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by Yong-Mi Kim

October 15, 2000

Our intrepid heroine braves the jungles of NYC, and emerges triumphant with some trophies and scars.

Part II - Sephora and H&M

The next morning, I saw in the mirror the aftereffects of my quest for T. LeClerc face powder. The hours of walking in the sun were about to turn my hair into Ginger Spice's, circa 1997! I watched in horror the red-highlighted strands in front already turning brassy. There was only one thing to do: an emergency trip to Sephora. More precisely, Sephora at Rockefeller Center, the three-story, 20,000 square foot global flagship store, conveniently located within walking distance of the hotel, and, as it turns out, right across the street from H&M's first U.S. store.

First, what's Sephora? Second, what's H&M?

Sephora is where makeup junkies who have been really, really good, go after they die. Sephora is also where really, really bad makeup junkies go to while alive. H&M is where you go shopping for clothes after maxing out your plastic at Sephora. H&M is the place to shop if are planning to go clubbing in Ibiza with a suitcase full of clothing which can be forgotten at the beach without undue trauma to one's finances (I am sure Ann Landers can deal with the other related traumas).

A. Sephora

Sephora started out in France in 1993. Given the stereotypes of snooty French salespersons, perhaps it makes sense that a self-service, high-end cosmetics store would originate there. The concept soon spread and currently it is the leading chain store in France, with 143 stores. It was acquired by luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 1997, and arrived in the U.S. in mid-1998 with the opening of stores in New York City and Miami. One of the fabulous Miller sisters, Pia Miller Getty, was tapped to be "Creative Ambassador" for Sephora in the U.S., adding socialite cachet to the brand.

Sephora has expanded in the U.S. to the extent of now there being Sephora stores in most major shopping malls. Thus my initial exposure to Sephora was through my local mall, and while the store was interesting to visit, I did not consider it anything too special. The usually teenaged staff could not provide much help regarding the profusion of products on sale. For actual purchases, I continued to traipse over to Nordstrom and my favorite Prescriptives sales associate, who was always knowledgeable and helpful regarding various cosmetics lines.

But what's a girl to do when she is in an unfamiliar city with no favorite sales associates in sight? Check out Sephora, of course.

When I walked into Sephora, I had a clear goal: to purchase sunscreen that would protect the fresh highlights and transparent red coloring in my hair done only a week ago. When I walked out, my bag contained:

  • Too Faced lipstick in Drop Dead Red
  • Too Faced lip liner in Drag Queen
  • BeneFit Lemon Aid
  • BeneFit Lip Plump
  • BeneFit Dr. Feelgood
  • Sephora Artist All Over Color #81
  • J. F. Lazartigue Protective Hair Cream SPF 10

Sadly, they were out of the Vincent Longo Lip Stain in Terra, a sheer red lipstick I craved desperately, which I would have otherwise purchased.

So why did I buy at this Sephora store, when I had not at my local one, nor even the Sephora in Times Square? Two words: customer service. The Rockefeller Center Sephora had attentive sales associates at hand to help me find the perfect pastel blue eyeshadow, or select several different red lipsticks and demonstrate their color differences. The displays were well-kept, with the testers in good condition. This was in marked contrast to the Sephora in Times Square, which was absolute chaos. One reason for the profusion of people was that a fair number were dropping in to get their faces done using the testers and leaving without purchasing anything. Of course this meant the displays and testers were a mess, with some of the items for sale already opened and used.

Later I checked but the Vincent Longo was sold out, and I consoled myself with Givenchy Laque Miroir lip gloss and Transparent Miroir lipstick. Which brings me to a peeve about Sephora, although admittedly some consider it one of its charms: the variation in selection in stores and the website. For example, my local store did not carry any Givenchy items in the Miroir line, hence I had to order from their website. The website has an extensive selection, offers free shipping for orders of $40 or above, and my order came beautifully packaged. A definite plus was that a pre-paid, pre-addressed return label was included. In my opinion will be even more perfect when it starts carrying Yves Saint Laurent products other than perfume.

B. H&M

Once upon a time, in a small town in Sweden called Västerås, there lived a gentleman by the name of Erling Persson. Impressed by the consumer culture in the U.S., in 1947 he opened a womenswear store called Hennes (Swedish for 'hers'). The business did pretty well, and he decided to expand into Stockholm by acquiring a hunting and gun store called Mauritz Widforss. It turned out some menswear came with the other stuff, so he renamed his company Hennes & Mauritz, and kept the menswear line but got rid of the hunting gear and firearms.

The business grew and grew. Erling's son Stefan joined the company, and pretty soon they had over 600 stores in 14 countries, mostly in Northern Europe. One bright day, March 31, 2000, to be exact, they opened a store on Fifth Avenue. The rest is a stampede.

I confess to being puzzled at the madhouse that is the H&M on Fifth Avenue, the long lines for dressing rooms, the long lines at the cash register, the throngs of people waiting for the store to open. This is in marked contrast to the almost empty Gap store down the block. While on business trips to Europe, and especially Scandinavia, although constantly assaulted by ubiquituous H&M billboards and bus stop ads, I was not especially tempted to visit the stores. The reason was that the clothes did not do much for me then, and they still don't. At the New York City store, caught up in the moment, I did purchase a camisole top and a knee-length jersey skirt at H&M. I returned both items the next day.

H&M has been described as the "Ikea of clothing," an unsurprising comparison, given their common Swedish origins and commitment to cheap chic. H&M clothes are certainly of the moment, and affordable, but are they a good value? My answer is no. The reasons for my answer are that I am not a young urban hipster, nor do I have the body of a Swedish teenager. I am short and curvy, of an age where clubbing is no longer one of my regular pursuits, and in a profession where a bright orange mesh shirt and a python print miniskirt are not considered appropriate office attire.

H&M does carry more staid items, but again, I do not consider these a good value. I can do much better shopping the sales at Banana Republic or J. Crew, where I can obtain items that will last beyond one season, and one washing.

C. Conclusion

"Freedom, Beauty, and Pleasure"
"Fashion and Quality at the Best Price"

Next: Tourists

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