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'Goodbye, Gap! It's gonna sink Banana Republic!' Crowed a dedicated follower of fashion at the opening of H&M, the spectacularly cheap Swedish department store that set up shop last week on fifth avenue and 51st street. The speaker, a fellow with a buzz cut who has been going to soirees of this nature since Fiorucci ruled 57th street, fingered a $3.50 Iridescent H&M eye pencil and lowered his voice. "But really, what can they possibly be paying the people who make this stuff?" he wondered.
It was a question on many minds, if not lips, last Thursday night, as partygoers ran through the massive storethree floors designed around a dazzling white atriumsnatching up clothes so inexpensive that even people in the fashion business, who are accustomed to getting things for free, didn't seem to mind paying. To celebrate opening night, H&M was offering 25 percent off its already low prices: $5.50 for a Cynthia Rowley-ish red-and-white-checked gingham skirt with a ruffle at the hem; $39 for a pair of Stella McCartney-esque burnt-orange velvet flared trousers with a matching strapless top that featured a growling lion, a smattering of glitter, and a $17 price tag. A black leather trench coat was $169; $25 bought a denim jacket decorated with fringe and embroidery. On the second floor, the men's department was doing a brisk business in the sort of hot-weather clothes no one enjoys spending a lot of money on: white linen button-down shirts ($19); flat-front khakis ($29); a long-sleeve cotton T-shirt in an appealing shade of marigold ($11).
"Everyone in the fashion industry is going to have these two skirts!" a PR woman burbled, holding up a bold blue paisley knee-length Brady Bunch A-line ($25) and a more sophisticated Indian print ($17). The Indian skirt was decorated with velvet ribbon in the manner of Voyage, the pretentious London boutique that is so nutty it screens customers at the doora policy forbidden by law in the United States, where Voyage clothes are for sale at Bergdorf Goodman to anyone who cares to spend $700 on a skirt with velvet ribbon trim.
H&M says it stays on top of the trends by employing 70 fashion designers who scour streets, shops, and runways worldwide to create the store's collections, an ever-shifting inventory that fills the racks at more than 600 H&M stores, including branches in Paris and London. (New goods are delivered daily; the chain claims it sells 300 million garments each year.)
Of course, other places in town sell cheap stuff too, and some of it isn't half bad, but there's one big difference. The Kmart on Astor Place may offer decent flannel shirts and camisoles and dollar lipsticks, but the atmosphere makes you feel poor and pathetic: the long lines for sullen cashiers who look like they either want to slap you or burst into tears, the hideous displays, the absolute lack of anyone on the sales floor who can answer a simple question. At H&M, there are flat-screen TVs showing pulsating videos, and cheery folks with name tags willing to fuss over you, and club chairs outside the fitting rooms, and two-story-high advertising placards featuring Chloe Sevigny.
So how did H&M manage to build a beautiful store across from Cartier, charge $3.50 for a perfectly nice tank top, and still make money? The suspicion that small children in foreign hovels are sewing the merchandise is confronted head-on by the company's Code of Conduct, available on H&M's Web site (www.hm.com). This document describes the store's "active social responsibility" and says that the 900 suppliers they contract with around the world have signed an agreement that makes "very specific demands on suppliers, especially in respect of: working environment, child labor, fire safety, working hours, minimum wages, and environment." Unfortunately, this commitment wobbles as you read further: "Whenever H&M finds that a supplier does not meet demands, a plan for corrective measures is drawn up. After some time the factories are reinspected, often unannounced. We believe in long term relationships with suppliers. We do not, therefore, normally break off relations owing to non-compliance with the Code of Conduct so long as we are able to detect a willingness to improve and can discern developments in the right direction."
Though this business of detecting a "willingness to improve" is depressingly vague (you wonder if H&M exhibits such extraordinary tolerance toward clerks caught pilfering leather trench coats), it's interesting to see the subject brought up at all: other stores won't go near it. After all, the reason those purses up the block at Prada cost $900 isn't because that money is being passed along to the people who stamp the little metal Prada triangles and attach the handles and sew up the nylon seams.
H&M has purses too, including a rectangular example that has a lot of things going for it: it's shaped just like a Fendi baguette, it's made of fake snakeskin that has been overprinted with a camouflage pattern, and, at $13, it's literally 100 times cheaper than its rich cousin at Fendi, five blocks north. "Let's see how the strap is made," a guy who hosts a cable-TV fashion program said a little smugly at the opening party, as if most customers spending $13 on a fake snakeskin camouflage purse are obsessed with the niceties of quality control. In any case, the stitching was just fine.