"We thought it would be quieter than with the Karl Lagerfeld line. We were wrong," declared a sales associate at the H&M store on Rue de Rennes in Paris Thursday morning as she surveyed the mob scene that greeted the arrival of the temporary Stella McCartney for H&M collection.
The scenario was repeated in other major cities such as London, Berlin, Milan and New York, where an estimated 800 people lined up outside the H&M flagship on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets.
Racks were swiftly picked clean of McCartney's slouchy cardigans, drainpipe jeans and cocktail dresses — and many women said they relished what is becoming an annual shopping scrabble some likened to "The Fight Club."
"This is a lot worse" than the debut of Karl Lagerfeld's collection for H&M last year, a saleswoman in Paris said. "Karl Lagerfeld didn't sell out entirely for a couple of hours. We have nothing downstairs. There's no product to bring up. We had Karl Lagerfeld clothing for months. Stella [McCartney] is a much younger designer."
"I'm sensing a huge response," said Lisa Sandberg, director of communications for H&M in the United States. "There seems to be a bigger level of excitement. This is controlled chaos."
By 3:30 p.m., there was no trace of Stella McCartney at the 34th Street store in New York near Sixth Avenue. A display of nubby sweaters replaced McCartney's T-shirts; printed dresses hung where McCartney's denim jackets had been.
"We believe that some of our stores will sell out completely today," said Sandberg. "Any garments remaining will be allocated today to our largest stores, Fifth Avenue, and Seventh Avenue at 34th Street. Once those allocations are delivered that will be the end of it. We are considering it a huge success. The entire collection eventually did sell, not just certain pieces."
An H&M spokeswoman in Stockholm said flagships in other major cities would be replenished with merchandise late Thursday or Friday morning.
H&M has found better ways of executing a one-off designer product launch. There's more staff on the floor and the distribution is more targeted. McCartney's line is being sold in 400 stores versus 500 for Lagerfeld's line, with fewer stores receiving more merchandise. H&M has focused the launch on stores in 12 major U.S. cities.Early bestsellers included a slouch turtleneck sweater, which had disappeared by mid-morning, trenchcoats, outer coats, floaty blouses and T-shirts. McCartney created an organic T-shirt and will donate 25 percent of sales proceeds to animal rights organizations.
In all, there are 40 pieces in the line, including narrow drainpipe jeans, oversized sweaters, sharply tailored jackets, feminine silk blouses, dresses, trousers, satin jumpers, bikinis, knit blousons and accessories such as chain-mail belts.
In the U.S., prices for the Stella McCartney collection are at the highest end of H&M's price spectrum. The overcoat is the most expensive piece at $199.90. Most items are in the $39 to $99 range. Still, compared with McCartney's Gucci-owned line, the prices are a bargain.
"I'm very excited and overwhelmed by the response," McCartney told WWD. "Both H&M and my team have done a great job, but the true stars of the situation are the customers, and I can't thank enough the people who queued up this morning to buy."
Around 6 p.m. Thursday evening, McCartney hurried over to the H&M in Knightsbridge, near Harrods, to witness the retail frenzy for herself and to capture some of the excitement and energy of the day.
Overall, the crowds were generally well-behaved even as shoppers rushed to snap up the merchandise. At one point at the New York flagship, H&M employees were protecting the mannequins because people were trying to remove their clothes.
"Part of the fun last year was the scrum," enthused fashion student Maud Paray, 21, in the Paris store. "I marked this day in my diary two months ago."
By 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, some 80 customers had already lined up outside the Oxford Circus flagship in London, and when the doors opened — early — at 9 a.m. instead of 10 a.m., everybody rushed inside.
By 9:02 everything was gone, according to a McCartney spokesman, but H&M immediately replenished the goods, which were gone — once again — by 9:08. At 9:11, H&M replenished once again.
The shopping frenzy even gave rise to its own legends, of women from Brighton taking the train to London at 3 a.m., of customers in Sweden climbing under security gates before their stores opened, of workers paying their secretaries to hide their H&M bags so no one would know they'd missed work, of customers buying in bulk, and spending $1,000 in one go."If you're going dive into the racks like animals, we're not going to put any more out!" a burly security guard bellowed at shoppers in Paris, stunned to see one woman crawling out from under a table on all fours — taking a shortcut to the merch.
Elio Fiorucci, who designed a poolside collection for H&M this past summer, was among those who showed up at H&M's Duomo location in Milan. "I really like Stella McCartney. She's very talented and I was curious to see how she would re-create her greatest hits," he said. "Judging from what I see, she definitely hit the mark."
In Berlin, many women at the H&M location on Friedrichstrasse grabbed everything they could find, sometimes in multiple sizes to take home and try on. Checkout personnel said the average basket totaled between 400 and 600 euros, or $468 to $702 at current exchange.
"The first racks were empty within three minutes," said store manager Marc Göllnitz.
And it wasn't only youngsters in the game. "Last year was so violent I nearly got killed at the entrance," quipped Danielle de Try, a physician, in the Boulevard Haussmann store in Paris. "But I wasn't scared to come back. It's all good sport."
Among the early birds in Paris were more than a few fashion professionals. Sophie Maire, an accessories buyer for Printemps, popped by on her way to work in search of a blazer and some thigh-high boots. She praised H&M's designer collaborations as a great way of igniting demand. "It works on the idea that if you don't buy it, you'll miss out," she said. "It's a great way of fueling sales."
Meanwhile, a sales associate, attempting to roll in extra stock, was pounced upon. "Let go, let go. Oh la la!" she yelled, backing off in retreat. This was met with a collective, "Ooohhh."
The company offered few clues about its next collaboration. "Our designer department is looking for a good fit brand-wise," Sandberg said. "If it's a good match, we feel we'll profit financially and image-wise. Of course, today the focus is on Stella McCartney."
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