Exclusive: LGBTQ designers hoped Target would boost their brands; instead they got the boot

  • by Cynthia Laird and John Ferrannini
  • Friday May 24, 2024
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Veronica Vasquez, left, and Jennifer Serrano own JZD and had some of their merchandise in Target's 2023 Pride collection. Photo: Courtesy JZD
Veronica Vasquez, left, and Jennifer Serrano own JZD and had some of their merchandise in Target's 2023 Pride collection. Photo: Courtesy JZD

At first, it seemed like a dream come true. LGBTQ designers and artists were recruited by Target to create merchandise for the giant retailer's Pride collection. Not only would the job bring in revenue, it would create exposure for the creatives and their products.

But last year, caught up in a right-wing backlash, Target buckled. Shortly after the Pride collection dropped in mid-May — before Pride Month even started in June — anti-LGBTQ activists and conservatives waged a campaign against the items and Target capitulated. It removed Pride displays from the front of many stores and even shifted some items to its website for online purchase only.

That left designers and artists feeling angry and betrayed, two couples, who run two companies, told the Bay Area Reporter in a series of recent Zoom calls. They decided to speak out because Target's 2024 Pride collection is slated to drop soon. But it will be very different from last year.

"When Target comes knocking on your door, we've made it," Jennifer Serrano, of JZD, said about her and her wife's initial excitement at working with the company.

For this year, according to a May 9 statement, Target is "offering a collection of products including adult apparel and home and food and beverage items, curated based on consumer feedback. The collection will be available on Target.com and in select stores, based on historical sales performance."

In other words, not all the stores will have a Pride display, as NPR reported. Based on what designers told the B.A.R., it seems likely that Target locations in more conservative areas of the country will not feature Pride-themed merchandise.

Target is the sixth-largest retailer in the U.S., according to the National Retail Federation. The publicly traded company, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has a net worth of $70.08 billion, as of May 17, according to analysts.

Models wear JZD's "Bien Proud" T-shirts, which were designed for Target's 2023 Pride collection. Photo: Courtesy JZD  

Serrano and Veronica Vasquez are a queer lesbian Latina couple who own JZD, a lifestyle brand celebrating culture every day based in Brownsville, Texas. The women, who've been married for almost 10 years, said they were first contacted by Target in 2021 for its Hispanic Heritage Month collection, in which that collaboration launched in 2022. They were excited to be informed Target wanted them to contribute to its 2023 Pride collection.

JZD has an online store and two brick-and-mortar locations. Additionally, its products are sold at boutiques and smaller stores across the country, according to its website. Serrano and Vasquez started the company in 2016.

The women said they're speaking out now as an NDA has expired, freeing them to tell their story.

They started on the Target project about a year in advance.

"We could blend that with our queer identities," Serrano said, referring to creating items that honored their Latina and LGBTQ cultures.

"A lot of pieces were released in Spanglish," she added, referring to the language variety that results from conversationally combining Spanish and English.

JZD created apparel, including kids' T-shirts, adult shirts, and unisex items. For the Pride collection, the women designed and produced the items with their factory and had them shipped to Target for nationwide distribution.

Additionally, there were plans for a commercial. Target flew the women to Los Angeles for what Serrano said was a Spanglish ad.

"It never saw the light of day," she said.

Target's Pride collection dropped earlier in May last year, and almost immediately, Serrano and Vasquez started hearing about problems.

"Everything exploded before Pride Month even started," Vasquez said.

Explained Serrano, "We started hearing from Target employees and JZD customers that Target was prioritizing swimwear and moved Pride to the back, but our products were still up. But we started getting Instagrams of the shelves empty along the Bible Belt.

"We went to our Target in Texas and the products were jammed in the back of the store," she added.

"What had been a full display was moved to one tiny little shelf," Vasquez added. "The signage was taken down."

Neither woman initially heard anything from Target officials. Then they learned the reason for the change was to promote swimwear merchandise.

Ash Molesso, left, and Chess Needham, of Ash & Chess, had only a few items in last year's Target Pride collection. Photo: Wynne Neilly  

Ash Molesso and Chess Needham, who are a couple and identify as queer and trans respectively, had an eerily similar experience to Vasquez and Serrano. They were contacted by Target in 2022 to create items from their Ash & Chess company for the 2023 Pride collection.

