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Sweden Lowdown

Opening huge: Another giant-size Scandinavian store full of high-design deals? H&M is the Ikea of fashion -- and there's no assembly required.

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Every shopaholic has a closetful of can-you-believe-this-bargain tales. My own favorite is that my millennium dress cost $30 -- and no, I didn't make it out of old curtains. I paid full retail price for the slinky three-quarter-sleeve number in a groovy, psychedelic orange print on a shopping spree at H&M in Stockholm last winter. I hauled it around India in a duffel bag, never suffered a single wrinkle, and trotted it out with a pair of swanky heels to mingle with hundreds of diamond-dripping revelers at a seaside fête in Goa on New Year's Eve. Starting this Friday, bargains like that one will be available Stateside: Veteran Swedish trend tracer H&M is gearing up to open its first U.S. shop -- a massive, 35,000-square-foot space on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street, a stone's throw from Rockefeller Center.

Since launching in Swedish suburbia in 1947, H&M (originally called "Hennes" -- Swedish for "hers" -- and later "Hennes & Mauritz") has opened about 600 wildly successful stores across Europe. This year, it'll add four more in the New York area, including one in Herald Square. You'd think it would be a nightmare to weed through the 1 million-or-so items you're likely to find in H&M stores of this size, but the company has figured out how to keep shopping pleasantly simple. All stock is divided into "concept groups" targeting specific customers: The "RYD" and "Impuls" lines are for trend-obsessed teens (but bear in mind -- that millennium dress was "Impuls," and I'm no teenager). For women, the "Clothes" group is similarly trendy but a tad more grown-up, "Hennes" means high-fashion look-alikes, and an "L.O.G.G." label indicates a classic. Men's clothes -- which range from basic cotton khakis to nylon cargo pants and tie-dyed muscle tees -- are similarly divided into categories, like "Conwell" for snazzy uptown duds and "Contemporary" for current fashion. Other concept groups cover maternity wear (that would be "Mama"), a plus-size line ("BiB," for "Big is Beautiful"), and underwear, beauty, and bath products (I'll admit, I'm already addicted to the $4.50 "lemongrass soufflé" body cream). In fact, all that's missing is the kids' stuff -- but that, too, will be available at H&M's upcoming Palisades Center Mall branch in West Nyack, scheduled to open on April 6.

H&M is the S&B fiend's true soulmate -- it's crammed with cheap, disposable thrills that won't leave you with a closet full of pricey one-season wonders when trends move on. A perfect, ultra-supple chocolate-brown A-line suede skirt for $59? A Liberty-inspired-print cotton sundress for $19? Looking at the prices, you may wonder how H&M makes any money. Besides selling about 300 million garments a year, the company has an incredibly efficient production formula: A team of 60 hip, young designers scouts trends everywhere from top international runways to flea markets worldwide (the result is often a bright, splashy jumble -- this spring's zebra-print jersey dress embellished with glittery hot-pink flowers, for instance). Clothes are produced in any of 1,600 specialized factories in Europe and Asia (where H&M sends inspectors every year to check on working conditions). They're then delivered to stores in daily shipments -- as little as 30 days after the first sketch. If a garment doesn't sell out fast (sometimes in as little as a few weeks), it's marked down to make space for newer pieces.

In fact, almost the entire stock at H&M stores changes monthly. I spotted a shelf full of $20 thick knit, cotton Martin Margiela-ish sweaters at a branch in Copenhagen last year. A half-hour later, I found only one left, and it wasn't my size. Buy-now-think-later is a way of life for just about everyone in Manhattan right now -- but at H&M, where 99 percent of stock is under $100, you probably won't regret the impulse.

H&M, 640 Fifth Ave., at 51st St. (212-489-8777).

Picks of the Week

Jamson Whyte, a SoHo source for all kinds of Indonesian teak furniture and the necessary accoutrements -- candle holders, bamboo table accessories, woven baskets, Indian brass sculptures and table linens, etc. -- is clearing its warehouse stock at 50 to 75 percent off: Teak desks and dining tables are $400-$450, teak chairs are $50-$75, cotton-upholstered furniture is from $550, and assorted bamboo serving utensils are $4. 139 Charles St. (212-965-9405); A.E., M.C., V.; Fri.-Sun. 10-5; 3/31-4/2.

French Connection's sample sale has a whopping 20,000 leftovers from the company's stock of sleek, affordable urban basics for men, women, and teens. Prices are up to 80 percent off: Dresses and sweaters are from $20, pants are $30, coats are from $40, and accessories are as little as $3 each. Women's sizes 2-12; men's sizes 28-38. Parsons School of Design, 560 Seventh Ave., at 40th St.; A.E., M.C., V., checks; Mon.-Thurs. 11-7, Fri. 10-6:30; 3/27-3/31.

Harry Kirshner & Son will send your favorite fur, leather, and woolen clothes to the same cold-storage facility as many of the best-known New York fur salons. The difference is they'll charge you at least 50 percent less than others will: It's a mere $25 a coat for storage, plus an extra $7 each for pickup in the Metro area. 307 Seventh Ave., near 27th St., Room 402 (212-243-4847); A.E., M.C., V., checks; Mon.-Fri. 9-6, Sat. till 5; 4/1-8/1.

Tribeca Potters, a group of eight artists who produce pretty ceramic dinnerware and sculpture, is taking up to 60 percent off all leftover or slightly imperfect pieces during their studio sale: Mugs are from $5, serving plates are from $8, casseroles and pitchers are from $15, and masks are $100. 443 Greenwich St. (212-431-7631); A.E., M.C., V., checks; Mon.-Sun. 11-6; 3/31-4/16.


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