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New era of design differentiation dawns in post Graves world

Even ground-breaking partnerships must come to an end, and that will be the case next month when after collaborating on roughly 2,000 items over a 13-year span, the final offering of Michael Graves branded products arrives in Target stores.

Graves and Target announced the separation in a press release that was amicable enough, but in light of recent events involving JCPenney, it seems conceivable that Graves may soon have another outlet for his housewares designs. JCPenney is on a hunt for merchandise exclusives, and when the retailer’s new CEO and former Apple and Target executive Ron Johnson hosted an event for investors last month in New York he made a point of letting everyone in attendance know that Graves was on hand for the unveiling of JCPenney’s transformation strategy.

“One of the great pleasures I’ve had in my life is to work with really great people,” Johnson told the roughly 700 people gathered for the over-the-top investor meeting. “Michael Graves is here. Michael and I got to work together at Target. Let’s hear it for Michael.”

From there, Johnson segued to discussing JCPenney’s expanding relationship with Martha Stewart and how merchandise differentiation will be the cornerstone of the company’s strategy. As for Graves, nothing official has been announced – yet – by JCPenney, but with the designer’s partnership at Target ending the handwriting would appear to be on the wall. In the meantime, the final installment of Graves designed kitchen gadgets, cleaning tools and storage solutions arrive in stores in March and will be available until year end or supplies last.

“Together we created an iconic product collection that expertly blended design with function,” said Stacia Andersen, SVP home merchandising at Target. “While this partnership is coming to end, Target remains dedicated to bringing our guests innovative design in new and meaningful ways.” 

Graves debuted in Target stores to great fanfare in 1999 and for good reason. At the time, the relationship was very unconventional, but it sparked a revolution of sorts as Target would churn out exclusive design partnerships as a means of achieving differentiation and making good on the brand promise of “expect more, pay less.”

Along the way, beyond simply creating some cool new household gadgets, the partnership included several architectural projects including the Washington Monument Restoration, the Elephant Fountain at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the Target Wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“Beginning in 1997 with the Washington Monument, Target has been a wonderful partner who has afforded me an opportunity to bring great design to America on a scale that was unimaginable before our partnership,” said Graves said. “I am very proud of the design work and its legacy, and I look forward to continued opportunities to design great products for American homes.”

Perhaps such an opportunity will emerge at JCPenney in the not too distant future.

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