A little H&M for your Northwest fashion woes

A global clothing chain that offers high design for low cost opens in the newly renovated Southcenter Mall this week. It could be the advent of fashionability in notoriously fleece-and-khaki-ridden Seattle.
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A global clothing chain that offers high design for low cost opens in the newly renovated Southcenter Mall this week. It could be the advent of fashionability in notoriously fleece-and-khaki-ridden Seattle.

When Melissa Liton and her friends, mostly professional women in their mid-20s to mid-30s, first heard the Swedish clothing giant H&M was opening stores in the Seattle area, the news, she said, "spread like wildfire on e-mail from girlfriend to girlfriend. I liken it to the day when we found out 'Sex and the City' was being made into a movie; it was a fever."

For the uninitiated — there are fewer and fewer every month — H&M is sometimes called the Ikea of clothing. H&M puts a premium on design while setting its prices conspicuously low: At the risk of sounding like a commercial, this means high fashion at Wal-Mart prices. The formula and its affiliations with famous designers like Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld have created legions of devoted shoppers in 29 countries (most of them in Europe) and 20 states (mostly in the East and upper Midwest).

Seattle's turn comes Friday when the first and largest of three Seattle-area stores opens as part of the newly reconceived and rebuilt Southcenter Mall. Two other stores, located downtown and in the University Village shopping center, will open this fall. By weight of reputation, shoppers in other cities have lined up overnight to be among the first inside a new store. H&M, which operates about 1,600 stores, is the biggest and best at what is sometimes referred to as disposable fashion: time-sensitive designs, very low prices, and short shelf lives.

Liton, who is 31, works as a manger in a large public relations firm (it has no working relationship with H&M) in Seattle, where she grew up. But she did a tour in a universally fashionable city, spending several years living in San Francisco, which shaped her tastes. In California, for example, she cultivated a love for impractical but super-cute shoes. When she came home to Seattle to visit, "I would be wearing my little San Francisco outfit and I felt very big city-chic."

She is the kind of consumer H&M presumably covets and also creates, someone who, for the right price, appreciates or can be taught to appreciate fashion and its trappings. Putting aside the question of whether having soaring, new malls makes for a richer life, or whether we're all better off having gained another globally branded mega-retailer, it would seem Seattle needs something like H&M. At least more than it needs a dozen of the other khaki-peddling clothing giants found in every other city, the Old Navy and Gap stores.

Because by a preponderance of anecdotal evidence, for as cool a city as Seattle is known and has shown itself to be, its residents, to generalize, are frumpy.

"Fashion is just not viewed as an asset here," said Alma Rubenstein, a professional matchmaker in Seattle who by necessity also engages in plenty of what could be called personal coaching, which includes how to dress. "Clothes can be used as a tool, to get a date, to get a job, to be noticed, to command respect. But I don't think a lot of people around here understand that. Seattle is so much about blending in. It's like people don't want to be looked at."

The weather doesn't encourage the peacock within us. Neither does the workplace culture. Office dress codes are largely variations of the Microsoft template of cottons and fleeces that require a minimum of buttoning and ironing. Our outdoor pastimes also discourage primping and encourage practicality.

The P word is the unwritten code of life in the Northwest, perhaps bequeathed by the region's founding Lutheran fathers — we're told they were an austere bunch — and enforced in later generations through guilt and peer pressure. For all the wealth in the Northwest, you don't see a lot of Italian shoes, sports cars, boob jobs, or lap dogs. You do see a lot of expensive bicycles, hiking boots, eyeglasses, station wagons, and roof racks, though.

As an anecdotal exercise in fashion observation, one could ride the elevators one morning in the low-rise office complex Liton works in, a set of buildings occupied chiefly by the staff of a large, well-known company that engages in the commerce of technology or the technology of commerce. In other words, it's pretty much like every other new company in town.

The workforce is distinctly global. Conversations carry on in English but with accents from south Asia and eastern Europe. Plenty of ambition and smarts ride up and down, all wearing a lot of the same thing: collared T-shirts, running shoes, rucksacks, pullover sweaters — and that's what the women are wearing. When a style can be discerned, it's more often the males who are trying. The boys — and they really do dress like boys — seem to be aiming for the fresh-from-the-skateboard-park look. This is one definition of democracy: You can't tell apart, by clothing, the chief executives from the delivery boys.

One of Alma Rubenstein's prospective clients, a woman in her 30s who works in the technology industry, arrived for an appointment wearing khakis and a polo shirt. Her hair was cut in a way that made her appear older than she was. This was how she dressed for work, the client said. She explained she didn't want to intimidate anyone in the office. She was, Rubenstein said, seemingly proud of it, which gets to the heart of fashion inertia of Seattle. Whether out of ignorance, insecurity, or sheer principle, indignation about fashion is viewed as a virtue.

So, can a store that sells $60 blazers, $25 dresses, $17 button-down shirts, and $5 scarves teach 35-year-old tech managers, male and female, to stop dressing like boys?

Jill Wenger, who owns Impulse, a high-end, women's clothing boutique in Fremont, sees H&M as "a stepping stone into fashion."

"I think Seattle needs something like that," she said, "something that shows fashion can be fun. It's not just selling a top but selling a new idea to emulate, or a cheap way to buy a little piece of Lagerfeld."

H&M is not Wenger's competition, she said. Her customers tend to be regulars who spend hundreds of dollars per visit. If anything, H&M will help her business by raising the fashion IQ overall.

Seattle, in her opinion, suffers from what she calls "too-cool syndrome." After pausing a moment to consider the affliction's origins, she said, "I think it's the grunge thing."

Grunge music and grunge culture, whose affectation was to appear disaffected, meant dressing as if you didn't care. Except to achieve the true grungy look, you very much had to care. About the colors (nothing too bright), the patterns (nothing too optimistic or vibrant), the fabrics (only durable, natural fibers), and its state of wear (can't look new or recently bought). The look was uniformly chaotic, which is difficult to achieve, whether intentionally or out of apathy.

Anna Bennett is a college student at New York University and graduate of Seattle's Roosevelt High School. She spends summers at home in Seattle working as a clerk at a clothing store, giving herself plenty of time to consider the divergent values of her two homes.

"In New York, when I see students walking around, they're usually wearing nice jeans," she said. "Around here, when you see kids walking around the UW, they're in yoga pants."

"When I'm in New York, what I wear is based on style because I know someone is going to be looking at me when I walk down the street and they're going to judge what I'm wearing. When I'm here, all of my clothes are based on comfort. Because who we are is not based on what we wear."

It's a well-intended sentiment with a fatal flaw. Because no matter what you wear, be it Prada or burlap, it can't help but say something about who you are, not just that you are wealthy or vain.

For which a store like H&M provides an out. Because the clothes are cheap, you cannot be guilty of excess by shopping there. And if you don't spend very much, you are not trying very hard. And if you're not trying very hard, you are not vain, but fun, which the designs reinforce. They are generally grown-up without being conservative. Nice clothes, but not in a Nordstrom-y, establishment kind of way.

"It's a nice balance at H&M," Liton said. "They push the envelope, but they have plenty of things someone my age can wear."

"I think Seattle is changing. Not that they dressed ugly. But 10 years ago, I'd see a lot of fleece and Birkenstocks. Now I look around and I think, 'Wow, I have plenty of competition.'"

For its part, H&M understands its markets and that good fashion is sometimes partly about politics. Company spokeswoman Jennifer Uglialoro said H&M's Seattle-area stores will offer "a great organic cotton collection and have just expanded it to include recycled wool and other fibers."


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.