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What sets H&M apart from most competition is its lightning turnaround--a garment can move from design to hanger in just 20 days. (Only Zara can go faster--14 days--but its prices are 30% to 50% higher than H&M's. By comparison, Gap's minimum turnaround is three months, though almost all the merchandise is produced in nine.) As a result, H&M can add looks that weren't in its collections or increase quantities if an item takes off. For example, last fall, when mod miniskirts began to sell, H&M tripled the original order on a black wool mini and distributed it to all markets instead of just a handful of key stores. "But we needed to have our customers' response," says H&M design director Margareta van den Bosch. "We don't trust the runway."
The nerve center of H&M's design operation, the so-called White Room in the company's Stockholm headquarters, is where Van den Bosch, 61, holds forth when she's not scouring flea markets in London or fabric fairs in Paris. She took the top design job at H&M in 1987 and functions more as a soft-spoken den mother--as opposed to an edict-issuing tyrant--to her team of 90 designers (mostly women).
According to colleagues, Van den Bosch is the person who most completely understands the H&M customer. "If it's too complicated on a hanger and if it's too avant-garde, maybe it's not us," Van den Bosch explains. However, risky, unpopular colors or shapes are always possible. "You can have everything, but you have to think about the right quantities."
Although she oversees the design of the more than 500 million items that H&M sells every year, Van den Bosch is not an international celebrity like Karl (Lagerfeld) or Miuccia (Prada). When Van den Bosch started at the company, H&M was mostly buying up collections offered by Southeast Asian agents and putting them together in the store like pieces of a mismatched puzzle. In the late '80s, Van den Bosch began building a design team, and today it has access to the latest in computerized design software and color-matching programs, tools available only to billion-dollar international companies.
In the design studios, there are computers at every workstation, and the runways are only a click away. Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs are interesting references, says Van den Bosch. "Prada is a very good designer but not someone we should look too much at. [The clothes] are made up with very exclusive fabrics and are very worked." In any case, copying is strictly forbidden, and an H&M spokeswoman says there have been very few complaints. H&M keeps its eye on competitors' marketing strategies too. The company may even invite a "star" designer to oversee a special collection for the store, similar to Target's collaboration with Isaac Mizrahi, but Van den Bosch says nothing has been finalized.
Usually the company's design direction converges with the luxury houses' trends, but not always. One popular look H&M passed on a few years back was camouflage prints, judged by the Swedish management to be "war inspired." It has also banned vulgar or sexist language on T shirts and provocative children's clothing.