H&M just launched the latest of its luxury label collaborations. But is the 'Balmain X H&M' line a bridge too far?
Nicknamed Balmaination, Balmain's new collection for H&M is heavy with designer Olivier Rousteing's ornate and embroidered power looks. An elaborate approach associated with haute-couture is a nice surprise from a fast fashion retailer associated with a paired-down approach made on the cheap. And that, unsurprisingly, comes at a cost.
While a $70 turtleneck dress may seem okay, it is double the price of a non-Balmain H&M comparable. And it's only an entry-point into a collection whose prices spiral quickly upwards. The women's line tops out with an admittedly eye-catching $650 beaded cocktail dress. Menswear, meanwhile, hits the same ceiling with a covet-worthy, embroidered velvet jacket.
Still, one can't help but wonder if we could do better elsewhere. Sure, these prices are an order of magnitude below what real luxury equivalents cost. And intricacy and quality mean money. Which is exactly the point: given the elaborate concoction of these clothes, just how much has been invested in making sure they last even a little bit? Or is this a $650 throwaway?
Having built its success on disposable, designer knock-offs, H&M is a brand we associate with low price more than high quality. To be fair, some of their midrange basics can indeed be a good deal. I am an avid consumer of their flatteringly cut, easy wearing, V-neck t-shirts; especially those that come from the ecological Conscious line and can be had for under $10. They pair nicely with designer slacks and high-end shoes for an effortless chic.
Sometimes I'll even succumb to the lure of less anodyne "statement" pieces. These typically make it through only a handful of cleanings before they're ready for the donation bin. And that's fine because, really, how often can you wear a statement piece before the eye rolling, "Oh, we're wearing that again" kicks in? So for $30 you can get a more than respectable few years out of your purchase.
But I am not sure anyone is ready for the horse pill of H&M shoes at double the price of Kenneth Cole. With the above noted dress, a total look (but never wear a total look) comes to over $1,000 before jewelry and accessories.
"At that price," noted French fashion magazine Adaptation, "we prefer shopping with small designers who offer original pieces that won't get 'burned' in two seconds... 'Oh, you have that H&M Balmain dress too.'"
Today's shopper with an eye for fashion and a purse for even facsimile luxury is more interested in unearthing uniqueness than having the same thing as everyone else. Particularly when it's obvious you went for the cut-price version of something better. Balmain is effectively telling customers that you don't have to spend on Balmain to look like Balmain.
Except that for the fashion-conscious there's a particularly nefarious twist. Keen observers won't miss that the 'Balmain X H&M' collection is clearly time-stamped. The dominance of black, quilting and embroidery make heavy reference to the luxury brand's Fall 2012-13 ready-to-wear lines. Rousteing, however, has gone in a much cleaner, more nuanced direction the last two years.
Those less interested in of-the-moment looks may be able to pick up past seasons' Balmain at a secondhand or goodwill shop for a similar discount. The advantage there, of course, being that it would be genuine Balmain, with the heritage and quality that the name promises. It might even appreciate over time. H&M's newly made in China version, not so much.
Or perhaps consumer perceptions of luxury brands have fallen so low that H&M thought it was time to make a move for their turf. Some of the simpler pieces are not a bad deal in the grand scheme of things.
So let's look at it from Balmain's perspective. On the surface, reaching out to younger shoppers is great way to create and entry point to the brand. It's nothing new: luxury brands like Armani and Calvin Klein have been offering lower priced extension brands for decades. But it was always just that: an extension of themselves, retaining control of the shopping and brand experience. Here they've handed that over to an outsider with quite different interests.
Will it work? H&M certainly seems to think so, and early indications prove them right. Purchases are limited to two items per product in-store and just one per product on line. At the time of writing, the H&M site was blocked due to too much traffic and viral images of long lines and in-store riots had already begun to circulate.
With that kind of appeal, one could claim that H&M have done something right. But they've also helped degrade the customer. As has Balmain. The role of luxury was supposed to elevate us. Now it's just cheap tricks and stale crumbs from the table.