Q&A | The lowdown on H&M Comme des Garçons

TOKYO, Japan – Back in September, H&M experienced one of the most successful Japanese market entries in recent history, with its first store in Ginza drawing incredible mass media coverage and never-ending lines. Now two months later, H&M will open its next Japanese store on November 8 in the youth fashion district of Harajuku.

Japanese customers lucky enough to make it through the long queue on Saturday morning will be the first worldwide to be able to buy the latest limited-edition guest-collaboration line: H & M COMME des GARÇONS. For the rest of the world, H&M Comme des Garçons will debut on November 13 in more than 200 H&M stores around the world.

To learn more, we sat down first with H&M’s Creative Advisor Margareta Van Den Bosch and Brand & New Business Director Jörgen Andersson in Tokyo to talk about the Rei Kawakubo collaboration.

BoF: Please tell us the basics of the H&M Comme des Garçons line.

Van Den Bosch (V): There are twenty pieces for men and thirty pieces for women. There are some accessories. I think it feels like a typical Comme des Garçons collection. Rei Kawakubo made all the samples for us. She made the patterns. We had a lot of sending garments between us. We only met two times, but we had a lot of correspondence with garments. She would see every style and say yes or no. She watched every detail and approved everything.

BoF: Where there limits on materials or extravagance?

No. Of course we talked about the idea that some pieces could be at a lower-price level and some could be a little more expensive. In terms of quality, we worked with wool and cotton and other high quality fabrics. Some of the pieces are at the upper price level but we also have T-shirts.

Andersson (A): When we first approached her, we approached her with the philosophical idea of “contradiction.” There is a contradiction between H&M and Comme des Garçons. H&M is very mass market, selling to reasonable prices. Whereas CdG has a completely different price level and is also very artistic. So I think she was then challenged to see, how can I maintain my integrity as a brand, but meet the demands of the mass market. So I think she went into the creative process with that in the back of her head.

V: We also thought it was nice after (Roberto) Cavalli — a very sexy, glamorous designer — to choose someone like Kawakubo who is arty and cool. So I think it’s a big contrast.

BoF: Will there be more H&M CdG product allocated for the Japanese market?

A: We have estimated that the demand will definitely be highest here, but we are still trying to balance what we do in all markets, trying to balance between the mass market and exclusivity to create “massclusivity.” Because we still believe if you buy the show piece [dress], you don’t want to see too many other women dressed in the same way. It is limited-edition. It’s supposed to sell out, but maybe the previous collaboration being sold out within half an hour, that’s maybe a bit too fast. Because then there are a lot of disappointed customers. Hopefully we have managed to find a good balance in quantity.

But we also want to tell the customer, you have to be there when we open up the store in order to make sure to get something. I make the comparison with trying to go to a concert: we sell tickets but you have to show up. You can expect to still get tickets after a week.

BoF: Will you do another production run if the line sells out immediately?

A: No. We did one.

BoF: Is the sizing of the collection going to fit like CdG or H&M?

V: We have made the pieces to our fit, our measurements. But these are her patterns, of course.

BoF: Will the collection be sold at locations other than H&M?

A: We will work together with 10 Corso Como in Milan and in Seoul. So it will be picked up by them, because we did a similar collaboration with them when we did Marimekko. When they heard about this new collaboration, they contacted us again and said, can we sell it? H&M is not yet in Korea, but we thought, why not? Our ambition is to spread H&M around the globe so if we can get into Korea we think it’s fabulous.

BoF: Are the expensive pieces the most expensive pieces that H&M has ever sold?

V: We also had a dress in the Cavalli collection at the same price point.

A: When we did the collection with Victor & Rolf, we did a bridal dress. I think we did only 1,000 pieces, numbered. And then we continued that with Roberto Cavalli, making a few red carpet dresses that were also numbered. That was highly appreciated by the customers.

So I think people buy into the fact that it’s limited. But a bit more sad, we saw those pieces traded on Ebay a half an hour later. So they become like collector’s items.

BoF: What is the financial relation between H&M and Comme des Garçons?

A: The business model is between the designer and H&M. But for obvious reasons, we take the responsibility for the commercial risk. We have to take that, because we know our territories: which shops to place it in, where to place it, how to display it, etc. That’s something we have sixty years of experience in. But where we don’t interfere is in the design. So we will never control or guide too much of the design, because the creativity is what we are buying. The production and the handling, the more retail side of it, I would say that we are pretty good at that.

So for us it’s basically two brands coming together: H & M COMME des GARÇONS. Theoretically we’re creating a third brand, which is only going to exist from half an hour to a week. That’s the time span of it. The approach that we have is the same as creating a new brand. The packaging, marketing, PR, and distribution have to fit both brands. It has to be win-win, otherwise no designers would do it, except for financial reasons. But the collaborations we have done, obviously the financial is one thing, but I felt that it has been a sincere wish [of the designers] to reach out to a wider audience. I think that has driven the designers to accept our invitation.

BoF: How do you top Rei Kawakubo?

A: That’s something we have to think about on Sunday morning!

But people said that when we worked with Karl Lagerfeld as well. We started with Karl, and it was supposed to be a one-off. But then getting all the feedback from the customers and the sales, everybody loved it. I personally got a letter from a woman who said, I just love H&M because all my life I have dreamed of wearing a piece by Karl and all of a sudden you’ve made it possible.

And then we said, let’s do something completely different, so we went to Stella (McCartney), which is closer to our type of design and our customers. So I think it’s about trying not to think linear, but think different. But keep the same idea. We like expressing the business idea in the product or a collection, instead of a commercial. But it will demand some thinking before signing up the next one.

It was extra fun going from Roberto Cavalli to Comme des Garçons, because it proves our point that fashion is not about one style. Roberto Cavalli’s fashion and Rei Kawakubo’s fashion are just two ways of expressing fashion. So we can keep doing the same business idea of collaboration but then hopefully keep surprising people with choices that are a little bit fun. We like to believe that fashion can be fun, not pretentious.

V: And I think they both attract different customers.

A: From reading what people write on the internet, the customer who queued up for Roberto Cavalli might not the customer who will queue up for this collection. We will attract a totally different customer for this, but the more people we can get to visit H&M and realize that we have something for everyone, the better.

BoF: The homepage for the collection is particularly interesting. Did you want the interactive experience to be special for this collaboration?

A: Definitely. We are putting more and more emphasis on online, because that’s where our customers are. And secondly, we know that, especially with this collection, people love to look at the collection and make a shopping list. So we put a lot of emphasis there. The commercial and the print ads are more of an image, not showing the product much. They basically drive traffic to the homepage, and on the homepage they’ll see the product and all the stores carrying it.

W. David Marx is a Contributing Editor of The Business of Fashion and Chief Editor of MEKAS. This is an extract of a more in-depth interview which can be found at MEKAS.