TOKYO--In Harajuku, you have to earn your fashion spurs.
For the Saturday debut of H&M's Comme des Garçons collection at the Swedish retailer's new store here, more than 2,000 eager shoppers braved the elements, some for days, in a line that snaked back round Omotesando Ave. all the way to a nearby park to secure first dabs on CdG designer and founder Rei Kawakubo's latest venture.
Takashi Okabe, 24, and a group of five of his friends, were the first customers to enter the store, an honor they worked for dearly. As early as Wednesday, they camped outside the store in six-hour shifts on a foil mat, battling biting winds and drizzling rain. Okabe said the wait was worth it- and not just for the clothes. "I managed to make some new friends," he quipped.
Nearby, Miki Nakashima, 27, and a friend were guarding their coveted spot in line since 5am Friday, turning to scones from Starbucks and oden, a Japanese stew served up in convenience stores, for sustenance. "We're getting really excited because we've waited so long," she said just before the doors opened and enthusiastic shoppers flooded the store, high-fiving H&M staff on the way in.
University student Hayato Hidaka, 22, claimed his own five minutes of fame for being the first customer to exit the new store, granting interviews to Japanese TV crews in a slightly bewildered state. Despite waiting at the store since 5am Friday, he only made a single purchase: a plain white t-shirt with a single breast pocket. "There were too many people," he reasoned. "But I was still happy to see what was inside and feel the vibrations."
The CdG collection's Japanese debut coincided with the opening of the new Harajuku store. H&M's flagship in Ginza, its first store in Japan, also started selling the collection this weekend before the global launch kicks off Thursday. Anticipating especially strong demand in Kawakubo's home country, H&M allocated enough boiled wool pea coats, harem pants and polka dot cardigans to ensure that the collection didn't sell out the first weekend.
“We have the largest quantity for Japan knowing that it will probably be very popular and also that we don’t want to disappoint," said Christine Edman, H&M's country manager and representative director for Japan.
And further evidence to CdG's cult status in Japan, consumers here are willing to spend more for the limited-run pieces than shoppers in the U.S. or Europe. The collection's tuxedo jacket for example, retails for 15,990 yen, or $162.85 at current exchange. The same item will retail for $99.00 in the U.S. and 79.90 euros ($101.66) in much of the Eurozone.
Taking a cue from luxury brands' architectural statement stores, H&M's Harajuku outpost occupies the lower four levels of a new asymmetrical glass building, one of the tallest on Meiji street near the intersection with Omotesando Ave. Officially dubbed "The Ice Cubes", it is illuminated by night, an effect reminiscent of the nearby Dior flagship. Universal Design Studio, which has designed stores for Stella McCartney and the bar at Damien Hirst's Pharmacy in London, developed the store's facades and stairwells featuring mirrored metal slats. Illustrator Lovisa Burfitt's quirky sketches of animals and fashion items adorn some of the walls.
H&M feted the store Friday night with a shopping party (excluding the CdG merchandise) where Kawakubo put in a brief appearance after spending that morning at the store folding her signature shirts with precision.
"Until the very last minute she worked with all her heart," said Adrian Joffe, CdG's managing director and Kawakubo's husband. Margareta van den Bosch, who oversees H&M’s designer collaborations, also emphasized Kawakubo's level of attention to detail as the designer crafted samples and approved each garment. “She looked at every style and said yes or no or ‘I would like to have it like this inside’," she said.
With a selling space of more than 16,000 square-feet, the Harajuku store stocks women's and men's apparel and accessories with a younger, more fashion-forward product mix than H&M's Ginza store, which opened in September with much fanfare. Even two months later, customers are still lining up each morning before the store opens- a fact that prompted H&M to boost staffing and security for the Harajuku opening.
Still, Edman said she recognizes the fragile dynamics of hype in Japan and doesn't want to exploit H&M's newfound momentum in Japan too quickly. Next fall, the retailer will open its third and fourth Japanese stores in the Shibuya and Shinjuku neighborhoods of Tokyo. But the executive said she's not ready to announce any expansion beyond that.
“I just have to wait and see, I think," she said. “I don’t want to jump the gun."