H&M's 10 years of high street cred: The retailer's link-ups with designers such as Alexander Wang have revolutionised the fashion industry

Fashion fans are sharpening their elbows for Alexander Wang at H&M. As the store celebrates 10 years of designer collaborations, Alexander Fury recalls the hits and misses

Alexander Fury
Wednesday 05 November 2014 22:50

Until 10 years ago, having a wardrobe full of designer clothing would break the bank. Now, it just means breaking your sleep pattern and queuing for hours on a frozen November morning outside any major branch of H&M, the Swedish-founded mass retailer which has revolutionised the high-street fashion game.

Then you, too, could have a wardrobe specked with clothes from Isabel Marant, Stella McCartney, Versace or Lanvin – albeit suffixed with the epithet "For H&M". "Fashion fans around the world have had the chance to wear some of the most incredible pieces," says Margareta van den Bosch, H&M's creative adviser and the woman who started it all with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004, "proving that great design is about more than price".

But, of course, price is key – a few pieces break three figures (Lagerfeld had a sequinned blazer, for instance; leather tends to cost a lot), but most are tantalisingly within the range of the average high-street shopper. Obviously, that means design corners are cut: those Lagerfeld sequins were sewn en masse to the fabric, rather than painstakingly attached by hand; Versace's studs were glued on; there's always plenty of polyester. Nevertheless, it's a satisfyingly quick hit of high-octane high fashion, with one of those all-important names attached.

"The days when designers could lose their jobs because they were linked to a collection for an inexpensive brand are over," says Karl Lagerfeld. "H&M has made inexpensive desirable."

Today, H&M's latest desirably inexpensive range with the American designer Alexander Wang hits stores around the globe. It's already been worn by Rihanna and lines began to form outside the brand's flagships last night. Most of it has probably already been sold by now. You can perhaps bag it on eBay, at a hyper-inflated price point – the result of crafty professional re-sellers, or frequently a dose of buyer's remorse.

What is it about H&M's designer collaborations that generate such a furore? It's tough to pin down because the formula isn't new, or particularly innovative. They weren't the first to enlist unaffordable designers to create affordable clothes: Azzedine Alaia, Jean Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake created clothes for the French mail-order catalogue Les Trois Suisses in the Eighties, while in 1998 Topshop partnered with Hussein Chalayan (and continues the initiative with London designers to the present day).

However, it's not the cocktail itself that intoxicates, but the strength of the ingredients. The designers are world-renowned names (to coincide with the 10th anniversary, H&M has published a book celebrating their breadth and diversity), and rather than a clutch of separates, designers' H&M ranges are fully fledged collections in their own right, frequently unveiled in flashy fashion shows. Versace's included a home line; Prince and Nicki Minaj performed at the line's catwalk presentation in New York. It is H&M's bestselling designer tie-in to date. Others were less successful: Jimmy Choo's marked the label's only foray into clothing, while Maison Martin Margiela's conceptual approach – utilising intentionally poor fabrics and details like exposed seams and unfinished hems – didn't translate successfully to the mass market, where such finishes smack of lack of quality rather than intellectual design conceits.

Nevertheless, no one has raised the high-low collaboration to quite the level of H&M – which could stand for "Hysteria and Mayhem", the general public reaction when it comes to the eagerly anticipated release of these lines. There have been 13 in all, including ranges by Matthew Williamson and Marni that dropped in spring and summer, rather than the traditional November dates.

There's a satisfying breadth to H&M's roster. The public lapped up H&M's collaboration with celebrity favourites like the aforementioned Williamson, Choo and a leopard-laden offering from Roberto Cavalli; but fashion insiders were shocked and seduced by their cerebral collection with the enigmatic Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Considering she is a designer of few syllables, never mind words ("roses and blood" were her only stated inspirations for spring/summer 2015, for instance), somehow H&M managed to crowbar a sizeable chunk of thought out of her when she created her range in 2008: "I thought it would be an exciting event to work with H&M in order to sell Comme des Garçons clothes in places where they have never been sold and to appeal to people who may not yet understand Comme des Garçons." As Viktor and Rolf stated in 2006, "H&M is fashion at its most democratic."

One of Alexander Wang's designs for H&M

In a sense, H&M's "democratic" designer collections are a fitting metaphor for fashion as a whole – trying to please the everyman (or woman) and operating at ever-increasing speed. Designers now show two "pre-collections" a year to press, in addition to the traditional spring/summer and autumn/winter catwalk seasons, a high-fashion counterpart to H&M's weekly drops of product. It also raises similar moralistic quibbles: do we really need all these clothes? And at what price – a question thrown into sharp relief by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster. H&M didn't manufacture clothes there, but it does use factories in Bangladesh, which the company's website states "is one of our most important production markets".

Naturally, those are not the questions that we are supposed to focus on with H&M's designer collaborations – rather, we're supposed to be thinking about who may be next, although we're just hours from Wang's debut. Prada and Givenchy are rumours that do the rounds each year. It's a mark of H&M's clout that they're not dismissed out of hand.

That pair will probably remain hypothetical – but whoever it is that clutters up H&M's rails for a brief period in November 2015, they'll be newsworthy. And, if only for one manic morning, we'll all be convinced we need a piece of it.

'The First Ten Years' is available in H&M stores from today at £7.99

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