Thursday September 20, 2012
High street label H&M serves up inspiring fashion at affordable prices
Stories by PATSY KAM
High street label H&M serves up inspiring fashion at cost-conscious prices with the audacity of designer fare.
SCANDIVANIAN design is globally well-known for its modern, clean and minimalist approach. Just in case you’re not on the same page here, I’m talking about fashion and not interior design.
Swedish dressing style may carry the same effortless and minimal theme, but it isn’t exactly up there on the fashion map, and it’s surely not in the same league as the great fashion capitals of Paris, London, Milan and New York.
Yet, it is home to the world’s second largest clothing retailer, Hennes & Mauritz AB, better known as H&M. It’s probably also one of the few high street brands that has people clamouring for its special collections whenever it launches its much-anticipated guest designer collaborations, which in the past, have included celebrated names such as Karl Lagerfeld, Jimmy Choo, Sonia Rykiel, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Comme des Garçons and Marni.
My first encounter with H&M years ago was not so auspicious; after all, what are the chances of someone in Malaysia getting first dibs at such coveted designer togs?
In fact, I had at first mistakenly heard the name “M&M”, and wondered to myself why on earth a chocolate candy brand would want to get involved in the fashion business.
I can’t recall which store or what part of the world that marked my induction into H&M, but being a sucker for great bargains, it was love at first buy.
It is a delicious feeling indeed, to be able to flaunt an outfit that’s classy enough to be mistaken for a designer creation, but costs only a fraction of the price.
And that’s the best part about H&M – its apparel carries ridiculous cost-conscious price tags, but the fashion it offers comes with the audacity of a designer boutique.
The brand subscribes to an all-consuming mantra: Fashion and quality at the best price. At a glance, it might be described as simplistic, but it’s a feat galvanising a company of 94,000 staff to commit to such a single-minded goal.
To understand this better, the brand brought media members from Malaysia and Thailand to experience the hot seat of Swedish fashion for ourselves.
Led by a single mantra
At H&M’s headquarters in Stockholm, the building is everything you would expect Scandinavian design to be. Boasting neat lines, white walls that make the canvas for brightly-coloured contemporary furniture and a logical assortment of space, it’s very much a comfort zone that you want to work in.
Having a private canteen that serves up an amazing menu (which was our lunch) also helps to keep employees happy. Just downstairs, there’s a H&M store. In fact, every corner you turn there’s one; we are, after all, in Sweden.
In quick succession, we’re introduced to Kristina Stenvinkel, head of press and communication; Helena Helmersson, head of CSR projects; Petra Lundgren (from H&M design department, the White Room), responsible for colour creations; and Ann-Sofie Johansson, head of design, who together make the case for H&M.
Given how the brand speaks for in-trend fashion, and proudly hold its own against the movers and shakers of the industry, you would expect a highly energised young team. The energy and enthusiasm are certainly heartfelt, but H&M is living proof that youth isn’t the key to dynamic fashion.
In fact, Johansson, who started as a design assistant and now heads a team of almost 200 designers, has been with the company for 25 years and is still very much on the pulse of fast fashion.
“Fashion shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s about dressing personally. Last time, it may have been dictated by Paris but not anymore. Now, it’s more fun and liberating; you can play around more (with designs), and mix and match,” she exclaims.
You only need a quick look around the conference room and at the people working in the office to know that she speaks the truth as everyone brings their own style to the table. Johansson herself is dressed in pants and an embellished blouse (from H&M, I noticed on the racks later) and comfortable shoes.
She confesses to being somewhat a fashion victim as she changes with the season, yet firmly stands by her own personal expression. Likewise, customers are inspired to create their own style.
Later, I compliment Lundgren on her lovely feminine maroon-layered dress, and it’s from H&M as well. And here’s the infuriating thing about H&M (though it’s really a very smart strategy). Unlike some other brands which insist on having the same look everywhere for brand image, H&M cleverly shifts its “red area” (fashion hot spot) every few weeks, and every store is unique as it showcases different items at the window display.
Just when you think you’ve got the current collection nailed, you spot something different and you’re enticed to step in again.
“The key to our success is the business idea: Fashion and quality at the best price. Regardless whether you’re a designer, buyer or whichever department you’re in, it’s always kept in mind. We’re very customer-focused as they are our bosses – we constantly listen to what they want and their needs,” says Johansson.
When asked, she says H&M has no specific age target, it’s more of “a mental age”, and as long as you’re interested in fashion, you fit the bill. Some customers were teenagers when they started with H&M, and they’re still with the brand decades later.
Inspirations come in many ways – Johan-sson and her team pick up notes from travels, fashion classics proferred by Paris, Milan, New York, London and Tokyo, textile fairs, street fashion and exhibitions.