They, too, said they were flown to Los Angeles for a commercial that was subsequently scrapped. Ash & Chess' commercial featured a father coming out to his daughter, and the daughter giving him one of Molesso and Needham's greeting cards.

Molesso and Needham are based in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where they have an eponymous greeting card company and a brick-and-mortar store in Kingston. In addition to cards, the site sells T-shirts, stickers, and other items.

"We were contacted by Target in March 2022 and they wanted to know if we were interested in collaborating with them for their 2023 Pride line," Molesso said in a Zoom interview. "We took a Zoom meeting with the people running the Target Heritage collection," which is responsible for products catering to the LGBTQ, Latino, and other communities.

After the meeting, Target contracted with Molesso and Needham to be among the company's featured artists, Molesso said. The pair came up with 16 different designs — exclusive to Target — to be featured on "T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and calendars," Needham said.

Molesso said that among the products the pair came up with were a queer tarot card deck, a kids book and a guided journal titled "My Queer Year."

"Through the entire process we had free reign of everything," Molesso said. "They had nothing to say about the content."

Needham said that the pair tried to center the transgender community. A series of pieces of legislation, then and now, have been restricting gender-affirming care among youth, trans girls' participation on girls' sports teams, and trans people's ability to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. In 2023, over 500 such bills were introduced and 75 passed in state legislatures nationwide, according to NBC News.

"We tried to focus a lot on trans issues anyway, due to all the anti-trans bills in the U.S., we thought that would be important to have," Needham said. "They thought all that was great."

On May 24 last year, Target issued a statement, attributing the change in the Pride displays to safety reasons.

"For more than a decade, Target has offered an assortment of products aimed at celebrating Pride Month," the statement read. "Since introducing this year's collection, we've experienced threats impacting our team members' sense of safety and well-being while at work. Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.

"Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year," the statement added.

JZD's pronoun T-shirt was designed for Target's 2023 Pride collection. Photo: Courtesy JZD  

About a week and a half later, after Memorial Day weekend, Target began what the Serrano and Vasquez described as "crisis communication" with them, though they did not know the Target officials that contacted them — they weren't the ones who had discussed their merchandise beforehand.

"They laid out what they decided," Serrano said. "They dropped two products completely." A "Bien Proud" kids' T-shirt was pulled entirely. Adult "Bien Proud" tees were kept online and in-store. A T-shirt design featuring pronouns was pulled from the store and removed online.

"Target picked 'Bien Proud' for a family item and they decided we were trying to groom children," Vasquez said.

They also said customers were not allowed to purchase some items before they were removed. "Orders were canceled for curbside pickup," said Serrano.

Jennifer Serrano, left, and Veronica Vasquez said they were both distressed by what happened to them last year. Photo: Courtesy JZD  

Support lacking from Target
Serrano said that she and Vasquez tried to get Target to make a statement in support of the LGBTQ community. Needham said Ash & Chess also asked the company to issue a statement.

"Their decision was giving in to the hate," Serrano said.

Vasquez said that while they were concerned about employee safety, there were other ways to go about it, such as increasing security at stores.

Serrano and Vasquez said they did receive hate mail and negative messages on social media.

"I went off social for a couple of months," Vasquez said. "They were calling us pedophiles."

"I had to put it on the back burner for a little bit," she added. "It was too much. I'd wake up every single day crying. It was a terrible, terrible time."

Most of the snail mail came from churches, the women recounted.

"Mostly, we got religious people saying they could 'save' us somehow," added Serrano.

Target declined to answer specific questions from the B.A.R. about the 2023 and 2024 Pride collections. It issued a statement attributed to a company spokesperson.

"Target is committed to supporting the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month and year-round," the statement read. "Most importantly, we want to create a welcoming and supportive environment for our LGBTQIA+ team members, which reflects our culture of care for the over 400,000 people who work at Target. We have long offered benefits and resources for the community, and we will have internal programs to celebrate Pride 2024.

"Beyond our own teams, we will have a presence at local Pride events in Minneapolis and around the country, and we continue to support a number of LGBTQIA+ organizations," the spokesperson stated. "Additionally, we will offer a collection of products for Pride, including adult apparel, home products, food and beverage, which has been curated based on guest insights and consumer research. These items, starting at $3, will be available in select stores and on Target.com."

Molesso, Needham, Serrano, and Vasquez are not participating in Target's 2024 Pride collection. And they said that their experience soured them on the company.

"You brought us in and asked for our coming out stories," Serrano said of working with Target. "We were two diversity boxes checked."

