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Fashion Sequel Mistake or Stroke of Marketing Genius?

Fashion trends are typically cyclical, the most successful examples repeating every 20 years or every two-scores. Like blockbuster movies that often spawn an equally successful sequel, sellers of retro-fashions typically take a risk that the styles being resurrected will find favor in an era that is completely new. Most recurring fashions that find acceptance in a new millennium are those whose original form drew favor and acceptance among the widest of social cultures. Extremes designs that achieve “fad” status often fail to experience even a hint of a second coming. Let’s face it, we aren’t likely to experience a fashion resurgence of Hammer Pants or sagging-derriere revealing jeans. How about a raise of hands for the return of plaid, bell-bottomed khakis with three-inch cuffs? Leisure suits anyone?

Some former fashion faux pas replays are running into a cultural evolution, leaving designers and fashion retailers to apologize for insensitivity. Claire McCardell introduced a new design in the 1940s to fill a need for a ready-to-wear, utility dress suitable for wearing at home in the World War II era. The stylish wrap-dress included an oven mitt, conveniently buttoned to the garment’s apron panel. Yep, don’t think the oven mitt or apron will survive the newest edition. As the fog of wartime lifted, the Zoot Suit, Balloon Jacket and the British Siren Suit faded along with the bad memories.

Dredging up once popular fashion successes has its level of risks, even when original designs are modified to take into account changes in new-era tastes. The best that retro-fashion makers can hope for is a repeat of the original’s revenue performance and market popularity. But it’s just as likely for the retro version to become a long-term resident on warehouse bargain racks. Failure to navigate the fashion curve properly can be very painful.

While some initial reactions to a company’s offerings can be negative, fate, that intangible realm of being where being in the right place at the right time, can help turn a devastating error of imagination into a surprising success story. “I don’t think Target meant to create a hideous dress,” says Rachel Weingarten, Brand Strategist and Trend Analyst. “I think they meant to piggyback off the Duchess of Cambridge’s ladylike dresses, only an affordable version. It was just bad timing.”

The “prairie dress” was a retro version of a once-popular style reminiscent of the American dust-bowl era and more simplistic times in rural America. Consumers who first experienced seeing the loose-fitting garment in a wide variety of colorful prints, more times than not, lamented that the usually competent buyers at Target had made a big mistake. But unlike past fashion missteps, this one debuted in a time of social media dominance and a time of social crisis. The result is an example of how even the most ridiculous of errors in design judgment can find redemption when combined with the miracle of the internet. Locked down in seclusion, COVID-19 survivors were starved for humor and looking for creative ways to expel feelings of deep, lasting frustration. Marketing influencers saw an opportunity to right something that could become very wrong.

Enter the #TargetDressChallenge, a viral challenge of humorous images and funny captions depicting consumers wearing the now-infamous “Target dress”. The public was encouraged to share photos and videos wearing the dress on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter if they wanted to become a part of the challenge. The humorous pictures and videos have gone viral, amassing tens of thousands of views, reactions, and comments across the spectrum of social media platforms. Inspired by the interest in the dress, a Prairie Dress 5X5X50 Run is in the works to raise awareness and funds for the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. Participants are required to attire in a Prairie Dress and run a 5K on March 20 and 21, 2021. Bonnets and aprons are optional.

The digital social media blitz has caused most Target locations to sell out of the dress that was originally priced from $18.50 to $29.95.  Some other fashion outlets are jumping on the covered wagon as it leaves the depot with up-scaled offerings priced from $65.00 to $229.00. Many are describing the Target line of dresses as “pandemic prairie”, a style that is most likely going to redefine the term “business casual” in an era when many consumers are working from home. Is it possible that the dress may become this year’s newest and most popular Halloween costume?

Many in the marketing world are now suggesting that the popularity of the “prairie dress” was no fashion faux pas, but rather a well-planned and coordinated social media campaign designed to boost Target’s brand image. But whether a stroke of marketing genius or strike of good fate, the “prairie dress” and the #TargetDressChallenge is just the latest fashion-sequel success story.