H&M new darling of Tokyo fashion scene

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

Hennes & Mauritz, which drew long lines with its first Japan store, is hoping to repeat that success by opening a second shop Saturday with collaborative designs from fashion icon Rei Kawakubo.

The Swedish clothing retail chain, which operates 1,700 shops in 32 markets, used to be little known in Japan. But all that changed with H&M’s arrival two months ago in Tokyo’s Ginza.

Lines of bargain-hunting shoppers snaked around city blocks, drawing about 8,000 people a day, according to H&M. And the lines, although significantly shorter now, are still there — two months later.

The response was so strong that H&M — Europe’s No. 2 clothing chain — scrambled to fly in employee help. Some customers were disappointed to have waited hours only to find nothing in their size, company official Nils Vinge said Thursday.

“Sales have been overwhelming,” he said.

Two days before the opening, people were already starting to camp outside the second H&M store in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, an area popular with the younger set.

Japan is a notoriously difficult retail market. Shoppers here love bargains and famous designers, and H&M appears to be offering a combination of both. But Japanese also tend to be fad-lovers, who get bored as quickly as they find obsessions.

H&M faces competition not only from pricier boutiques, but also from affordable outlets, like Gap of the U.S., Zara of Spain and Japan’s own Uniqlo.

“It’s too early to say whether H&M has succeeded as a brand,” Nils said while refusing to disclose the Japanese sales data. The company is planning to open two more stores in Tokyo.

H&M has built a following with fashionable items at reasonable prices, like ¥299 earrings and ¥3,990 dresses, by exploiting its massive global supply chain.

It doesn’t adapt designs to regions. But it grabs attention with limited-edition collaborations with such celebrities as Madonna, Roberto Cavalli and Stella McCartney.

The latest — 30 women’s items and 20 men’s items by Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons, mostly in her signature black but some in polka dot — were timed with the Harajuku opening, but they will also be sold at 200 H&M shops around the world.

H&M refused to say how many of each item will be available, but it’s expecting a sellout.

Jorgen Andersson, who oversees branding and new businesses, said H&M tries to bring together exclusivity and mass-market products.

“H&M is making it possible for designers to reach out to normal people on the street, the man or the woman who can’t or won’t spend a fortune on clothes,” he said. “We have a democratic approach to fashion.”