Spring at the Cheap Chains


“Sometimes I think that the obsession with fashion is just about the desperation of being sexy,” Miuccia Prada mused recently in The New Yorker. “My young assistants come to work and they wear these amazing things. Very provocative. And they are so obsessed about being beautiful and sexy, and they are always alone. And I tell them that the more they dress for sex the less sex they will have. It’s so basic, but they don’t seem to understand me.”

Her staff may be mystified, but the design team at H&M appears to have taken Miuccia’s philosophy to heart. This spring, the chain is offering a collection of jolie-laide Prada-esque clothes that in fact argues strongly for a dowdy-slut sensibility: a fuzzy mauve sweater encrusted with big dollops of pearls, like something found at a church bazaar, is $39.90; a black poplin dress, piped in red and with Peggy Sue embroidered waitress-style over the left breast, is $24.90. Perhaps the most ambitious piece is a poufy cotton skirt in a gigantic purple rose print so overblown you can see the pixels. It’s hanging high up on the wall, making it almost impossible to read its $49.90 price, not to mention getting it down to try it on. (There is virtually no staff at H&M, only the poor cashiers processing an always endless line of customers.)

A visit to the newer and for some reason much calmer H&M at 515 Broadway in Soho turns up a dress in a hideous if currently fashionable print of blurred flowers with a high, structured bodice, just like those muddy $3,000 dresses at PRADA. (Don’t believe us? Dip into the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada store at Broadway and Prince and have a look—it’s not at all intimidating; it’s set up like a museum.) But not everything here is a Prada derivative: There’s also a pink-lined coat of leopard-print cotton, a distant cousin of the one Tom Ford showed in his latest, and last, YSL collection. (And by the way, are we the only ones not shedding crocodile tears over Master Tom’s departure from fashion? Are we alone in thinking that he was never all that great?)

Heartened by H&M’s strong showing, we visit the clamorous OLD NAVY, where a booming in-house PA system keeps repeating the store’s current theme: that depressing American institution spring break. In fact, Old Navy never fails to impose its resolute All American-ness: no froufrou roses or ironic restaurant uniforms for this squeaky-clean crowd. But then, amid the insipid flip-flops, the faux-faded, faux-frayed sweatshirts, and the white duck clam-diggers (referred to by the store oxymoronically as “full-length capris”), we find something we hardly dared imagine: a ribbon-bedecked camisole in a flower-strewn print that has been lifted practically note for note from the great Milanese house of MARNI. And since Marni too has a store in Soho, at 161 Mercer Street, you can check out the real thing before racing back to Old Navy and shelling out $14.50 for this excellent homage.

What with H&M and Old Navy offering such enticements, can the GAP be far behind? The answer, sadly, is yes. For spring ’04 the Gap’s design team has cranked out pathetically timorous styles including stale souvenir tees that say things like “Mother’s Diner.” A twinset of wide apple green and pink stripes is slightly more interesting, but the prices—$34 for the shell, $44 for the cardigan—don’t exactly add up to $78 worth of fun. And an A-line skirt featuring pink and black abstract swirls sports nary a pleat or tuck to relieve its dullness. Only in the lingerie department does a bit of ingenuity rear its head. A pair of pj pants are rendered in a far prettier print than the dismal A-line, while a $19.50 camisole has a delicate drawstring and is available in a pale shade of salmon reminiscent of pre-war lingerie. It’s as saucy as anything the late platinum goddess Jean Harlow would have worn—and oddly enough, Gwen Stefani, who is playing Jean in a upcoming biopic about Howard Hughes, would look pretty good in it too.