time, held a guest designer title at the chain. H&M, too, has followed this trend, launching capsule collections by Sonia Rykiel, Matthew Williamson, and Stella McCartney.

These cheap offshoots of a designer’s luxury brand are called diffusion lines. Their emergence over the past few years has revolutionized the fashion industry, creating a clear division between those designers who participate and those who don’t. Diffusion lines have also affected the fashion industry’s audience, making designer labels accessible to many more consumers.

But the practice confuses designers and consumers alike.

“You establish an image and a reputation high-end, but as everybody knows, if you sell a million of something inexpensive, you’re going to make more money than selling ten of something that is outrageously expensive, incredibly expensive,” said New York University professor Patricia Lennox. Lennox teaches courses in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study about “the way clothing has been used to establish identity” through history.

Lennox explained diffusion lines in terms of simplicity. “There’s a sense of the magic [that one gets from buying designer clothes]. And they’re obviously profitable. Because…we can produce masses of clothes so cheaply.”

Less costly clothes are easier to sell. Elisa Taylor, a college student in Carrollton, Georgia, said she became interested in fashion after discovering of diffusion lines. “[The clothes being in] stores like Target and Kohl’s makes me seek out the products, because, well, I can afford them. And once I get home and sit in my new $50 cocktail dress, I look up the designers’ legitimate lines, and then I dream about buying one of those $5,000 cocktail dresses.”

That may be exactly the reaction designers hope for.

They want to create a new client base in the midst of a recession, though experts insist the brands’ original clients have not been affected.

“I know that people talk about the market, but the very wealthy, the people who buy the designers’ clothes, are still there. So that end of marketing has actually not been impacted by any of the recessions,” Lennox pointed out.

Not everyone has been so lucky. So the diffusion lines could potentially be a real boon to the fashionista on a budget.

“But what are you buying, then?” Lennox mused. “Because you’re not getting the fabric. You’re not getting the cut, and that’s what luxury used to be about.”

Andrea Ng, an employee at the Eryn Brinie boutique in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, agreed.

“I have never bought anything from a diffusion line,” she said. “The quality of diffusion lines is so bad that I can buy something with better quality without the label for the same price.”

Despite dubious quality, the lines have met with enormous commercial success.

“I find that people who buy diffusion lines buy the items just for the sake of the designer’s name and the hype is not worth it for such bad quality and simplified designs,” Ng said. Instead, “Now, I tend to wait for sales or special promotions instead of buying things full price… I’d rather save up or wait for a sample sale for the designer’s original label.”

So while at first the prevalence of diffusion line seems linked to the recession, a closer look proves that many consumers don’t see the connection.

“I wasn’t affected by the recession here since I’m not originally from the states,” said Dabina Gim, the news director of New York University’s fashion magazine “NYChic.” But she still sees the relevance of diffusion lines. Originally from the Philippines, Gim said she does most of her shopping when she returns to Manila. “I don’t own anything from a diffusion line but if the quality of the material was good and the style was nice, I think I would give it a shot,” she said. “I remember one of my classmates saying that the quality of H&M’s designer collaboration was so close to the original line that people who bought from the expensive one were upset.”

All these women also agree that diffusion lines are here to stay. At least for awhile.

“As long as the clothes they provide are fun,” Lennox said. “And the feedback seems to be that people are delighted with the idea of owning a Rodarte or a Stella McCartney or whatever.”

Some top designers are trying to beat the recession by selling cheap versions of their work in run-of-the-mill shops. Photo by Jared Preston