By  on November 9, 2007

Celebrity worship combined with opportunism Thursday at the launch of the Roberto Cavalli at H&M collection.

A crowd gathered outside the retailer's Fifth Avenue and 51st Street flagship, where the designer exited from a black town car at about 9:15 a.m. "I got Roberto's cigar!" shouted a young woman who had been waiting on line since 7 p.m. Wednesday. "It fell down when he stood here. I waited until he walked away then picked it up and put it in a plastic ziplock bag. I'm going to sell it on eBay. It's open to all bidders."

Indeed, it seemed consumers couldn't get enough of Cavalli — be it his collection or his cigar remnant.

Cavalli's line was distributed to 200 H&M stores worldwide, compared with 250 for the retailer's collaboration with Viktor & Rolf, 400 for Stella McCartney and 800 for Karl Lagerfeld, H&M's first designer foray. The line is in 10 U.S. stores.

"It's been four years since we started the collaborations" with designers, H&M spokeswoman Lisa Sandberg said. "We've really taken the time to learn into what stores to put the collection."

When the designer entered the store he seemed surprised by the thunderous applause from sales associates assembled on the second-level mezzanine overlooking the main floor.

H&M estimated that 250 people waited to enter the Fifth Avenue flagship when it opened at 10 a.m. Shoppers ran to the racks, pushing, shoving and jostling anyone and anything that stood between them and their animal-print quarry.

Cavalli surveyed the mayhem from a safe distance on an escalator above the main floor. "I feel like a rock star," he said.

"We love him," said Frances Stewart, who with her mother, Rachel Baldwin, had been waiting for 14 hours at the New York flagship when Cavalli appeared. "Tell me what time you were here since?" the designer demanded. "Tell me how much you love me."

The crowd obediently responded, "We love you." Cavalli returned the affection. "I love you, too. You're the best."

Cavalli said he wondered at the beginning of the design process "what the young people want from me." He concluded that they "expect to have the Cavalli style. Shoppers know already what they want to buy. They know fashion."Nancy Gregg was among the adoring fans. "I have it all," she said of his designs. "We wear all his lines," added her niece, Betty Simpson, who drove from Maryland to be one of the first people on line.

Sales were strong around the world, especially the women's line featuring red-carpet dresses, tuxedos and accessories, said Jennifer Uglialoro, an H&M spokeswoman.

In New York, customers grabbed handfuls of dresses, trenchcoats, blouses and jackets. By 10:15 a.m., the racks were stripped. Sales associates tried to replenish displays but were accosted by shoppers grabbing the merchandise. A store security guard said associates were being escorted from the stock room to the sales floor by security personnel, who also guarded the mannequins to prevent shoppers from ripping off their clothes. At one point, store employees resorted to dropping clothing from the mezzanine into the scrum of shoppers.

A gold lamé gown for $349 was the most expensive item in the line. Stockings were $12.49 and came in a variety of animal prints. A silk chiffon zebra-print halter dress, $99.90, was one of several dress styles.

Jewelry featured snake motifs, and a snake was embroidered in gold thread on the back pocket of jeans selling for $69. The collection includes intimate apparel, shoes, boots, knits, belts and tuxedo suits with cream jackets with black lapels. By the afternoon, items began appearing on eBay, including the gold sequin and pearl minidress, which the Web site said was "sold out worldwide," with an asking price of $700.

"I'm shocked at how women can be," said customer Piya Mehra. "I didn't get anything in my size and I've been here since 3 a.m." Austine Graff was disappointed too. "It's mayhem," she said. "Everything's already taken. I got here at 9:45 a.m."

Renee Hong was surprised by the intensity, saying, "I just came to check it out. I didn't expect people to fight."

H&M's Sandberg said there were still garments left, but not in all sizes. "There's such a limited amount of product," she said.

"They called me from [H&M] in Hong Kong and London," Cavalli said. "After one or two hours everything was sold out. This never happened. You have to write how Americans love me. Maybe they feel that I'm crazy like them. Maybe they see that I'm simple. I was born simple and I want to die simple."In Los Angeles, the collection was offered in three stores: Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Beverly Center in Los Angeles. Lines at the Sunset Plaza location started forming more than two hours before the 10 a.m. opening and extended the length of the storefront. The store beefed up staff from its typical 15 members to 45 to handle the crowds.

Once the doors swung open at the Sunset Plaza store, the Cavalli racks were picked clean. A line extended from the dressing room to the middle of the store as staffers rushed to replenish the goods. All the women's jewelry and long dresses were wiped out by 10:30 a.m.

Mariann Porretta was one of the first to complete her purchases: two bags of tops, underwear, jeans and one sheer leopard-print dress, for just over $500. Paula Malerba, a stay-at-home mom who worked in the fashion industry, said the Cavalli collaboration was one of H&M's best designer efforts. Her only disappointment was that she couldn't buy more because items were sold out.

