In recent years august fashion houses from Christian Dior to Yves Saint-Laurent have unveiled their collections on the stately grounds of the Musée Rodin. But on Feb. 27, the second day of Paris Fashion Week, the models stomping down the museum’s catwalk weren’t wearing couture designers: They were wearing H&M.
The Swedish fashion giant unveiled 25 key looks for Autumn/Winter 2013 during its first fashion show in eight years. Organizers converted the museum’s grands salons into a stately home, replete with a kitchen and lounge. The good and the great of high fashion—including former H&M collaborator Anna Dello Russo—sipped champagne in plush sofas spread throughout the rooms. Models walked past (the couches and a library and plenty of Old World paintings) in knee-high leather boots paired with furry white jackets, black wool flared miniskirts and thick sweaters that fell halfway down their thighs. The collection flicked at grunge, bohemia and androgyny all in one deft—and presumably affordable—turn.
“For us it is all about surprising our customers, with our own collections as with different collaborations,” Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s Head of Design, tells TIME. “It is a long time since we showed our own fashion in a fashion show, and we think it is a great way to surprise and inspire customers and fans all over the world.”
But this isn’t merely about pleasing the existing customer base. H&M needs to drum up attention as it battles Zara, the Spanish fast fashion behemoth that overtook it in total sales last year. H&M is likely betting that a glamorous fashion show will help it woo back premium consumers from Zara—and bring in new ones who may have written H&M off as “chic but cheap.” It’s already launched higher-end labels like COS and & Other Stories. Presenting 25 of its more polished looks fits with that broader trajectory.
H&M isn’t the only brand hoping to align itself with the world’s most sought-after labels at Fashion Week. J.Crew has staged several successful shows in New York. And River Island, a British chain that sells $14 leopard print vests, debuted a collaboration with pop starlet Rihanna at this year’s London Fashion Week. The collection mixes ’90s grunge with streetwear, and, according to Josie Roscop, the head of marketing at River Island, demonstrates that the brand can set trends and not merely follow them. “Showing at [London Fashion Week] gives the Rihanna for River Island a great platform to demonstrate to the fashion press and consumers the ambition both Rihanna and River Island have,” she says. “In an industry full of celebrity collaborations we wanted to show the strength and fashionability of the collection and shine a light on Rihanna’s design talent.”
Beyond brand building, a fashion show can help an H&M or a J.Crew sell a few choice items to those outside its normal sphere of influence. “The notion that anyone shops or buys by collection anymore is basically dead,” says Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty, the celebrated London department store. “A modern consumer shops by item—and [these brands] represent this new direction.” Helen Hunt drove that point home at the Academy Awards on Sunday when she paired $700,000 worth of jewelery with a navy blue strapless dress from H&M. “A high street brand has just as much design talent involved as a designer brand,” Burstell says,”and there is nothing wrong with combining that with commerciality as long as its original and not derivative.”
Despite its glitzy fashion show, H&M isn’t getting too haute and haughty for its core fan base just yet. It staged its show at 10 p.m. at night—by contrast Balenciaga is at 9 a.m. the next morning—and it mailed out oversized black-and-gold invitations, which could be read as a statement of its financial might. Naturally the biggest statement was the collection itself.
“We were thinking not of one girl but of a group of girls,” head designer Johansson said in a preview of the show. “They’re the girls everyone wants to be, nabbing heirloom pieces from their grandmother’s wardrobe, mixing them with things they’ve borrowed from their boyfriends, but most of all swapping and exchanging with each other.”
Given the glamour on show in Paris, those it girls will likely share some H&M soon, too.