By  on July 16, 2014

When the world’s biggest H&M opens Thursday, at Fifth Avenue and 48th Street in Manhattan, customers will see all the retailer’s product categories under one roof for the first time in the U.S. The offerings include men’s and women’s sportswear and ready-to-wear, lingerie, underwear, accessories, children’s wear, newborn apparel, special sizes, maternity apparel, cosmetics and the home collection.

The flagship weighs in at 57,000 square feet. But it will be unseated as the biggest store later this year when a 63,000-square-foot unit opens in Herald Square.

On Tuesday, construction crews, painters and merchandisers were putting the finishing touches on the store. Cleaners were wiping the escalator steps, and visual-display staffers were giving the main floor’s 100 mannequins a once-over. The 45-foot atrium features mannequins clustered in groups and dressed in black or white, for impact.

On the 470-square-foot LED screen, images flashed of Jeff Koons’ balloon dog with the message, “Fashion Loves Art.” The new H&M flagship is closely associated with Koons, whose current retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art is sponsored by H&M. The artist designed a limited-edition handbag featuring his iconic Balloon Dog (Yellow). Two balloon dogs also grace the facade of the building. The retailer said they would remain in place for about another week.

Workers in the afternoon rolled in a huge crate, a piano, for Birdy, the English singer-songwriter, who was to perform at a store opening party for VIPs later in the evening.

The flagship is the most upscale unit in the fleet, built with expensive materials that don’t always find their way into other doors. White marble was seen on floors, walls and cash wraps. The men’s section, on the lower level, has dark wood herringbone floors and a green marble cash wrap. Throughout the store, there are modern chandeliers, mirrored walls, leather furniture and tufted-fabric walls in the fitting rooms.

“It’s an investment in the brand,” said Daniel Kulle, president of H&M North America. “It’s an investment that we believe in America. We want to showcase this store and say it’s possible to democratize fashion.

“Building this store environment allows you to raise the value of the [product] materials,” Kulle said, mentioning Pima cotton, merino wool, silk-cotton blends and a men’s leather jacket for $299. Pointing to a shoe lounge — another innovation, with two oversize leather tufted ottomans — he said, “We’re extending our offerings to do a wider range of basic quality to real leather.”

Kulle declined to discuss sales volume for the flagship, saying only, “This will be one of our top stores in the country, based on size and location.”

Young, edgy fashion is on the second floor. There’s accessories, jewelry and handbags on the third floor, along with H&M’s new cosmetics line. The home collection is found on the fourth floor. Divided according to the different rooms of the house, the trend-driven collection mines themes seen on the runways. The collection made its debut in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, in 2009, and the U.K. the following year. Applying its fast-fashion doctrine to home products, H&M produces three main collections each season. Washington, D.C., and New Orleans are the only other markets where home is sold. Babies’, children’s and kids’ are on the fifth floor.

A red carpet will greet shoppers entering the store. “It was inspired by the Met ball,” Kulle said, referring to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala. “Here, it’s the Met ball every day.”

The new flagship is just three blocks from an existing H&M unit on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street. The location was H&M’s first when it entered the U.S. market, in 2000. Opening its largest store in the world so close to another unit is consistent with the Swedish retailer’s real estate strategy. The fast-fashion retailer often locates stores within a few blocks of each other and does not feel they cannibalize each other. Asked if the store will remain an H&M location, Kulle said, “We don’t know what we’re going to do. Nothing is decided. We have different brands, COS and & Other Stories, and we’re expanding other offerings. We judge our real estate portfolio carefully to see what can play in different locations.”

He said the company had for some time been looking for a space in the 50,000-square-foot to 60,000-square-foot range for a store to house the full concept. “There are not many stores on Fifth Avenue that have that kind of size,” he said. “It was a challenge to believe in this spot. It’s a little bit south, and the co-tenancies are not like uptown,” he said, referring to stores north of 50th Street such as Fendi, Burberry and Bergdorf Goodman. “We can really be a traffic driver” for this area, he said.

“The 51st Street store will not cannibalize,” Kulle said. “There’s enough traffic here to pull consumers to both locations. Since Times Square opened, we haven’t had cannibalization.” The 42,000-square-foot Times Square unit opened in November.

The new store has the first style-adviser service in the chain. The personal-shopperlike service is available by appointment, at no charge. “This is one way we want to democratize fashion,” Kulle said. “People need some help with the collections, or they think the store is too crowded on weekends. The style adviser can help. The right location for the style adviser is here, where you have all the concepts. We would consider rolling out style adviser to our flagship locations.”

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