Fashion Faceoff

H&M vs. Zara: Who comes out on top in battle of The Galleria's cheap chic flagship stores?

H&M vs. