H&M, a Brand on the Turn?

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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.


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Winston Chesterfield is an amateur composer, fashion blogger, trained lawyer and style aficionado. He lives in Westminster, London and blogs at www.levraiwinston.com.

Comments

  1. Dan says:

    The new mens’ department you mentioned is in fact a new line that is introduced gradually in selected stores. I found it in the H&M Men store on Munich’s Kaufingerstrasse.

    Prices are a little higher, but I, too, was very pleasantly surprised by the style and quality. (Speaking as someone who thinks that their regular clothes look like second-hand even when new).

    Their shirts especially are great – the slim cut fits me perfectly, and the style hits the perfect sweet spot between dressy and casual.

  2. Simon Crompton says:

    Interesting article Winston, I will give it a look. On the same theme, surely the launch of Cos on Regent Street (which I believe is owned by H&M) is an attempt to extend its competition with Inditex by launching an upmarket rival to Massimo Dutti?

    I’d be interested in your opinions on the two and their comparison. I’ve always been a fan of Massimo Dutti, which, though certainly not fashion forward, is hard to beat on value for money.

  3. You’re right Simon in that COS, as an idea, is a more upmarket brand. In terms of style, COS is still very much along Zara lines; the average age of shopper there is much higher than H&M, and, I imagine, the average income too. Where I think they differ is in that COS is a refinement of the Scandinavian principles of design; H&M is definitely moving away from those principles. Zara and Dutti, although considerably different in terms of market, are still very much ‘two peas in a pod’ as far as delivery and focus. I would certainly say that while H&M has led on price for a long time, Zara had led on idea and design. Now, H&M is catching up in terms of both, and Zara, despite their giant market share, has taken it on themselves to upgrade even further. Central London is one of the ‘front lines’ of high street change as I’m sure you know; expensive retail areas are the ‘showrooms’ retailers need and the recent changes with both H&M and Inditex owned stores have indicated to me that both are beginning to take consumers more seriously. Far from resting on laurels, Zara has upgraded a good number of store interiors; replacing mundane materials with exquisite stone, improving changing areas in terms of size and lighting and fitting the store in the manner of a Bond Street boutique rather than a high street chain. As I stated in my article, the new Regent Street H&M has done something similar. I think this, more than anything, is further evidence that both retailers, number 1 and 2 in Europe, have acknowledged the presence of the other and are acting accordingly by investing in the future of their brands. It’s curious perhaps that neither COS nor Dutti have received such a makeover, but then they hardly needed to. If you are asking me whether I think COS will take shoppers from Massimo Dutti, I would say it is possible, but unlikely; the delivery is too different, too minimalist. Dutti is, as you say, excellent value – for the man who appreciates Loro Piana fabrics and well made knitwear. COS is often far too trendy to tempt any of these customers. The people it has tempted are those who bemoaned the lack of quality; in material, cut and finish, to Zara and H&M clothing. I will say that Zara, when it started out, impressed me very much in terms of a return on quality. However, I think it has faded a little in recent times. It never fails to impress me in terms of design, but I have been occasionally disappointed with the finish of the clothing.
    I do think Zara has the edge in London, market wise, but that has a lot to do with the maturity of buyer and spread of their constantly sprouting stores. I would be very interested in seeing what future Inditex has for Dutti. I envisage something along the lines of an inexpensive Ralph Lauren inspired rejuvenation, but perhaps that it merely wishful thinking.

    I must thank Dan for the information he has provided; “Prices are a little higher” is something I think we all might have to get used to in the coming years.