When elite designers first linked arms with mass-market retail chains, the driving impulse was populist. The architect Michael Graves helped kick off the trend in 1999 when he signed up to create housewares for Target; his idea was to make well-designed products available to people of modest means. Subsequent collaborations—between Target and Philippe Starck, Cynthia Rowley, and Isaac Mizrahi; between JCPenney and Nicole Miller; between H&M and Karl Lagerfeld—have also been framed in rhetoric that conveys a sense of aesthetic noblesse oblige.
H&M's most recent collaboration, with Stella McCartney, seemed to be no exception. In a presale press release, McCartney said she wanted to offer "a wider female audience" a line that is "attractively priced yet offers high quality together with a superb fit and details." But when McCartney's collection debuted earlier this month, it sold out within hours. So, in truth, the defining characteristic of McCartney's clothes for H&M is not that they're cheap, or even that they're well-designed. It's that you can't have them. Those skinny jeans that retailed for $69.90? They're about as hard to acquire as an Hermès Birkin bag.
H&M intended the line to sell out quickly. While Graves' first collection for Target featured more than 150 styles, McCartney's collection for H&M included about 40. And while Mizrahi has produced several lines for Target, the McCartney collection was a one-off: H&M made no plans to restock its stores after the initial run sold out. The strategy had already proven successful: Last year, bargain-hunting style hounds devoured a limited edition collection from Karl Lagerfeld the morning it hit the floor, and the fashion press had a ball covering the fracas. H&M was clearly looking to re-create that frenzy.
The plan worked. When McCartney's clothes debuted earlier this month at stores in the United States and Europe, bemused accounts appeared in papers across the globe. The Daily Mail's piece was headlined "Stellamania!" (in a nod to her famous dad); the New York Post ran with "H&M Hordes 'Rack' Havoc With War Cry: 'Back Off My Dress, Bitch!' " Most pieces noted that shoppers arrived impressively early, stood in impressively long lines and indulged in nasty behavior inside, reportedly crying, elbowing, grabbing, pouncing, pushing, screaming, shoving, and yelling to get the clothes. In Sweden, women forcibly stripped the mannequins. In New York, one shopper was spotted assaulting an out-of-reach sweater display with an "empty metal rod."
I braved the early-morning line at an H&M in SoHo, hoping to score a few items and examine the clothes firsthand. The women I waited with were not quite the feral hellcats described in the papers, but they were high-performance shoppers—like professional athletes with credit cards—and they regarded each other with a cordial, appraising cool.
Several had trained for the event by scrutinizing photos of the collection available on H&M's Web site. They cased the store's layout through its plate glass windows, no doubt visualizing successful retail maneuvers. In line, they traded tidbits: "I heard the whole collection isn't being sold in the U.S.—some items are only being shipped to stores in Europe." (A McCartney rep later confirmed this.) There were also adrenaline-boosting declarations of intent: "I'm damned if I'm leaving here without a pair of those jeans." The doors opened at 10 a.m.; by 10:13, the racks were empty, apart from a few forlorn bikinis that lay scattered like chaff on the floor.
Marketers have a term for the shopping experience H&M created: massclusivity. The idea is to offer a limited run of a premium item. The upside: Shoppers who are savvy enough to snag what you're selling feel like part of a members-only club. (I saw women at H&M buying clothes without trying them on—they just wanted to own a piece of the Stella McCartney collection.) And for the retailer, there's virtually no downside: Shoppers who show up after the exclusive goods are gone might stick around and buy something else. H&M marketing director Jorgen Andersson told Fortune that the company's collaboration with McCartney was "the ultimate in massclusivity," adding, "if we had these designs in the stores for a month, people would get bored."
In other words, what makes these clothes desirable is not their inherent quality, but the demand manufactured by the company. Indeed, upon close examination, McCartney's collection doesn't warrant all the fuss. The clothes are nicer than many of H&M's wares: The fabrics are better—the blue wrap dress pictured here, for example, is made of a rich, sueded silk—and a number of pieces feature fine detail work, like the tiny pleats along the neckline here. But the clothes often seem poorly thought out. Consider, for example, the metal balls dangling from the cuffs of the dress, which retailed for $69.90. The baubles must have seemed a nice ornamental touch in the initial sketches, but in reality, they have the heft of shooter marbles. On the dancefloor, your arm could easily become as fearsome a weapon as the double-ball flail.
The collection is full of similar missteps. A pretty rhinestone-studded camisole ($59.90) has an unusual flared silhouette, but the stones are unevenly spaced, and the ribbon at its neckline looks likely to fray. An oversized sweater with a striking deep V-neck ($59.90) uses a soft blend of wool and silk, but the fabric is already beginning to pill. And while McCartney is known for tailored pieces, it's particularly tough to make an inexpensive, good-looking blazer: A jacket with sharp tuxedo styling ($99.90) is made of thin wool that has a chintzy sheen.
In the end, though, quality may be immaterial. What H&M is selling, even more than designer clothes, is a designer experience. Typically, limited-edition goods are designer goods, and because of the time and expense it takes to acquire them, they're available only to the rich and well-connected. But with the McCartney and Lagerfeld collections, H&M has made such items available to anyone willing to rearrange her schedule. Get up early, throw a few elbows, and you, too, can own a rare designer piece. If Target and Michael Graves were advocating the democratization of good design, H&M seems to be promoting something stranger and more elusive—the democratization of designer shopping itself.
Even so, it's the shoppers who get short shrift. Last year, they found an unlikely champion in Karl Lagerfeld, who told a German magazine he was surprised his line sold out so fast: "They did not make the clothes in sufficient quantities," he said. "I find it embarrassing that H&M let down so many people ... . It is snobbery created by anti-snobbery." About that, he's absolutely right.