Out from Underground

Article excerpt

Byline: Sameer Reddy

Mass-market retailers are embracing avant-garde design. But will H&M shoppers buy skirts for men?

On a chilly Paris evening in October 1996, Rei Kawakubo, the high priestess of forward-looking fashion design, unveiled her latest collection for Comme des Garcons. The audience of editors, stylists and photographers sat in silence, punctuated by the rapid-fire sound of camera shutters, as a parade of models passed by, swathed in stretchy material in Easter-egg colors and disfigured by large, soft, tumorlike protrusions. Kawakubo's vision of spring, which came to be known as the "Lumps and Bumps" collection, is now seen as a seminal moment in 20th-century design, but at the time it was greeted with skepticism and ridicule. The late Amy Spindler wrote in her New York Times review that "the dresses invented whole new deformities for women." High-end retailers like Barneys New York barely sold any of the pieces. This time, they said, Kawakubo had gone too far.

It turned out to be a good career move. The reclusive Kawakubo is now designing a line for the mass-market marvel H&M, due out in November. The one-season collection will encompass men's, women's and children's wear, fragrance and accessories, swiftly carrying the fashion world's avant-garde agent provocateur from the outskirts of public acceptance to the heart of the mainstream "fast fashion" machine. Such marriages benefit both partners; as clothing production continues to accelerate, turnover in taste quickens and consumers' attention spans diminish, both designers and retailers are looking for ways to weather the challenging commercial landscape.

As a key driver of fast fashion--the rapid-fire delivery of new, on-trend merchandise--H&M is one of the major success stories of the new millennium, combining low-margin, bargain-basement prices with a fashion-savvy staff. To remain competitive, however, the company regularly pursues high-fashion collaborations. Since 2004, H&M has coupled with Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf and Roberto Cavalli. Kawakubo is the first truly avant-garde talent to make the grade. "Things are becoming more accessible, people are more broad-minded, [and] something like this can come out to a bigger audience," says Margareta Van den Bosch, H&M's former design director and current creative adviser. "It's fashion and it's a form of art." To be sure, the audience for sophisticated visionaries like Kawakubo has grown. But even if H&M customers don't warm to her creations like armhole-less shirts, and skirts for men, the resulting media buzz will be the chain's main payoff. …