Seeking Next Fall's Fashion in the Subway

Anna-Carin Emneryd got more than a good meal when a business acquaintance invited her to dinner on a recent visit to India. The 31-year-old buyer for Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz fell in love with a sequined, gauzy peasant blouse one of the other guests was wearing. Emneryd asked where she could pick one up for herself, only to learn it was homemade. She arranged to photograph the garment, rushed the pictures to H&M's Indian supplier so they could work up a sample, and told the designers she works with back in Stockholm that she had a hot new look for winter. "It was just what we were looking for," says Emneryd. The blouse will arrive in stores in February.

H&M's design process is as dynamic as its clothes. The 95-person design group is encouraged to draw inspiration not from fashion runways but from real life. "We travel a lot," says designer Ann-Sofie Johansson, whose recent trip to Marrakech inspired a host of creations worthy of the bazaars. "You need to get out, look at people, new places. See colors. Smell smells." When at home, Johansson admits to following people off the subway in Stockholm to ask where they picked up a particular top or unusual scarf. Call it stalking for style's sake.

With her bright red, blue-smocked tunic and long, straight hair, the 39-year-old Johansson looks more like one of her customers than the fashion arbiter who's dictating what they buy. She joined H&M seven years ago after a stint in London working as an au pair. Similarly, Emneryd lived abroad for several years before returning to her native Sweden and being hired by H&M as an assistant buyer four years ago. The team also includes designers from the Netherlands, Britain, South Africa, and the U.S. The average age is 30.

Johansson and Emneryd are part of the design group for 15- to 25-year-olds, and this fall the style they're selling is Bohemian--long crinkled cotton skirts with matching blouses and sequined sweaters for a bit of nighttime glamour. Johansson and Emneryd aren't pushing a whole look. They know H&M's customers ad-lib, pairing up one of its new off-the-shoulder chiffon tops with last year's khaki cargo pants, for instance. The goal is to keep young shoppers coming into H&M's stores on a regular basis, even if they're spending less than $30 a pop. If they get hooked, they'll stay loyal later on, when they become more affluent.

Each season starts with a brainstorming meeting and a review of what worked and what didn't during the previous season. Not all designs are brand-new; many are based on proven sellers such as washed denim and casual skirts, with a slight twist to freshen them up. The trick is striking the right balance between cutting-edge designs and commercially viable clothes. "Sometimes we're a bit too early with a style," admits Margareta van den Bosch, the 60-year-old design boss and a 15-year H&M veteran. For instance, her team tried going ethnic a few years ago, but it didn't work. So they refined it and brought it back.

To deliver 500 new designs to the stores for a typical season, designers may do twice as many finished sketches. H&M also has merchandise managers in each country, who talk with customers about the clothes and accessories on offer. When they travel, buyers and designers spend time with store managers to find out why certain items in each country have or haven't worked. In Stockholm, they stay close to the customers by working regularly in H&M's stores. Still, Johansson and her crew won't chase after every fad: "There are some things I could never wear, no matter how trendy," she says. Hot pants are high on that list. It's safe to say they won't be popping up at H&M anytime soon.

By Ariane Sains in Stockholm

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