Cheap High: The Reign of H&M


On a lovely sunny Sunday, when most people are playing outside, we spend the afternoon visiting five different H&Ms. It isn’t because we’re doing research for this article—in fact, we don’t take out our notebook even once. We are instead searching for a certain silver-spangled undershirt that a colleague showed up in the other day and that managed to excite our never-far-below-the-surface envy. Though our friend insisted she bought this item a mere two weeks ago, it is has by now vanished from the aisles of H&M without a trace.

On the other hand, we don’t exactly leave empty-handed. Despite the booming soundtrack (an eerily identical tape in all five stores) and the perennially broken escalators, an H&M staple (are they saving money on electricity?), we happily purchase a pink and silver cardigan, along with two little lace tops in a pattern that, at least when applied to more expensive garments, is know as point d’esprit.

The total is around $75, and our pleasure is further enhanced since we have a 25-percent-off card that was in the gift bag of the ridiculously lavish H&M party in Central Park last Wednesday night. This affair featured a custom-built complex of tents, a wall of roses (“Looks they copied from Marc Jacobs’s last show,” observed a baby fashionista, really a bit young to be so churlish), a box dinner of lobster and filet mignon, a piano that descended from the ceiling to facilitate a concert by Kanya West, and 150 runway models wearing outfits we can only wish and pray will someday grace the H&M racks: faux Galliano ponchos, feather headdresses, reindeer sweaters and Laplander skirts, ’80s disco redux, Velvet Goldmine Victoriana, etc.

You have to sell a lot of $15 T-shirts to afford lobster for 800 people, so it’s clear H&M has been doing something spectacularly right. They may in fact be having a particularly strong showing this season, since the most popular styles for summer—poufy skirts, crinkle cotton blouses, and wispy dresses that are supposed to make you look like you just got back from Bali and forgot to change—are a lot easier to fake than a structured tweed suit.

But then again, it’s also possible that the distance between the super-high end and H&M country isn’t as far as was once thought. Look inside a Marni or Prada garment the next time you’re cruising around uptown (or if that’s too scary, check them out at Century 21)—the fabric is gorgeous, true, but the sewing isn’t always that impressive. What with the dollar collapsing against the euro, simple cotton skirts with big labels are retailing at around $800 these days, as opposed to $29 for the replica at H&M. For $800, shouldn’t a skirt be sewn with silk thread and have an 18-karat-gold lining? Shouldn’t it light up and take you out to dinner and a show?

Sure, our point d’esprit shrug just sits there and doesn’t say anything, but then again, it was $24.95.