NEW YORK — Talk about guerrilla shopping.

This story first appeared in the May 28, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Lured into H&M by some of my fashion-conscious co-workers’ great finds, I attempted to go foraging on my own. My first attempt was the Fifth Avenue store at 51st Street, which had a line out the door because spokesmodel Heidi Klum was making a personal appearance. Not surprisingly, it was packed during lunch time, and a pass through the store was nothing short of a sensory assault. The lights were exceedingly bright, racks were stuffed with clothes and hard to rifle through, the lines for the fitting rooms and the cashier were a mile long and the music (Red Hot Chili Peppers) was blaring. After a couple of loops, nothing caught my eye to buy, so I literally ran for the door.

After recuperating, I hit the H&M in SoHo several days later. It was a bit more palatable than the Fifth Avenue store because it was a Saturday morning and shoppers had only just started to trickle in. Lesser crowds made for easier shopping, as I sifted through equally overstuffed racks of linen tunics, cargo everything, embroidered dresses and tops, “club kid” styles, prairie dresses, ethnic pieces, athletic leisurewear, an array of Eighties-style knits from the “Flashdance” oeuvre and printed tops. I spotted a beautiful nude-colored, drapey, Grecian-inspired top made of Modal, a fine knit, and a matching sleeveless top with twisted straps, which got filed away as future purchases.

Despite these finds — and plenty more to hunt through — H&M is something best taken in small doses, so I stopped looking and resolved to return in another few days. Indeed, a few days later I popped into the SoHo store to pick up the two tops. Total cost: $28 even.

Determined to wade through all the merchandise at H&M, I ventured into its store on 34th Street. It was raining, so that kept the usual crowds out of the store. After a quick pass of the first floor, my arms were filled with a bunch of really cute things. It’s still unclear why the clothes seemed so much more appealing than they did a mere week before, but perhaps shopping at H&M takes some getting used to, or it’s that one’s eye adjusts to the massive amount as well as the variety of the clothes.

Thankfully, there was no line at the fitting rooms on this day and there was no limit on garments in the dressing rooms. If I had had to put anything down, I never would have been able to find it again.

The selections included everything from floral sundresses to cargo skirts to solid and printed knit tops. The sundresses, cargo skirts and a silk dress cut on the bias didn’t work at all (bad fit). However, the knit shirts not only looked great on and had beautiful floral prints, but also the material felt really fine and, dare I say it, almost as good as a Rick Owens knit.

The huge mound of clothes averaged a mere $15 per item — and I tucked it under my arm to explore the second floor. Proceeding upstairs, I became uncomfortable, hot, overburdened and the racks were overflowing with even more merchandise. It was impossible to quickly identify a particular style in solid black as shoppers are met with racks of ebony apparel. Yet in the sea of clothes I did manage to ferret out a lightweight black parka à la Marc by Marc Jacobs and a black knit V-neck blouse.

This trip proved more fruitful, shopping-wise. The cashier line took about 10 minutes and the grand total was $123 for eight items — a printed tunic dress, a parka, a black tank top, a black V-neck knit, a gray, drapey T-shirt with diamanté sprinkled on it, a printed brown tank, a floral blouson tank and a white and gray flowered top.

The styles throughout the store varied widely. There were some extremely fashion-forward, runway-inspired looks that they pulled off beautifully like a satin cargo skirt, embroidered, Asian-inspired jackets and zippered jumpsuits. They also referenced styles from lines like Marc by Marc Jacobs with printed tops and military jackets. Other looks that didn’t work as well included their kimono jackets, chinoiserie knickers and crocheted tops that looked cheap.

Their fabrics ran the gamut from really sumptuous to others which felt and looked rather chintzy. Also, the care instructions seemed curious — like washing rayon in warm water. A friend told me she’d shrunk several of her H&M purchases by following its washing instructions. But how much can you complain when everything is so cheap? Interestingly, after looking at so many low prices, one becomes conditioned to expect them. About an hour in, even $29 started to seem expensive.

In the hunt for smart designer knockoffs and just plain good clothes, I also browsed through Zara. There were none of the freaked-out feelings like at H&M. Instead, its Lexington Avenue store made one feel literally giddy at its fashion possibilities. Zara has almost cornered the market in designer knockoff know-how. There were bouclé jackets reminiscent of this season’s Marc Jacobs collection, swirly polkadot skirts, utility pants and silk chiffon blouses. The clothes were very fashion forward, yet work appropriate, and had either a very romantic feel or a harder, more utilitarian bent.

I twirled around the store scooping up silk camisoles, flirty skirts, a bouclé mini, fitted striped shirts, clingy knit cardigans and loose, silk utility pants.

The tops seemed to run rather small, though. The overall feeling at Zara was a touch frantic as finding small sizes was difficult, especially in the Marc Jacobs knockoff jackets, and so women were furiously rifling through racks for sizes.

After another lap through the floor and a quick try-on of a pair of lime green stilettoes (neon is in for spring after all, but I decided they’d likely be wildly uncomfortable), I headed downstairs with a load of clothes. The dressing room attendants were very nice and helpful. Quarters were a bit cramped, so you could overhear scads of women complaining about their figures and loathing the way things fit.

Downstairs was less alluring, with clothes that were very casual and a bit sportier. But I did find a great-looking satin bomber and a pretty Asian-print wrap top. There were also denim pants that were making a big splash in the store as one diminutive shopper modeled them for her friend.

The store was filled with women from all age groups — literally from late teens to those well into their fifties. The quality and the detail on the clothes were great and subtle on many items. Some had unfortunate flaws like buckled zippers and seams, but largely, the styles were truly spot-on. Yet Zara’s secret is that while it does have great-looking stuff, it’s by no means inexpensive. My purchases in the end were a silk cami, an Asian wrap top, a silk bomber, a silk polkadot skirt, a white cotton skirt and a striped pink shirt. The bill came to $417, which was quite pricey compared with H&M.

That said, I was pretty happy — even if I did return the white skirt at the Zara on 34th Street because the zipper not only buckled but created a tent-like effect in the back. A smaller size worked better — and, of course, while there, I did even more shopping, picking up a pair of white thong sandals which look like this season’s Prada for $55.

So, the two queens of fast-fashion: Crowded, hot and like a scavenger hunt — but worth every mere penny.