Gorgeous promises of Simone Rocha, broken promises of H&M 

Image from H&M

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A Simone Rocha dress from her spring/summer 2021 collection, a heavy cotton canvas midi with embellished pockets and elegant scoop neck, runs you just short of $2,000. It is not a dress you might ever see on the street –– for how many would have the brazen wealth to let the hot breath of city smog wilt a $1,970 ivory skirt? 

H&M attempted to bridge this disparity in 2004 when Chanel legend Karl Lagerfeld signed on to create a designer capsule with the Swedish fast-fashion giant. The inaugural debut was a hit, and since then, H&M has worked with houses such as Giambattista Valli, Stella McCartney, Moschino, Roberto Cavalli, Comme des Garçons, Versace, Balmain and Kenzo to produce tantalizing designer capsules. Once or twice a year, these capsules would inspire shoppers to sleep overnight outside participating H&M locations, Black Friday style. 

Simone Rocha launched her own collaboration with H&M on March 11, but the collection’s few remaining pieces are only a bitter pith, as the juiciest darlings of the collection have been sucked dry by a buying frenzy. The capsule was Rocha’s first collection that promised menswear, childrenswear and extended sizing, and it revived items from the house’s beloved archives for eager fans. On paper, this was an opportunity for collectors to purchase the runway quality pieces at one-fifth of designer prices. However, Simone Rocha x H&M collection is yet another quintessential case study on fashion’s inaccessibility — it advertises welcome arms to gender and sizing inclusivity, but it fails to make those coveted designs genuinely accessible, both physically and economically.  

On offer in the collection are tea party costumes for a forgiving meadow. The collection was tightly curated of Rocha’s most signature details — her exclusive love for black, red, white and pink, her trademark pearl-trimmed collars, her glossy satin bows and her lush balloon sleeves. There is a generous allowance for pretty tulle, for pomposity, for delicate, regal fun. It would be stingy to compare Rocha’s tulle to confectionery. Confectioneries are sweet, straightforward delights; Rocha’s tulle work is a study on magical subtlety, each sheer shape a different sleight of hand. Incredible shapes drip in asymmetry, schoolgirl seersucker is elevated in tartan and gingham, everything is adorned with hand-sewn whimsy. Even the socks are trimmed at the calves with ribbons. One notable inclusion: a perfect, perfect handbag of neoprene, perhaps renderable to commonplace if not for the plump, detailed bows hugging its sides. 

In an interview with Vogue, Rocha said, “When H&M came to talk, I said, if I’m going to do it, I want to do it for everybody, not only women, but for men and children — and to make sure they get the quality.” Alas, the immediate scarcity of the collection makes this idyllic tea party, no matter how warm and inviting, an exclusive matinee to which you have no guaranteed seat at the table. 

By cruel design, H&M’s bastardization of luxury by way of proximity affords this exclusivity. Scalpers are a natural product of this broken project — by Business Insider’s calculations, pieces from the 2014 Alexander Wang and H&M collab reportedly sold at three to five times the original retail price on resale sites, degrading the original concept of price accessibility. And as for gender accessibility, menswear and childrenswear were shades shy of its promise — menswear mostly aligning to a strict theory of lining standard collars with faux pearls, childrenswear only miniature, prudish echoes of womenswear, save for the mandarin collar puffer jacket. Womenswear was the main course, and the promised extension to gender and size was only a pale afterthought.

After his collaboration launched in 2004, Karl Lagerfeld vowed to never work with H&M again. Not enough pieces were made, and the clothes were only available in 20 European stores. Lagerfeld said to the German magazine Stern, condemning H&M’s cheap fetishization of designer luxury, “I find it embarrassing that H&M let down so many people … I don’t think that is very kind, especially for people in small towns and countries in eastern Europe. It is snobbery created by anti-snobbery.” 

Rocha approached the idealistic mission of an H&M capsule with more generosity than the late Lagerfeld, who in the same breath, took issue with H&M’s sizing accessibility (“What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people.”) But one must ask: What good can come of the intersection between a fast-fashion giant’s unethical profit margins and a luxury brand’s elitism? How accessible is a perfect size 14 tulle silhouette to the regulars of H&M if they cannot buy it? How stale becomes a beautiful Simone Rocha x H&M dress, new-with-tags-never-worn, if resold by lottery and auction? 

Contact Katherine Chen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @spaghettybaby.