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H&M’s Walk in the Park

preview of Hennes & Mauritz's fall collection is set to be unveiled at a big bash in the middle of New York's Central Park tonight.

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NEW YORK — There’s a surprising calm at the studio H&M has commandeered in the Meatpacking District. Surprising because the Swedish retail giant is about to throw one helluva bash in the middle of Central Park. Tonight, Hennes & Mauritz will unveil its fall collection with considerable fanfare. Expect an hour of cocktails, a 150-model runway show (100 women, 50 men), a sit-down picnic-style dinner for 750 guests (in assigned seats, no less) and live performances by Kanye West, John Legend and Miri Ben-Ari.

You might expect that, on the eve of such a fete, tempers would be frayed and diva behavior on display. Not so. With Zen-like calm, head designer Margareta van den Bosch surveys the studio, from the tables laden with accessories and piles of yet-to-be-opened boxes sent from Sweden to the countless racks — all bursting with clothes ready to be styled, steamed or hemmed. Models quietly stream into a side room to be fitted by stylists Lori Goldstein and Bill Mullen. The only noise, really, comes from the low, steady hum of sewing machines manned by a team of seamstresses happily sustained by the early afternoon sun and the well-stocked catering tables. This is clearly a drama-free, streamlined Scandinavian operation. (It helps that Bosch and her crew can afford to keep the focus on fashion, since the behemoth event setup is in the hands of the serious party-planners at KCD, who started brainstorming for H&M a year-and-a-half ago.)

H&M insiders are not just keeping their pregame cool, though. They’re keeping mum on the details of tonight’s event, too. Company execs promise surprises, but won’t divulge too much, hoping to build suspense. Anyone passing Central Park’s Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street entrance, however, can see the giant tent that’s been erected in Rumsey Playfield — it’s 20,000-square-feet and four stories tall. The entrance will be swathed in a 16-by-12-foot curtain made from fresh orchids. Beyond that? It’s a mystery.

Less of a mystery, though, will be the clothes. Bosch gave WWD a preview, and the fall collection promises to be exactly what H&M’s global fan base wants — fun fashion at a fun price. Bosch, who’s general to an army of more than 100 designers, split the season into three easy-to-understand trends: rustic, minimal and “Barrococo,” a mix of the Baroque and Rococo periods. “Rustic has different influences,” she says. “It could be European folkloristic or American handcrafted looks.” She focused on tweeds, coarse cottons and heavy knits, all in color and most with prints and embroidery. There’s also a bevy of chic knitted accoutrements — hats, scarves, socks, mittens and shrugs. Think Galliano.

The minimal group follows fashion’s burgeoning less-is-more movement, but isn’t just black-on-boring. There’s an Eighties club feel to the cut-up cotton dresses, and where Bosch toned down the color to black, gray and violet, she amped up the volume with balloon skirts and baggy legs. Meanwhile, the Barrococo section indulges all the glamour of bygone times as well as a few military riffs à la Napoleon. There are heavy velvet and brocade looks — dresses, coats, corsets and even a pair of off-white cinched bloomers. There’s also a sexy stroll through lingerie with corsets, undies and the like as well as sheer cream knits that are certainly boudoir-bound.

“I like them all,” Bosch says of the trends. “And there’s something for everyone.” She’s aware that, with H&M’s growing retail presence around the world, she’s designing for a much larger, more diverse, audience. “We listen to the customers in each country,” she says. “But you also have to put out a line that is still H&M no matter where it is.”

Going into tonight’s party, she’s confident that the clothes won’t be overshadowed by the spectacle. But she’s not really losing any sleep over the festivities, either. Up by 6:30 a.m. most days, Bosch is making sure not to skimp on her morning ritual of reading magazines and newspapers for at least an hour. “I don’t like to rush,” she says.

H&M chief executive officer Rolf Eriksen is equally calm, even though he isn’t in on all of tonight’s details. “It’s going to be a surprise for me, too,” he says. Anyway, he’s more concerned with the company, which is riding the waves of a healthy fourth quarter, thanks in no small part to a design cameo by Karl Lagerfeld, which helped a 23.9 percent bottom line spurt to 4.06 billion kronor, or $605.9 million, as reported in January. And for the year, profits climbed 15 percent to 11.01 billion kronor, or $1.49 billion. Meanwhile, first-quarter sales look strong, rising 7 percent to 12.61 billion kronor, or $1.84 billion.

Eriksen is looking forward to H&M’s continuing global expansion this year, including its first West Coast store in San Francisco, to open in the fall.

Tonight’s party is the second step, he says, in the company’s plans for North America. The first was opening the Fifth Avenue store five years ago. “We want to show our strength,” Eriksen says. But the company won’t go over budget with the event. “It won’t cost more than what we spent last year,” Eriksen says, since the executives reshuffled activities and campaigns for the year to compensate.

If history repeats itself, H&M’s party will be a hit. The company throws a runway show of this scope every four to five years. The last one, which included a fireworks display, was in May 2001 in a quarry outside Stockholm, attended by 550 international journalists. Prior to that, there were parties in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin. But Eriksen didn’t have to think twice about choosing New York City as a venue. “It was a natural — our first choice. And Central Park is the most famous park in the world.” He’s a big fan of Sunday brunches at the Boathouse.

Early buzz among the city’s fashion flock is that this could be the ticket of the season, especially because of the high production quotient. It’s a big enough event that the Central Park police precinct and the parks commissioner were too busy to comment, no doubt trying to figure out how to handle a mob of editors, models and behind-the-scene teams, not to mention the curious rollerbladers, joggers and strollers who’ll inevitably stop to see what all the fuss is about. And that’s just the crowd — not the nitty-gritty logistics of getting this beast up and running.

“Thinking about the lighting, sets, backstage and all the rigging, it’s a huge undertaking,” says Chad Kaydo, editor in chief of BizBash, the trade publication for special events. “It’s not like there’s an electrical outlet in the middle of the park that they can just plug the lights into.”

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