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Mass hysteria for Karl.

That was the situation Friday morning at H&M locations in the U.S. and Europe as the fashion retailer launched its Karl Lagerfeld collection in about half of its 1,000 locations. Although the shipments of $49 blouses and $149 wool-cashmere coats were meant to last several weeks, most of the merchandise sold out by late Friday, with any leftovers redirected to the busiest H&M stores for weekend selling.

“We’ve been operating this business for some 60 years and we’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jörgen Andersson, marketing director of the $6.2 billion H&M. “We are as surprised as the customer [at the rapid sellout].”

Lagerfeld told WWD Friday he was “flattered” by the feeding frenzy for his designs, but frustrated that there wasn’t more merchandise available.

“This was supposed to last two weeks and it’s over in 25 minutes,” he said. “I’m sorry for the clients because I like the idea that everyone could wear Lagerfeld.

“Some people bought 20 or 30 pieces in three seconds. Funny, no?”

A spokeswoman for H&M in New York said Sunday afternoon, “We have restocked everything. We have nothing left in our warehouse, and it’s selling amazingly.” The three hottest sellers were the Lagerfeld silhouette T-shirt for $19.90; the sequin jacket at $129, and the lace dress at $99.90. “We’ve bought the most quantity of those and they have completely sold out,” she said.

A spot check Sunday at several H&M stores in the New York and Washington, D.C. areas revealed that the initial frenzy had died down, stores had restocked their shelves and still had some merchandise left.

“It was outstanding [but] it’s not sold out. We still have some in our store, and we’re selling through it. We love it, and it’s great,” said an employee Sunday at the 435 Seventh Avenue (34th Street) unit here.

At the H&M in downtown Washington, D.C., Lagerfeld’s coats and accessories have been hot sellers, department manager Dennis Turner said Sunday. “It’s not sold out, but it’s doing pretty well,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people coming in looking for it.”

This story first appeared in the November 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Andersson said H&M management, in concert with Lagerfeld, would confer this week to decide how to proceed. He didn’t rule out producing more Lagerfeld garments, but suggested that might be untenable given time constraints and an original marketing concept based on “massclusivity” — offering an exclusive product, but on a limited-edition basis.

“Obviously, there are thousands of women who feel disappointed,” Andersson said. “I think we have to explain this to our customers.”

Andersson said it was also too soon to say when and if H&M might repeat the experiment with another famous designer. Still, he read the consumer response as a positive sign. “It shows people love surprises, and love seeing new things on the market,” he said. “It shows that fashion should be fun.”

A quintessential example of the burgeoning “masstige” concept, and one of the most hotly anticipated selling events of the year, the Karl Lagerfeld for H&M collection was trumpeted with a torrent of editorial features, massive billboards and a two-minute television commercial directed by Swede Johan Renck, the man behind videos for Madonna and commercials for Nike.

In New York, even a wintry rain didn’t keep customers away from H&M stores. At exactly 9 a.m. Friday, the line of Karl-o-philes standing outside the H&M store on the corner of 34th street and Seventh Avenue stormed in to grab what they could. The items, merchandised in a small area at the front of the shop, had to be restocked starting at 9:02. By 9:20, the store’s stock was all out on the floor.

At the Fifth Avenue flagship, there were over 300 people on line for the 9 a.m. opening and in the first hour, 1,500 pieces were sold. By 1 p.m., the store had sold between 1,500 to 2,000 pieces per hour. Sanna Lindberg, H&M’s U.S. country manager, was anticipating that the collection would be sold out by day’s end.

At the 34th street location, Mary Smith and Rob Barret, two students from the Pratt Institute, skipped class to come. “We called every store yesterday and this was the biggest one open at 9 a.m.,” said Barret.

Others did even more research. “I looked on the Internet a month ago and set up reminders on my computer about today,” said Gaelle Drevet, a TV producer toting a Balenciaga bag. Drevet walked away with five items: the white tuxedo shirt, the sequin tuxedo jacket, two chiffon shirts and a slipdress. Although she thought the pricing was fair, she was disappointed she couldn’t test the Liquid Karl fragrance. “I’m not buying something I can’t smell,” she said.

Jennifer Bennett, a freelance stylist, was the second person on line at 34th Street. “I got here at 8 but the first girl in line was here at 7:45,” she offered. Bennett also called the stores on Wednesday night, hoping to figure out which would be the best location to hit. “When I asked about Karl Lagerfeld, someone at one store I called said, ‘Who? Oh, he’s not here right now,’ which I thought was really funny because if you’re in fashion you just assume everyone knows who he is.”

Bennett said she was a bit surprised by the cut of the collection. “The silhouette is a bit bigger than I thought it would be. I figured the clothes would be shorter and tighter.”

Meanwhile, at many locations in Paris on Friday, hundreds of women stampeded into the stores and picked the racks clean within minutes, many grabbing merchandise indiscriminately — even from each other.

“One women grabbed a sweater out of my hands!” said an incredulous Julie Perchenet, a 30-year-old lawyer who staked out the La Defense location but had no luck finding anything in her size.

“It was the worst scene I have ever witnessed,” said Sarah Crawford, a pastry chef who was among the first in line at the Rue de Rivoli location, but not fast or aggressive enough to score Lagerfeld’s designs.

“People were pushing to get on the escalator, then grabbing everything they could,” she said. “They weren’t even looking; they were just grabbing. Some of them looked like they were bartering, like a size 44 dress for another size shirt. Nothing was lying around, except for a couple of jeans. Everything was gone instantly, so I just left.”

On Rue de Rennes at 11 a.m., women visibly dejected by the sight of bare racks resorted to asking H&M staff if they could buy the T-shirts — depicting Lagerfeld’s face — right off their backs. Offers went up to 100 euros, or about $130 at current exchange.

In Berlin, Teja Schumacher, a receptionist from the Vidal Sasson salon shopping at H&M’s Wilmersdorfer Strasse branch, likened the frenzied atmosphere to “the fall of the [Berlin] Wall.”

“People were walking out with huge bags, packed with 400 to 500 euros ($520-$650) worth of merchandise,” he said.

By midafternoon, other Berlin stores already had that bargain basement look, even after a second delivery of Lagerfeld styles. A sales representative said blouses and jeans were among the first items to go.

But the bargain hunting was perhaps most intense at the H&M location just off the tony Rue de Passy in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. There was a whoop of joy at the opening bell and then all decorum went out the window. Bourgeois ladies carrying designer handbags wrestled for silk shorts with all their might.

When the racks were bare, shoppers stripped mannequins of their outfits.

And while stores were practically sold out of Lagerfeld merchandise worldwide, there was one glimmer of hope: By Sunday evening 69 items were already listed on eBay, including the Lagerfeld for H&M sunglasses, women’s jeans, cocktail dresses, silhouette T-shirts and sequin dresses. While bids seemed to be slowly trickling in, women’s jeans, originally priced at $59.90, were up to $75.