A battle is being waged on Oxford Street between two of fast fashion’s behemoths.
With the Christmas shopping season now under way, which store looks best equipped to tempt cash-strapped women into a festive blowout?
The fact that two of fast fashion’s titans have set up shop almost next door to each other on Oxford Street (with only Desigual between them to prevent outright war breaking out) says much for the continuing pull of this London thoroughfare. H&M (a womenswear-only store) and Forever 21 both occupy sites roughly halfway between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch. So for a snapshot of what this end of the market is up to for Christmas, there are few better places to get a sense of what’s happening.
And for both of them, when it comes to celebrating the season of goodwill there does appear to be something of a low-cost ethos informing the displays, although this was having little effect on the number of shoppers heading through the doors on Tuesday evening last week. Indeed, there is an argument that as the party season hoves into view, these two are the natural destinations for cash-strapped merrymakers determined that a good time can still be had.
This is Forever 21’s first Christmas in London, something that adds spice to the November/December value peak, and if you stand on the pavement between the two stores it is easy to see shoppers checking out both emporia before making any kind of purchase. West Coast America vs Sweden therefore. This is a battle worth watching.
Key looks and merchandise mix
The real surprise about both stores is the relatively small amount of Christmas party stock. It’s tempting to imagine that both retailers have taken the view that in these austere times celebrations may be thinner on the ground and therefore perhaps it’s a matter of making do.
That said, in Forever 21 the ground floor has a small area towards the back of the shop devoted to what an assistant referred to as “cocktail” stock. The partywear proper meanwhile is tucked away in a secondary area in the basement. The range is quite traditional in feel, with key colours being red and black with cerise used as a highlight. Satins, glitter beads and lace provide the trims, while black booties are on offer to complete the look.
In H&M, things are a little more varied with cocktail-style outfits on the first floor consisting of black and white dresses, waistcoats and tapered-leg trousers. Party is also in the basement and for H&M it appears to mean black, white and silver with grey, ecru and a smattering of purple/lilac providing the accent colours. Ecru-lined lace vests, crushed black velveteen blackets (blouse-jackets – do keep up at the back) and strapless black velvet mini dresses for a tenner typify the proposition.
Price is hardly worth considering, however, as everything has been designed for the value-conscious customer, although whether partygoers will be interested that some of the garments are part of H&M’s Conscious Collection (“for a more sustainable fashion future”) is a moot point.
At H&M, it is also worth noting the latest designer collaboration – The Very Best of Versace – that does perhaps swing things in its favour for those with more cash.
Forever 21 6/10
The thing about Forever 21, at the risk of sounding like a press release, is that the store looks as if there’s a party every day. Making things different for Christmas is therefore always going to be something of a challenge. The best place to start however is the window, and here there are what can only be described as a bunch of party-oriented cabaret mannequins that look as if they might have stepped out of a lowish-rent Berlin in the 1930s. These are set against a purple backdrop with gold, white and red stars and the effect is probably cost-positive for Forever 21. Within the store, it’s almost as if Christmas has been forgotten – things are little different from the Forever 21 norm.
Compare this with H&M, which has a vampish window filled with black mannequins wearing black party dresses and with crows, yes crows, with glitter beaks and talons. You have to hope no animals were harmed in the making of this window, but the crows do look remarkably real perched on shoulders and suspended in the upper part of the glassline. Indoors, the Halloween-led party atmosphere continues with more crows and a white-sprayed tree with baubles. A curious treatment of the festive season, but it is eye-catching.
Forever 21 5/10
Let’s be fair, this is Oxford Street, this is fast fashion and it was a busy early evening. The service in both stores, other than when it came to taking money at the cash desk, or guarding the fitting rooms, was pretty cursory. The staff were looking overwhelmed and with it being towards the end of the day, housekeeping standards were being seriously tested. But at least most of the sizes in most of the styles were on show in both shops as the replenishment operation continued. You really do get what you pay for.
Forever 21 5/10
Chandeliers, mirrors, multiple mannequins and cash desks with faux graffiti, as well as the frame of a shed in the basement, would go a fair way towards summing up what Forever 21 on Oxford Street is all about. Less variety, in terms of the store environment, an escalator in the middle of the shop that means you are constantly wandering around wondering where you are, but a large and roomy basement with an appealing day-glo orange ceiling raft, would be the H&M digest. If it’s cheap, young fashion glam that is sought, then Forever 21 wins by a nose.
Forever 21 7/10
Would I buy?
Both shops have their strengths, and when it comes to giving shoppers merchandise that will do the Christmas job in an environment that screams both price and youth, there’s hardly a cigarette paper between them. If anything, Forever 21 is more girly than tomboyish H&M, but both demonstrate a keen awareness of the disposability of their offers and the need for constant renewal. At this end of the market, the outcome should be merry over the next four weeks. Shoppers will frequent both.
Forever 21 7/10
H&M edges it over Forever 21, but only just, and on a good day things might have gone the US retailer’s way. Fast fashion is about throughput and both stores had crowds of young, focused women, and patient boyfriends, inspecting the rails.
Forever 21 30/50
Address 360-366 Oxford Street, London W1N
Number of floors Three
Reason for visiting The Very Best of Versace range and the crows
Address 360-366 Oxford Street, London W1C
Number of floors Three
Reason for visiting LA trashy glam