Fast Fashion Frenzy

By Ann Frank and Aneesa Sheikh

This Week in History: Past & Present



The exhilaration and spectacle on display at the Lanvin for H&M sale on November 20 put two fashion history faculty (and successful L for H&M shoppers) in mind of NYC’s history of hosting dramatic department store events, including the opening of the extraordinary Siegel-Cooper & Co., considered a “shopping resort” of the 19th century.


Consumer culture of the 19th century, with a rising bourgeoisie and technological advances of the industrial revolution, celebrated the changing tastes of fashion as well as the thrill of a new experience: shopping. The grand magasins (‘big stores’) of this time promoted the latest styles while enticing women with beauty and bargains. Luxury, excess, and visual delights inspired these new shoppers. By means of visual merchandising, particularly window dressing, department stores created a fantasy world for consumers where dreams and imaginations could run wild.

Le Bon Marche, Printemps, and Galeries Lafayette were among the first grand magasins in Paris. Early NYC department stores included A.T. Stewart, Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. In 1896, the city welcomed Siegel-Cooper & Co. to Sixth Avenue and 18th Street; the department store was designed in the Beaux Arts style by the firm De Lemos & Cordes (currently housing Bed Bath & Beyond). Sixth Avenue was nicknamed ‘The Ladies’ Mile’ where women enjoyed the luxury of leisure that was shopping. Department stores offered discounts as well as easy exchange and return policies; personal service, tea rooms, and other amenities enhanced the shopping experience.

In his book Ladies’ Paradise, Emile Zola wrote of the self-abandonment that took place in the arena of the large department stores. During this heady frenzy, shoppers lost themselves in the new quest for fulfillment through the acquisition of material items, which held the promise of rebirth. This was much the same frenzy that was exhibited recently around the world as the mega fashion emporium H&M (known for providing affordable fashion to the masses) opened its doors to shoppers dripping at the mandibles hoping for a shot at buying Alber Elbaz for Lanvin’s H&M capsule collection.

In anticipation of an unparalleled shopping experience which promised high fashion product with Elbaz’s trademark details such as “ribbon, bows, pearls, raw edges, sumptuous color and metallic embellishment” at a fraction of the price (owing to China’s undervaluing the Yuan and providing cheap labor), consumers (including fashion fanatics, eBay poachers, and your fearless fashion historian bloggers) lined up as early as the night before to wait for a chance to partake in a sartorial renaissance birthed of this new fashion world order.

In addition to the coffee and croissants that were handed out—which were reminiscent of 19th century department store amenities– each person in line was given a color-coded wrist band that allowed entrance to 15 minutes of shopping in a roped-off Lanvin area as well as a goodie bag that contained a gifted product, a catalog, and a list of very democratic rules specifying the two item limit per product. While queue squatters were enticed by the promise and spectacle of gorgeously attired mannequins in the windows, H&M expressed in the ‘rules’ that “ Our goal is to create a better shopping experience for all of our customers;” and furthermore, “The shopping limit covers the entire Lanvin for H&M Collection. Your place in line does not guarantee any items from the Lanvin for H&M collection.”

By 1pm on the afternoon of the opening in New York, the 16 color-coded heats of shoppers had made it through the store, most of the goods were sold out, and victorious shoppers returned home with their new booty. A little over a week later starlets, such as Natalie Portman, appeared on the red carpet not in couture, but in the newly minted capsule collection. The department stores of the nineteenth century created a consumer spirit which enhanced the ability and inclination to acquire goods at a fast pace. Similarly, today’s ‘fast fashion’ mega stores such as H&M enable consumers to satiate their desire for ‘of the moment’ trends at a fraction of the price.

The New York Times, September 13, 1896.


Share your experiences with fellow fast fashion followers — Were you one of the exclusive few who took part in Lanvin’s special collaboration with H&M? Post pictures and comment on your experiences!