“We try to look out for trendsetters, what’s popping, vintage looks, what’s happening at music festivals. The Internet is getting more important as are catwalk shows, but these are more of a confirmation of what we know is out there,” she says.
“Celebrity inspiration is also important, as well as what bloggers are saying and old-fashioned sources such as music, magazines, movies and costume dramas (such as Mad Men).”
H&M is consistently working on three seasons at any given time, a year ahead. As the brand decides on key colours and trends, fabrics and other aspects, it develops other minor stuff to add along the way if needed, so it’s an ongoing process.
Essentially, the fashion components at H&M consist of basics, contemporary wear and latest trends. These are made up of nine divisions which cover, among others, ladies, men, children, ladies concept (maternity) and bodywear.
Other independents brands within the group are COS (modern urban chic), Monki (funky, with lots of personal creativity and imaginative expression), Cheap Monday (from street fashion and subcultures influences) and Weekday (independent design collaborations, and own brands such as MTWTFSS and Weekday Vintage).
Catalogue and online shopping in specific countries are available for H&M Home, which offers a store in Sweden. H&M, COS and Monki are also available online.
“Fashion moves all the time and we have to keep up with that change, be on our toes, as everything has an impact on fashion,” says Johansson.
Special guest designer collections
That’s not to say H&M only designs for the broad masses, which of course, is a very profitable venture, but it also ups the hype each year with guest designer collections. Who can refuse red carpet-worthy designer wear at value-for-money prices?
“It’s a win-win situation. It creates a buzz for H&M, excites customers with our work, and makes the brand more interesting,” explains Johansson.
Creative adviser Margaretta van den Bosch remembers that the designer collaboration was first mooted by the marketing department in 2004. Tired of the same thing every year, someone broached the idea.
“We approached Karl Lagerfled and the collection was a sell-out success; at first we thought it was going to be one off, but now we have designer collaborations annually, sometimes twice a year.
“I remember Karl wanted a programme. So I gave him some suggestions during lunch, and he liked and followed them. I asked him to design underwear as well but he said no. But he did come up with lingerie-detailing. He’s very nice to work with,” she shares.
The limited edition designer collections are sold at only select stores worldwide. The price point is higher as the clothes are more expensive to make and exclusive, and this makes them all the more special.
“Usually, we have a framework, an over-riding theme for the guest designers, depending on the season. For example, (Martin) Magiela was very avant garde and quite different, Versace very glamorous, and Marni was a lot about prints. (Robert) Cavalli wanted a very expensive fabric, but we managed come up with an equivalent that worked just as well at much lower cost.”
On Madonna, van den Bosch says the singer changed her mind a lot during production but was very happy with results.
“We met her in Chicago and she showed us some of her wardrobe favourites. She liked black a lot, but it was spring so we had to have some colours. She said clearly ‘no flowers’ and loved sunglasses. Her key pieces were dresses, classic suits, leather, shapely outfits and very feminine clothes,” adds van den Bosch.
Journalists were given a sneak peak of the coming season’s accessories by Anna Dello Russo that debuts on Oct 4. The ornamental and flamboyant 50-piece collection features gold details infused with a Mediterranean flair. We tried on some of the pieces and felt the loss as it’s truly a pity that the gorgeous collection won’t be available in Malaysia.
“It’d be good to look beyond European borders and one day work with an Asian designer; there’s a lot of talent in China and Japan, for instance,” she says.
For up-to-the-minute fashion feedback, H&M holds customer surveys, dialogues sessions and invites focus groups. Fashion today is global so it doesn’t matter where you’re stationed to make your market analysis, says Johansson.
In the White Room, designers work intensively with new materials and colours, and develop the results of their research further. It is also where the brand looks into how organic cotton can be better and more fully employed in its many ranges, and since 2010, special collections using sustainable materials have been produced.
Its first Conscious Collection arrived in stores in spring last year.
The company has a shared vision for sustainability and formulated seven commitments called H&M Conscious Actions to ensure everyone follows the same direction. This encompasses, among others, adopting ethical practices, improving working conditions and using natural resources responsibly.
Other corporate social responsibility projects include Fashion Against AIDS, a collaboration with international charity WaterAid since 2002 and partnership with Unicef since 2004 in support of several Unicef projects throughout the years.
Design-driven fashion, quality workmanship and materials at cost-effective prices, plus eco-conscious goals to match; What’s there not to like?
If anything, it could be that pockets are not deep enough to tide over the buying frenzy when H&M opens its doors in Kuala Lumpur and later, Setia City Mall in Shah Alam, Selangor.
> H&M at Lot 10, Bukit Bintang, KL opens this Saturday at 11am. The first lucky fashionista in line will get a RM500 gift card, the second to the fifth will get RM200 gift cards and next 300 lucky shoppers, a RM50 gift card each.