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Retailer Capitalizes on Fashion's Short Shelf Life

Cheap-chic chain H&M opens Thursday in Pasadena. Some serious shopping is expected.

September 20, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Credit card? Check. Running shoes? Check. Helmet and elbow pads? Check. Check.

Shopping isn't normally considered a contact sport, but when H&M, the Swedish cheap-chic chain known for whipping up retail frenzies, opens its first Southern California store Thursday in Pasadena, protective gear might be in order.

When H&M opened in New York, lines snaked around a city block. In Chicago, the crowd rushed the doors with the fierce energy of Oklahomans at a land rush. In San Francisco last year, the bargain-hungry lined up before sunrise.

"It was insane," recalls Lauren Frank, a recent UC Berkeley graduate from West Los Angeles. "People were clawing each other for some items."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
H&M: A front-page story in Wednesday's A section about the H&M retail outlet opening a store in Pasadena identified Behnaz Sarafpour, who is creating a collection for Target, as a designer of Barneys New York's private label. She is a former designer of the Barneys private label collection.

H&M -- and its aggressive competitors, including L.A.-based Forever 21, the Spanish chain Zara and Target -- are the vanguard of a retail revolution that is changing the way Americans think about and shop for clothes. While big department stores and elite designers struggle, stores like these, which quickly deliver runway trends at bargain-basement prices, are winning the hearts and wallets of both well-heeled clotheshorses and thrifty wannabes.

The signs are everywhere: Forever 21 now inhabits the former Saks Fifth Avenue in Pasadena. The respected designer of Barneys New York's private label, Behnaz Sarafpour, is now creating another exclusive collection -- for Target. Fashion glossies such as Marie Claire feature a $2,500 Ralph Lauren black cape alongside a $59.99 version from H&M. And H&M, which began its U.S. invasion just six years ago, will have 108 stores in this country when the Old Pasadena outpost opens at noon Thursday.

"H&M has been able to do what so few others have," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm. "They create allure at ridiculously low prices."

H&M and its ilk have been labeled "fast fashion" because they get fresh looks in their stores months before the designers who created them can ship so much as a belt. They are masters of the quick turnaround: When a new look surfaces -- on the street, the runway or the Internet -- they can have it on the racks in three weeks. Stores get deliveries of new merchandise daily, sometimes two or three times a day.

Thanks to novelty-addicted consumers, a group not known for patience once their passion has been ignited, retail sales of fast fashion increased 10% in the last two years, compared with growth of 3% to 4% in the overall apparel market.

Hennes & Mauritz, H&M to you, has become Europe's largest clothing seller with more than 1,200 stores in 23 countries and annual sales of $7.6 billion. After the 9,000-square-foot Pasadena location opens, a store more than twice as big will come to the Beverly Center on Oct. 26. In November, another will open at the Santa Anita Mall, followed by two more at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa next spring.

Nobody does hype better. H&M fueled rumors of its arrival in L.A. for months. It ran a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign featuring Madonna and, in early August, splashed her image across the west face of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The first 100 customers in Pasadena will receive gift cards worth $10 to $300. (In San Francisco, early birds got 20% discounts.) Maybe that explains some of the "frenzy."

The fashion industry has a long history of copycats reproducing haute design on the cheap, and women have been known to fib to their closest friends about the origin of a good-looking find. But for the last decade, moderately priced chains Banana Republic, Bebe, Old Navy and Club Monaco have sold such attractive basics that the idea of putting a designer jacket over a $20 T-shirt became standard for everyone but the most hidebound logo fiends, even celebrities. When an actress cops to wearing H&M in the pages of InStyle, a mere mortal can abandon label snobbery too.

As mixing high and low advanced from being acceptable to becoming an expression of personal style, wearing inexpensive clothes, even those without a pedigree, acquired cachet.

Of course, H&M hasn't completely thumbed its nose at the design establishment. It was the first to sign up high-profile designers to create small collections sold in select stores for short periods of time. In 2004, Karl Lagerfeld, who designs for Chanel and Fendi, created a line exclusively for H&M. A year later, Stella McCartney designed a 30-piece H&M collection, including $79.90 sweaters similar to some priced at $1,665 in her eponymous line, owned by the Gucci Group.

With names like Lagerfeld and McCartney attached, and scarcity engineered, the limited editions sold out within hours. Jaye Hersh, the owner of Intuition, a West Los Angeles boutique that sells $250 jeans to the style-obsessed, asked a friend to queue up on her behalf in New York when the Lagerfeld line went on sale.

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