How do you build buzz for an H&M designer collaboration? By this point — 14 years and 19 designers in, beginning with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004 — H&M knows. First, there's the big announcement, which Alexander Wang did at a surprise party at Coachella in 2014 and which Balmain's Olivier Rousteing did on the Billboard Music Awards red carpet this May, models Kendall Jenner and Jourdan Dunn at his side in looks from the collection. In the months that follow, there are dozens of interviews, editorials and promotions in magazines and on social media; the release of the first campaign image, then the full campaign; the reveal of the full lookbook, followed by a full catalog of items with prices; a press conference involving an interview with the designer; an elaborately produced and celebrity-studded runway show; and then, on launch day (Nov. 5), the parade of stories about clothes flying off the racks, interviews with bewildered sales associates, links to items selling for outrageous markups on Ebay, etc., etc. That there is a two-week delay between the show and the collection launch seems one of the cleverest moves of all (and one frequently employed by Apple): by the time the collection hit stores, whatever restraint would-be shoppers wanted to impose on themselves has likely evaporated.
On Tuesday night, H&M hosted the penultimate performance in its Balmain collaboration tour: a red carpet event with a runway show at 23 Wall Street, its concrete double floors transformed into a sort of club atmosphere with bright lights, a lit-up staircase and stage, and multiple bars. Guests knew they were likely to see some big-name models, a Kardashian and a Jenner or two, and a surprise musical performance. However disappointed some might have been not to see the full Kardashian/West/Jenner clan (only Kendall and Kylie made an appearance, with Kim and Kanye hosting the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund show in Los Angeles), they could not be disappointed by the rest. First, there was the runway casting, remarkable not merely for the relative fame of the models — Kendall Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Jourdan Dunn, Alessandra Ambrosio and Joan Smalls all walked — but because each one looked so right for the clothes, their super-human proportions further exaggerated in skin-tight knits, short sequined dresses and thigh-high stiletto boots. (That these models often wear Balmain at public events probably helps in this regard, too.)
And what about the clothes? They were, I'm surprised to say, convincing: convincing in the completeness of their vision and that there is a hungry customer at H&M waiting for them. (At least for the women's clothes. I'm not sure how many dudes are going to go for the gold-braided jackets and black faux leather flightsuit.) There was, of course, a discernible difference in quality from the Balmain clothes they riffed on: more zippers buckled than not; jackets weren't neatly tailored; large dangly earrings and a satin-y material used on pants and skirts looked conspicuously cheap. But the glittering and reflective dresses — which, at $500 and up a pop, are among the most expensive in the collection — looked good, and they sold a compelling vision of womanly power and glamour. There's also something to be said for the styling: these clothes, when worn alone, bare a great deal of skin, but the super-short dresses, for instance, looked far more approachable on the runway because the models' legs were covered by opaque black tights or thick suede boots.
But nothing could top guests' glee when the runway show concluded and the Backstreet Boys, decked in full Balmain x H&M, took the stage with "Backstreet's Back" — a '90s throwback that should hit home perfectly with the H&M customer. Four more songs followed, Rousteing and his gaggle of models dancing front and center, eyes as much on them as the performers. Leaving the venue was slow-going, the exit partly blocked by the long line of guests waiting to shop the collection on the floor below.
See the Balmain x H&M runway video below.