A European invasion: high fashion through high-volume retail chains

Walk around New York's Fifth Avenue, or stroll through a mall near either of America's coasts, and you can't miss it: European clothiers are here in force.

It's not just those expensive one-of-a-kind fashions often associated with New York runway shows. Armani, with its cheaper "Exchange" line, has for several years reached for consumers who have smaller budgets - but a penchant for name brands with European cachet.

The latest wrinkle could be called Euro mainstreaming. And the invaders are chain stores. Zara, French Connection, and Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) are among the European stores hoping to appeal to young American shoppers.

Since the March 2000 launch of its first New York City store, Sweden's H&M has opened 18 shops in the United States and plans 15 to 20 more by next year.

French Connection - based, in fact, in Britain - has 25 stores in the US. Its chairman, Stephen Marks, estimates that the US market could support 300.

Zara - founded by Spanish billionaire Amancio Ortega - already has six of its 450 stores in the US. The chain has operations in more than 30 countries.

These new stores hope to capitalize on the deepening appeal of European style.

"They are mainly targeting this large group of young customers who are hungry for new fashion," says Jane Werner, associate professor of fashion merchandising management at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Having a high volume of worldwide sales may help the Europeans.

"We don't have any direct competitor in this market, with the same prices and quality. We offer a much larger assortment of clothes.... And Americans like to get a good bargain," says Christian Bagnoud, H&M's US marketing director.

Another consideration: the freshness factor. H&M, which sold 300 million garments last year, has daily deliveries to its stores. Zara says its 250 designers roll out more than 10,000 new products every year, often delivered to stores within weeks of being drawn. "The traditional six month fashion cycle from designer drawing board to the retailer has been shattered," says Adelle Kirk, brand specialist for Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm in Atlanta.

The stores often target micromarket segments. H&M, for example, offers a "Mama" line of maternity wear along with the industry standards, such as casual and "plus-size." "Zara has a better fit than other stores, it's more edgy and fashion conscious," says Jacqueline, a New Yorker in her 30s, shopping in the Lexington Avenue store.

But the key to the early success of the European retailers: access to youthful trend-drivers. Many have worked to open outlets not only in urban fashion enclaves, but also in malls, where they can best benefit from buzz marketing.

"It's a way to get a name out to thousands of people," says Lisa Wolstromer, marketing director of Garden State Plaza, New Jersey's largest mall.

A footnote: One hip apparel brand in Europe is now Cat, according to The Wall Street Journal. Caterpillar, that is - a subsidiary of the US-based manufacturer of heavy machinery.

Cultural crossover works both ways.

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