I recently made an excellent purchase. The item in question is a slate grey linen jacket and the store I purchased the item from was none other than H&M. Forgive if you will the childish abruptness of the preceding sentences, but the simple truth of the matter is, I am still exhibiting signs of surprise. A year ago, even in the mighty sprawl of London, I doubt I could have made such a purchase in that veritable Swedish temple of disposable fashion. Blazers were an occasional option, but even in the vastness of central London branches, H&M seemed to be at odds with my tastes.
The occasional belt or pair of shorts were purchased and I remember a couple of knitwear items, but largely, as I have matured; a maturation that has galvanized my appreciation for a well-cut jacket and smart pair of trousers, I have drifted across the threshold very few times. The ‘direction’ of the store seemed to be youth focused; ghastly printed t-shirts, trucker caps and the like. The sort of thing you might find abandoned in a grisly backstreet in Bangkok. I never expected to find anything of value there and I certainly did not expect a sudden Zara-esque transformation into a store that sartorially curious young bucks in their mid-twenties might be interested in.
There were the occasional signs; a few smart items at the shop on Brompton Road rekindled my interest, but the seminal occasion was the opening of the giant Regent Street flagship: a three storey monster in the old Dickens & Jones building. Airy, fresh and generally uncrowded, the new shop is a bright change from the claustrophobic and frustrating atmosphere of the soon-to-be-redundant ‘corner shop’ branch on the Circus. The womenswear, as one passes through, is recognisable and typically H&M; colourful and occasionally stylish. There is one significant difference though; the space and order. H&M seem to have learned that, though they are a formidable retailer, they can learn from their enemies (read: Inditex Group). Fewer items weighed down the racks, there were more assistants on hand to help and there was less of the clothing carnage I normally associate with an afternoon visit to a high street store.
As I ascended in the shiny escalators I groaned as I saw the content of the floor I was rising to. I saw skirts, blouses and handbags – the men’s section, I rationalised, was likely to be a tiny and pitiful selection of jeans and t-shirts in a dull corner of this vast building. Not so. In fact, the men’s section was much larger than I imagined and in far the better area of the floor, near to the windows overlooking Regent Street. I was shocked at what I saw. A large wooden till dominated the area; oriental carpets were scattered over the appealing stone floor. Carefully positioned spotlights highlighted the best aspects of garments and large, heavy wooden cheval mirrors were perched next to burnished leather bucket chairs and appealingly sparse racks.
However, this was no mere window-dressing, for the clothes had changed too. There was an abundance of stylish jackets, all made from natural materials, with classic finishing. Shirts were simple and stylish and a great wad of silk ties, in conservative and pleasant patterns, were arranged on a central table next to the exciting and blissfully economical pocket squares. Away from the hush of this area, you can find the usual H&M male collection; all denim, t-shirts and flip flops but now, fortunately, this is not all H&M has to offer. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. This London ‘exhibition’ bodes well for the future of the brand in Europe and around the world. Of course, H&M will always have its critics; those who chuckle at the disposability and quality of the garments, although I must admit, I saw little evidence in the new menswear department to evidence the latter. If this creativity and dedication continues, H&M will only gather more admirers and we will be spoilt for choice as the modern ‘high street formula’ in menswear continues to aid the sickened and fashion conscious in times of economic woe.