H & M Plays Dress-Up for the Masses
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.
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.
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.
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.