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H & M Plays Dress-Up for the Masses

By Robin Givhan
The Washington Post
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page C02


Like a lot of mass-market merchants who fancy themselves fashion-savvy, H&M could not ignore the extreme marketing potential of a runway show. But unlike the modest catwalk presentations and showroom dinners organized by similar brands, H&M proceeded to transform a presentation of clothes into a five-hour extravaganza -- a feat of hubris that may well be unsurpassed in an industry that is, in large part, fueled by ego.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Models swaggered on the runway in people-friendly outfits. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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Cheap fashion -- a $17 silk plunge-back jersey top, a $20 corset, a $130 brocade jacket, $35 embroidered shoes -- got its due Wednesday as 150 models paraded under klieg lights in a four-story-high tent in Central Park. The white tent with its clear roof loomed in the distance just off Fifth Avenue, beyond a running path crowded with sweaty after-work joggers and a hula class practicing its rump shake on a patch of shady grass. Clothes for hoi polloi in the most egalitarian of settings. The models, both men and women, swaggered with all of the bravado typically reserved for a pair of overpriced trousers and a $2,000 droopy silk blouson.

H&M lavished its audience with all of the usual high-end flourishes, from the open bars serving homemade ginger ale and sparkling wine to the grilled shrimp and seared tuna hors d'oeuvres making the rounds. There were curtains of purple orchids, walls of roses and a wait staff army dressed in the cheerful magenta of a Gerber daisy. Hip-hop star Kanye West performed, along with R&B singer John Legend and violinist Miri Ben-Ari in the kind of fashion-meets-pop-culture party moment that has become common. The audience was filled with the expected local fashion suspects -- the magazine editors, the stylists, the party hoppers who would happily attend the opening of an envelope. The Swedish company, which has more than 1,000 stores in 21 countries, also flew in 200 writers from abroad to fluff up the audience and bear witness to the extravaganza.

Although the entertainment and the libations were high-end, the celebrity portion of the guest list was in keeping with the mass accessibility of the brand. When the red carpet prominently showcases Mario Vasquez -- the "American Idol" candidate who quit the competition -- one can pretty much stop keeping an eye out for fashion star power such as Nicole Kidman or Renee Zellweger. A woman with a small Pomeranian was spotted in the tent and one couldn't help wonder whether one of the park's many dog walkers had strolled in out of curiosity or to use the makeshift facilities. (From all appearances, both the dog and its walker were actual guests.)

H&M has been around in Europe since 1947 but rose to prominence in the United States in 2000, when it opened its flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Its store in downtown Washington, in the old Woodward & Lothrop building, opened in 2003. Famous for disposable fashion, it promised to bring hipster cool to the masses. At times, H&M, whose March sales have risen 20 percent compared with last year, has lived up to the hype. In 2004 it had bargain hunters writhing in shopaholic glee over its limited-edition Karl Lagerfeld collection. But sometimes the clothes have been so poorly made that they expired long before the fad.

Although H&M employs more than 100 designers who travel the world absorbing inspiration, they do not produce the surprising silhouettes and fabric mixes that tend to alter the direction of fashion or change the way in which consumers think about style. Nowhere was this more apparent on the runway than in the grouping of clothes described as "minimalist." In mostly black and white with splashes of marigold and violet, the collection focuses on tailored suits, slinky jersey pullovers and the kind of indiscernible shapes that look splendid on a tall lanky model but that make a woman of average height and slender build look as though she is wrapped in swaddling cloth.

The best pieces were those that the company calls "rustic." These include roughly knit sweaters, plaid shirts, lumberjack jackets and sturdy skirts -- all worn at the same time. And another group, inspired by the mere fact that Sofia Coppola is making a movie about Marie Antoinette, was filled with a blend of rococo flourishes and rock-and-roll attitude. Brocade, ruffles, feathers and metallics peacefully coexisted in the fashion show's biggest jolt of energy.

Despite their exotic inspiration, these rock-star clothes are not aspirational. The humble sweaters and even the brocade jackets could slip unobtrusively into the average closet. Most people don't want to be fashion leaders. They like to be safely in the middle of the pack. More than needing to know what to wear, they want to know how to make ordinary clothes look interesting.

At its best, the H&M show functioned like an enormous instructional exercise in styling -- that elusive skill of mixing and matching banal elements into something personal and distinctive.

This was user-friendly fashion slicked up with musicians, food, alcohol and flowers. The typical high-end runway show is overly focused on artistic integrity and personal messages and ignores the petty needs of the consumer. The usual mass-market show panders to the consumer in ways that are uninspiring and, at times, downright boring. The H&M production was arrogantly, indulgently, pridefully grand. Just what was needed to make a $30 party shirt with a matching sequined scarf seem blissfully practical but no less rousing.

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