Why Lilly Pulitzer for Target Is Going Where No Capsule Collection Has Gone Before

Old-money label meets big-box retail

Fashion mavens who were miffed over the announcement that Lilly Pulitzer would be selling a collection at Target made nearly as much news as the announcement itself.

In case you missed it, on Jan. 6, Refinery29 broke the news that Lilly Pulitzer—the brand whose cotton shift dresses in tropical prints are the stuff of fashion legend—inked a deal to sell a new collection of clothing and housewares in 1,800 Target stores. In the week or so since the news broke, Twitter has gushed with the bile of the well-dressed and well-heeled who felt the collaboration represented a kind of cosmic misalignment. A sampling:

"OMG I wore Lilly Pulitzer before it was cheap and sold at Target!"

And: "Such a shame … so degrading for the product and the name."

And: "Lilly Pulitzer is turning over in her grave right now that her legacy is being sold at Target."

Yikes. Capsule collections have popped up all over the place in recent years, so why did this one meet with such malcontent?

The most obvious reason is that shoppers who pay the full freight for designer labels aren't pleased when their cherished brand decides to slum it at a big-box store off the Interstate. As one bruised tweeter put it: "So basically I just spent almost $200 on a dress that is going to now be about $50 at Target. What. The. Fuck."

But there's something else going on here, and it has more to do with age-old class divisions than it does with prices. Target may have partnered with high-end brands in the past, but Lilly Pulitzer is the first old-guard, social-register brand to sign on, and that makes a big difference.

"[Lilly Pulitzer fans'] concern is legitimate," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with NPD Group. "The fact is that this is a legacy brand. This is a leading designer who's earned her stripes—or her flowers."

A little explanation of the flowers might help. Pulitzer, a prominent socialite who died in 2013, was an heiress to one fortune (Standard Oil) who married into another (publishing). Stranded and bored in her Palm Beach manse in 1959, Pulitzer decided she needed something to keep herself busy, so she opened a fruit juice stand on Worth Avenue. To hide the stains from the oranges and grapefruits she was squeezing, Pulitzer found some colorful cotton prints and made a shift dress from it.

When customers started asking if they could buy her outfit, nobody was more surprised than Mrs. Pulitzer. "It was made from kitchen curtain material, and people went crazy," she said.

Almost overnight, Pulitzer was a fashion designer, her loud, floral, tropical-colored clothing spotted on the backs of Rockefellers and Whitneys. Park Avenue society maven C.Z. Guest wore Lilly Pulitzer dresses and so did Jacqueline Kennedy. When Pulitzer died in 2013, her New York Times obituary called her clothing "a mark of membership for old-money families at play."

That, then, is the legacy that's destined for Target racks. And it's one that differs markedly from nearly all of the other collaborations the mass-market retailer has done with other famous names. For one thing, while Lilly Pulitzer's heritage goes back 55 years, most of the other designers to appear in Target have been relative newcomers. For example, Joseph Altuzarra, who did a 50-piece collection for Target last May, has only been in business since 2008. The hot British label Peter Pilotto was only seven years old when its Target collection hit stores in February 2014. And Jason Wu, whose Target collection appeared in 2012, debuted his own label as late as 2006.

Other Target guest designers have simply lacked the pedigree of Lilly Pulitzer. Brooklyn-born Isaac Mizrahi's money-losing clothes had been dumped by Chanel prior to his signing with Target in 2002, and now he's designing for QVC. Southern California designer Mossimo catered to the tastes of volleyball players before Target saved the brand from a date with bankruptcy court in 2000. And Missoni—which did a gangbuster collection for Target in 2011—is seen as a little Eurotrashy by some.

Little wonder, then, that some observers question whether Lilly Pulitzer can hold onto its old-guard exclusivity (or its fans) once the Target collection debuts.

Lauren Indvik, editor in chief of Fashionista, points out that the smartest designer collaborations—say, H&M's partnerships with Jimmy Choo and Alexander Wang—are limited-run collections with moderately high prices that safeguard the designer's reputation. By contrast, "Target's taken a very different approach in that they're doing fashion for everyone," she said. "They haven't done small quantities. A lot of it ends up discounted, and a lot of it doesn't do well. It's a different proposition."

Cohen adds that loyal fans of designers "are always upset" about collaborations with mass retailers. "[They say,] 'Why would you allow someone to buy the product who's never bought it before?'"

For its part, the Lilly Pulitzer brand is quite aware that its Target collaboration is breaking with tradition. "It’s a big deal for a brand with our kind of legacy to do a collaboration like this," said Jane Schoenborn, the brand’s VP for creative communications. "We have seen an overwhelmingly positive response and—as to be expected—some that are questioning it. Lilly customers are incredibly loyal and fiercely protective of the brand, [and] we value that."

Schoenborn added that the Target collection would "respect the legacy of our brand," and Cohen agrees. "The product," he said, "is going to be unique and different, so it's not going to be an issue."

Time will tell, of course. Meanwhile, longtime fans continue to be nervous—a condition the Twitterati find amusing. Said one: "Wow, people are genuinely upset about Lilly Pulitzer for Target. Oh no, now how will rich, white girls spot each other in a crowd?!"

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.