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April 26, 2009 4:17 PM

Retail

Surviving the H&M Stampedes

As a veteran of H&M designer collection launches, I've been pushed, shoved, elbowed, prodded, mauled, stepped on and bear-hugged by none other than Roberto Cavalli, who enveloped me in his arms during the November 2007 debut of his line...

As a veteran of H&M designer collection launches, I've been pushed, shoved, elbowed, prodded, mauled, stepped on and bear-hugged by none other than Roberto Cavalli, who enveloped me in his arms during the November 2007 debut of his line at the retailer's Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan.

That particular event stands out for the level of frenzy and sheer absurdity of celebrity worship Cavalli fans displayed. Shoppers climbed on top of displays and stripped mannequins of their clothing, picked racks clean of gold lame gowns and zebra print dresses, and grabbed merchandise indiscriminately out of the hands of sales associates who were trying to restock the floor.

When Cavalli pulled up to the store in a black Town Car and dropped his cigar on the ground, a woman on line wasted no time in picking it up and tossing it into a Ziploc bag -- she said she planned to sell it on eBay.

My close encounter with Cavalli occurred midway up the escalator, where he was perched to get a good view of the action on the ground floor. Told I was a reporter, he grabbed me in a tight embrace. But he was interested in the adulation of the crowd. "Tell me what time you were here since?" he shouted to the shoppers below. "Tell me how much you love me."

In comparison, H&M's launch of the first edition of its Matthew Williamson collection last Thursday was sedate -- not just in New York, but seemingly worldwide. While the Cavalli launch drew a crowd estimated at 250, including hard-core fans who began waiting on line the previous evening, the Williamson contingent at the Fifth Avenue store barely made it around the corner. Those with an agenda made a beeline for the $249 short-sleeved sequin multicolored dress, which was the first item to sell out. The $350 ruffled silk gown, which was only available at this H&M unit, blue blazer and matching pants and peacock dress were gone within the first hour. The short buttery leather biker jacket for $250 didn't last either and elicited regrets from shoppers who arrived at 10 a.m., not realizing the store opened an hour earlier for the launch.

Shopping at one of these events is not for the faint of heart or the indecisive. Anything I've bought (when I'm off duty, of course) has been purchased on the fly. "Buy now, try later" is my motto. It's easy to get swept up in the moment, and I have. But I never buy too much, lest I look like a character out of "The Lion King" dressed in head-to-toe leopard print. My souvenirs of debuts include a pale yellow Stella McCartney camisole and black dress pants and two Viktor & Rolf dresses.

There was no risk of overload at H&M's Williamson debut. A spokeswoman told me the collection was smaller than most, with only 20 pieces, plus accessories. Half of the front area of the store was switched over to regular H&M stuff about an hour into the event, leaving no trace of the Williamson merchandise that had been there. It was the fastest H&M designer sell-out I'd seen. Of course, it may have had something to do with the fact that another Williamson collection will arrive in all H&M's stores in mid-May.

As I was leaving, I saw a sales associate carrying several short ruffle dresses. I asked for my size and could hardly believe my luck when she handed it to me. Where were the errant hands to snatch it from me? The crowds shoving me aside? No one even asked if I wanted to make a trade. I walked over to the register, where there were only two people ahead of me. Five minutes later, I had my dress and no battle scars to prove it. I hardly think I deserve a badge of courage for this fashion fracas.
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