2017-02-21

On Monday 15 September 1947 there was a 20-line article in the newspaper VLT about the opening of a store the previous Saturday. The caption read: ”Great little store in Västerås”.
That little store isn’t so little any longer. In fact it was the first of 4000 stores in what was to become the world’s largest clothing chain…

This remarkable fashion and textiles empire is the creation of Erling Persson from Västerås and this is his story. The young entrepreneur starts off as an errand boy at his father’s butcher’s shop at Skultunavägen 8. The location leaves a lot to be desired; next door to a potato-field and customers have to pass two cemeteries to get here.

Erling becomes a businessman early on and for many years he is known as the man that introduced the Advent star to the Swedish market. In 1947, aged 30, he comes up with a new business idea: ”Fashion and quality at the best price.”

On Saturday 13 September 1947 his shop Hennes opens its doors on Stora gatan. Prior to opening, Persson puts an advert in VLT where he promises ”first class connections to Swedish and foreign fashion houses.” And as though that’s not enough, he offers female customers ”fresh roses” when they arrive.

The name Hennes isn’t Persson’s first choice though. He envisaged calling it Perssons mode (Persson’s Fashion) as the trend at the time is for the founder’s name or initials to form part of the name of the business, such as Per-Olov Ahl in KappAhl and Ingvar Kamprad in IKEA.

Here, somewhere among the 250-square-metres of shop space spread over three floors, VLT’s reporter finds himself impressed by the ”American-style fixtures and fittings.” Hennes is extremely modern and growing global optimism after the Second World War means that people are starting to look to the west, to the American ideals of fashion, food, music and cars.

In the 1950s, the world and Västerås outgrow their suits. Swedish trade and industry really take off. Persson expands and the Hennes store in Stora gatan is soon to have sister stores, not just in Sweden, but in Norway too, where the first store opens in 1964. Three years later Hennes comes to Denmark.

In 1968, the chain is given its current name - H&M. Erling Persson sees the opportunity to expand his range to include menswear and childrenswear. He acquires the hunting equipment store Mauritz Widforss, which means that Swedish families can now buy all their clothes under one and the same roof.

H&M opens its first store in London in 1976. In the future, the British Isles will overtake Sweden and become H&M’s second largest market. Over the next 30 years expansion is huge and in 2004 the 1000th store opens in Boulougne-Sur-Mer outside the French city of Lille.

But the clothing chain continues to grow in Sweden too. Between 1988 and 2000, H&M also runs its own low price store Galne Gunnar.

In 2004, H&M enters into collaboration with star designer Karl Lagerfeld to prove that everyone can afford exclusivity. Since then, design collections have been many and include Stella McCartney and Alexander Wang.

Over the past 70 years, H&M has really lived up to its original name Persson’s Fashion: In 1982, Erling Persson handed over the reins to his son Stefan, who, in turn, passed them on to Erling’s grandson Karl-Johan Persson in 2009.

Erling Persson transformed the former fishmonger’s shop in Stora gatan into a multinational retail chain with 148 000 employees and 4 000 stores in 62 countries. A retail chain that is even bigger than American Gap and Spanish Zara.

H&M’s red sign still shines in the same block as the first Hennes store stood in 1947. The current address in Vasagatan has a view of the very spot where Erling Persson stood and handed out roses to his first customers.

70 years ago, a 250-square-metre store over three floors was considered to be on the verge of luxury. Today, 250 square metres is just one tenth of a normal H&M store anywhere in the world.

”If it fails, no one will notice, but if it goes well, we’ll open another store. These were the words of founder Erling Persson when he opened Hennes in Västerås in 1947.