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Target's Holo Promise

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Ladies and gentlemen," I heard a booming, disembodied female voice declare in that semi-robotic yet oddly seductive tone that always seems futuristic when it comes out of nowhere to tell you that the door is about to open in some crappy airport shuttle: "The Target Nautilus Fashion Show will begin in five minutes.''

I was standing in Vanderbilt Hall, on the East 42nd Street side of New York's Grand Central Station, waiting to see the show, so I didn't know what this Nautilus thing was. Would they be pumping iron or plunging 2,000 leagues under the sea?

As it turns out, I heard wrong. Announcer girl was saying "Model-less'' fashion show, as in the catwalkers would be holograms.

I knew that going in, of course, from the artful print advertising and mobile texting campaign promoting the show. This is the very definition of modern advertising—compelling entertainment that people want to seek out. It's also the sort of spectacle that is so original and, at the same time, so Target: With H&M and Zara doing affordable knockoffs, it's easy to forget that the retailer practically invented the democratization of style. So throwing a holographic fashion show in a train terminal for the entertainment of passersby—no white tents or snooty PR people with clipboards needed—is an inspired idea. It also fits with the discounter's long-standing, more-cutting-edge-than-thou branding genius.

And the whole "-less'' thing cleverly extends the "style for less'' positioning. In practice, however, the "model-less'' promise is not exactly true. It seems that even in the holographic world, we can't get away from size 2s. Indeed, the bodies of regulation-perfect male and female models were cast, recorded wearing an array of Target's fall offerings, played back and then projected in HD.

Although these figures seem fully 3-D, they are invisible apart from the clothes, accessories and, in a few cases, wigs they wear. The facelessness was definitely disconcerting, but it also fired up the imagination with a Colorforms-meets-paper-dolls-meets-Second-Life quality. The joke is that you save a lot of money on models this way, but the precept that they tend to be airheads seems more to the point. (And actual models wouldn't want to repeat the show for 12 hours straight, as the holograms did for two days, so there's a benefit.)

As the crowd gathered, waiting for the show to start, and our mesmerizing announcer counted down the minutes, people seemed a bit mystified: They knew something was going to be projected in this grand, high- ceilinged hall, but it was hard to figure out how, or even where to look.

There was no runway. With this technology from Musion, London, the models would have been missing a side if they had strutted forward. As a result, much of the action was composed horizontally. Who knew that a fashion show could be successful sideways?

The five-minute presentation was a delight—from the opening moments featuring a bouncy female hologram dressing in her airy bedroom to the finale, where she returned to her boudoir, hung the Target bull's-eye on the wall ("Goodnight, Moon!") and disappeared into the ether.

The audience was riveted. The show emphasized Target's roster of designers (even hanging Hollywould shoes and Dominique Cohen jewelry off a tree), and the content was clever and forward looking. But any narrative form went the way of necks and heads: With multitudes of outfit changes, the story seemed to be all over the place.

The best part involved a wedding scene that showcased Isaac Mizrahi's new line of bridal looks for under $200. Though extremely minimal, it would have done Martha Stewart proud. The bride descended a transparent staircase, second in architectural beauty only to the oversized chandelier. At first I thought the lighting was supposed to echo the hipster style of Philippe Starck, but the producers went one better: The holographic fixture mirrored the gorgeous Beaux-Arts chandelier that we were, in fact, standing beneath—a brilliant touch.

From there, it seemed that the couple's vows involved staying together through richer, poorer and many wardrobe changes. When a bump appeared, the model switched just as quickly into Liz Lange maternity wear.

There were other clever moments, such as when the models jumped to touch the red Target icon, hung overhead like a basket.

I stayed to see the show more than once—the first time for all the visual mystery and magic, the second time for the clothes. Unfortunately, compared with the A+ spectacle of the show—and the movement matched the music beat for beat—the clothes, aside from Mizrahi's bridal wares, were maybe a C+.

And that's why traditional fashion shows are filled with outrageous offerings that would never be worn on the street. It turns out that sensible, affordably priced everyday-wear is kind of boring to watch—even when worn by state-of-the-art headless holograms.