Vasquez said the lesbians were put out front but then not helped in any way. "They said they could email us resources," she said, but that turned out to be "basically stay off social media."

As for the items that were pulled, Serrano said most were discarded, though they have no idea where. In retail, what's known as a "charge-back" happens whereby the manufacturer, in this case JZD, has to pay for items that don't sell. The women were worried they'd be on the hook for a lot of money.

"We're a small business," said Vasquez. "The first thing we worried about was, 'We're ruined.' We made sure to ask, and we didn't have to pay for the unsold items. But we don't know what happened to them."

Serrano and Vasquez didn't specify how many items were made, but it was a lot. "The volume was ordered [from their manufacturer] was for front-of-store placement," Vasquez said.

The women credited their team with helping them secure the commitment from Target that they wouldn't have to pay for the unsold merchandise.

Serrano and Vasquez declined to share specific financial information about the Target deal and JZD because of contracts they have.

For Molesso and Needham, the excitement at being featured at one of America's most popular retail stores came crashing down when, a couple of weeks after they got back from filming the commercial, "two higher-up representatives from Target we had never been in contact with before scheduled a Zoom with us and they told us that the bulk of our trans-related products, except one or two items, were being moved to online only," Needham said.

"We were supposed to have two to three items online, and they were supposed to be a special thing — exclusive, online only — to entice people to shop online," Needham said.

When Serrano and Vasquez heard about the issues with this year's Target Pride collection, they weren't surprised.

"But I was livid," Serrano said. "I feel so much for the brands impacted this year. I know what it's like to be chasing those dreams."

Vasquez said Target "is the definition of a performative ally."

"You don't realize that until they do you wrong," she said, adding that the company was convincing that it would be there for the couple but was not.

Ash & Chess initially had many items planned for Target's 2023 Pride collection. Photo: Ash Molesso  

Ash & Chess
Molesso said the original excuse they were given during the May 2023 meeting was also that the Pride collections at Target were being deprioritized in favor of swimwear. But the truth quickly came to light, Needham said.

"We were like, 'it seems you're doing this because of all the anti-trans legislation going on right now,'" Needham said. "But they said 'no, you're mistaken. It may seem like that but this has nothing to do with this.' But why else would these specific items be moved out of stores?"

Molesso and Needham said that they were told by people who worked at Target who they were in touch with on social media that the moves were only in Region 300, which is in the South, and that the reason was concerns over employee safety.

Needham said that the higher-ups told them that "they always move things around because it's swim season in the Southern states." But Needham had noticed that, heretofore, swimwear was always prioritized in the front of the store along with the Pride Month collections.

"We get on this meeting with them and they show us a slideshow of items that they are moving to either online or completely pulling — not making available online even — and they go through the list and by the end of the slideshow, there are only two items left," Molesso said, adding the items were "paper items, greeting cards. No clothing, no accessories.

"By the time June rolled around there were only a tarot deck and I think, like, our guided journal and the two stationery items remained," Molesso added.

Molesso and Needham are distressed that Target would not make a statement in support of the LGBTQ community in the aftermath of its decisions, and that while it promised it would donate proceeds to The Trevor Project or GLSEN, there's "no proof they did anything," Needham said.

"I said, 'there's no profits. You didn't sell anything,'" Needham said. "I suggested they donate to smaller organizations — Trevor Project and GLSEN are extremely well-funded."

Officials from The Trevor Project did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for GLSEN stated that no one was available to comment.

Molesso and Needham said they had licensed their artwork to Target, which produced the items, and that afterward Target did give them back the rights to their designs.

"We did work with a team of queer people, and it was really nice during that, but it was just so disheartening doing all this work, and it's too good to be true, and they're letting us spread visibility, and giving us this platform and after the meeting we were just kind of laughing — is this a joke?" asked Molesso.

Molesso and Needham are working to put the experience behind them. But they said it did have an effect on their business in that they were not receiving as many freelance jobs as before. Instead, they've worked on a few collaborations with smaller niche companies, they said.

The couple declined to share financial information about their company.

Like Serrano and Vasquez, Molesso and Needham called Target "performative" in its actions, or lack thereof, regarding last year. Neither were surprised to hear that most of the Pride collection this year will be online and not in stores.

"They had a whole year to prepare," Needham said, referring to what happened in 2023.

Dana Piccoli of News is Out contributed to this report.

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