Actress Michelle Trachtenberg was shopping for her friend, Lydia Hearst, who modeled the Cavalli line for H&M, and requested that Trachtenberg buy her a beaded dress and a fake fur capelet, which didn't appear to be in stock. "I hope she won't be mad at me," Trachtenberg said. For herself, she was eyeing a black trench.

Judy Starkman, who directs commercials and is a jeweler, said she would have spent more if the racks had been more plentiful. But she got a good workout. "I will tell you who the tigers are, they are the shoppers," she said. "I don't have to go to the gym today."

It didn't take Chicago customers long to raid Cavalli's assortment. Within five minutes of the Michigan Avenue store's opening, shoppers had emptied a rack of silk animal-print halter dresses and stripped clothing off the mannequins.

Angelina Kovalenko brought an entourage. Her boyfriend, Scott Rogers, stood away from the fray, his arms overflowing with merchandise, with her friend Kerri Hartmann, who flew in from St. Louis.

"I've been looking forward to this for a couple months," said Kovalenko, who arrived at 8:30 a.m. to find some 40 people already in line. With $2,500 to spend, Kovalenko bought more than 40 items, including multiple dresses, tunics, long sweaters, a corset top and a trench. "I was hoping there would be more pieces," she said. "I was looking for the riding pants from his show."Lynne Bredfeldt had to deal with some aggressive shoppers physically forcing their way through the racks. "A woman was pushing me saying 'That's mine!'" she said. "People were grabbing all the sizes, taking three or four pieces at a time."

Bredfeldt used her own strategy and camped out near the dressing room in search of discarded merchandise. It worked. She left with two sought-after pieces, an animal-print trench and a sheer animal-print tunic.

H&M tried to ease the discomfort of those waiting outside in the cold. At the Fifth Avenue and 51st Street flagship in Manhattan, the first 150 people on line received gift bags with limited edition Cavalli T-shirts, autographed images from the ad campaign and gifts cards from $10 to $300. In Milan, crowds were offered trays of hot croissants, orange juice and water, and those outside the H&M Oxford Circus flagship in London found croissants and orange juice packaged inside Cavalli goodie bags.

By late afternoon, a big red sign outside the Oxford Circus H&M unit stated the collection was "Sold Out," which was not surprising, considering crowds were four deep and the line wound its way around the block. When the doors opened at 9 a.m., a DJ blasted tracks while customers ran in every direction. "It's like descending into a leopard-print ant farm," quipped one consumer as she made her way down the escalator to the basement, where shoppers were snapping up Cavalli's signature animal prints.

The entire shop floor was transformed into an impromptu changing room for men and women trying on tailored suits, evening gowns and shoes. Other customers came prepared for bulk spending, bringing suitcases and plastic hampers.

Among the top sellers in London were leopard-print kaftans, heavily-sequined minidresses, leather jackets, accessories and long gowns. Racks of some items — including the print kaftans — were cleared within seconds. Ten minutes after the opening, the basement of the Oxford Street store was clear, save for a few pieces.

Some London units, including Knightsbridge, began waiting lists for customers seeking specific items. The frenzy was attributed to the limited quantities. Staff members said stores received 100 percent of their stock allocation in deliveries the night before, with no replenishments to follow, in contrast with previous Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf collaborations, where top-up deliveries were made throughout the day."The company bought less product because we wanted the line to be that much more exclusive, so these are all truly limited Roberto Cavalli items," said an H&M spokesperson at the Knightsbridge store.

In Milan, the reception was equally enthusiastic.

"In the beginning, I wasn't sure about the quality but now that I have them in my hands the silk dresses are amazing," said Vanessa Casali, who was laden with animal-print items.

"Where else can you find a fur jacket like this one?" asked Rosi Novara, a lawyer.

Alfio Camuglio, an H&M visual merchandiser, said the fake fur jackets, silk leopard dresses and trenches sold fast.

"I am a huge fan of Mr. Cavalli," said Michela Argelati, holding pretty much every piece of the collection. "Today is a fairy-tale moment and I am the princess with a new wardrobe to purchase."

Patrizia Ferro, a student, said she studied the H&M designer collaborations in college and was curious to see one. "Now that I am here, I can't resist shopping," she added.

A crowd of about 50 formed outside of Berlin's biggest H&M store in the new shopping center on Alexanderplatz. Once the doors opened, chaos ensued as customers moved quickly from rack to rack, frantic to claim their sizes and head to the fitting rooms. In the first half hour H&M employees rushed to restock and lines formed for the fitting rooms and at the cash registers. Though the prices were more expensive than traditional H&M prices, customers showed no hesitation when it came time to pay. Leaving the store 10 minutes after it opened, a customer weighed down with three bags said she was pleased with the prices, "For Cavalli, they were totally OK!"

Cavalli, however, wasn't interested in introducing his own lower-priced line. "My fashion is made in Florence," he explained. "H&M did a very good job. For sure [the clothes] don't have my details. Absolutely not. I leave to them [H&M] to do what they do best."

— With contributions from Samantha Conti, London; Chiara Hughes, Milan; Rachel Brown, Los Angeles and Sarah Rienhoff, Berlin

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