Chain Reaction

What does your H&M say about you?

People love to complain that the chain-ification of America is turning this great nation into a monochromatic, generic shopping mall. Well, maybe that's true. But then they also love to argue about why a certain Starbucks is "the best" one and expound upon the coziness of the Barnes & Noble near their office. Even more depressing.

On the other hand, some chains do seem to cater to different customers in different locations. No clothing chain has more dramatic mood swings than H&M, which, in its seven shops in Manhattan, manages to span a range from pubescent trendster to successfully faking high fashion. Have you ever searched all seven of the H&Ms in Manhattan for a hideous yet charming shimmering shrug or an adorable Marc Jacobs "inspired" bubble skirt you fell in love with? If so, you've no doubt noticed the changing landscape during your travels. We set out to visit them all in two days to get to the bottom of it.

Flagship (5th Ave at 51st): The O.G. of H&Ms Going to this store reminds me of the early days of H&M, when the looks were so down-market and trendy, they were disposable, and not just because of their instantly unraveling seams. Everything I bought back then was synthetic and psychotic, albeit fantastically guilt-free. But not just sentimental value makes this place indispensable. This is a gigantic store, with the newest, fanciest things as well as all the denim and socks you might need. If you're searching for a particular item, head here first. The downside is the clientele: tourists and office ladies screaming into cell phones about whether Nancy can bring the girls to the wedding. If you tend to get into fights with strangers, stay away.

Bloomberg Building (59th and Lexington): The Candle-Lit Dinner of H&Ms This location, which opened last year, is the newest, and, in terms of ambiance, it's the most elegant. With dramatic double-high ceilings and multi-level browsing areas, it's this close to achieving swankiness. An army of headless plastic bitches stand in the window, hips out, in tailored satin.  (You know if they had heads they'd be glaring in that way that women glare that makes you want to be them.) Inside, everything's where it should be—the newest looks (for spring, lots of pale pink, blue, and mauve lacy things that tie at the waist) are concentrated right near the door.

34th Street (34th between 7th Ave and Broadway): The Convenience Store of H&Ms This street, with a Sephora, Macy's, Old Navy, Foot Locker, and Victoria's Secret, plus about two million pedestrians at any given moment, should be avoided at all cost. But sometimes, you are one of those pedestrians and you might as well duck into H&M to avoid getting trampled. Inside, you'll find a weirdly organized, spotty collection of clothing, which rotates at an alarming rate. If you see something you like, just buy it. You'll never find it again.

Herald Square (34th and Broadway): The Big Sister of H&Ms You know how your big sister thinks she's got it all together? And she makes you feel like a loser all the time? This H&M scoffs at the one down the block for drinking every night and not looking for a job. Although you'll find some of the same trendy looks inside, the majority of the goods are weirdly sober and office-friendly. Boo.

Soho (558 Broadway): The Disgusting Roommate of H&Ms Have you ever gone into your roommate's bedroom and found your own clothes in a dusty heap on the floor? This H&M looks like her room, with party dresses and sweaters strewn about in an orgy of outfit dilemmas. It's impossible to find your size, impossible to find the items displayed on a mannequin right next to you, and impossible to wait on line for the dressing room without having a nervous breakdown. Also, the escalator is always broken.

Soho 2(515 Broadway): The Cemetery of H&Ms This random little shop is where trends go to die. Did you love that hippyish blouse a few months ago with the gold thread sewn in? Well, there are two whole racks of them rotting in here. The mood is a little dreary, the space a little cramped, but you never know what you might find—including things that didn't seem to have ever been for sale elsewhere, like straight-to-video clothing releases.

Harlem (125 W 125th Street): The Local Bar of H&Ms The mannequins at this location, who have heads, are wearing ultra-feminine but casual outfits. Likewise, there are a lot of T-shirts and jeans inside, but also dressier new arrivals (stopping short of the most expensive knock-offs), all of which are pristinely organized on the racks. As I waited to pay, the cashier advised a customer who had brought a pair of cowboy boots with her in search of a matching jacket. “I've been everywhere!" she moaned. But she got honest advice. The cashier said the jacket was too casual for the boots, which had rhinestones on them. After she left, it got even more honest: “That's just an ugly jacket—end of story."  

 
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