Since 6:15 AM a trio of fashion students from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee had been waiting in front of the H&M on Michigan Avenue. Armed with a plaid blanket and printouts of clothes from the retailer’s Web site, they’d road-tripped the night before to be first in line for the November 10 unveiling of the new women’s collection by designer Stella McCartney. By 9:30 the line stretched to the end of the block. “No thanks,” said a woman in oversize sunglasses and a patchwork leather jacket when someone offered her part of a muffin. “I don’t eat before a big sale.”

These shoppers were taking no chances after last year, when Karl Lagerfeld’s one-off collection for H&M–known for offering trendy wares at Wal-Mart prices–sold out in a few hours. People have muttered that McCartney’s name–her dad’s the Beatle–has more to do with her prominence than her talent; in fact Lagerfeld, whom McCartney replaced as head designer for the French couture house Chloe in 1997, sniped at the time, “I think they should have taken a big name. They did–but in music, not fashion.” Still, McCartney’s designs, which range from rock-chick cool to unapologetically feminine, have a devoted following. McCartney is “our generation’s rock star designer,” said Rebecca Rivich, an antiques dealer who drove in from Whiting, Indiana, with her husband in tow. She was excited at the prospect of owning a piece by a designer she couldn’t normally afford. “I’ve stood in line for lesser things,” she added.

When the doors opened at ten, the line streamed forward in an orderly fashion, but when I got inside women were already pinballing all over the front of the store, grabbing sweaters and dresses like they were the last cans of soup before a hurricane. Within two minutes one of the mannequins posed on a white runway was knocked over. The thud caused but a split-second lull. There was a veneer of civility–“excuse me” when bodies collided, “sorry” when hangers snagged clothes–but you could tell any one of these women would just as soon have bent back your pinkie until you dropped that pair of McCartney’s 80s-style narrow jeans with zippered ankles.

“Do you think this is the belted trench?” asked John Stoops, a bespectacled producer with a fledgling comedy troupe, Local 386, as we both inspected a pale pink double-breasted trench coat. He was working off a list of descriptions provided by his girlfriend, who had suggested he might find a Christmas present for her here. Stoops was an oasis of calm in the midst of the pandemonium; other boyfriends and husbands assigned to hold garments looked shell-shocked. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” one mumbled.

The hottest items turned out to be the trench, which also came in a bronzy green, and a blousy gray zip-up sweater with an oversize collar. Salespeople bearing replenishments were quickly surrounded, and when supplies ran out, bartering ensued, including one complicated transaction involving three parties and various sizes. Bystanders watched like cats waiting to be fed as one of the women laid some of her loot down on a table. “Hold on, I’m looking for my size!” she cried.

Some women, including one who copped to being a rep for Ralph Lauren, tried on their finds behind displays or walled-off sections of the store. The rest of us waited in long lines for the dressing rooms. When I finally got in, after about 20 minutes, I found that the coveted trench made me look as if I were swaddled in a parachute. The louche 30s luxe of a champagne-colored silk wrap dress was enticing, but once on it was boxy and gaped at the hem. I didn’t have much hope for a tulip-shaped black chiffon skirt that narrowed at the knees, as such shapes can be unforgiving for women with hips. But instead of giving me the proportions of a fertility idol, the fabric draped flatteringly around my curves.

When I left, all of the mannequins modeling McCartney’s stuff were gone and most of the racks were filled with regular merchandise. Latecomers lingered over leftover chain bracelets and T-shirts. The store had been open for all of two hours.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.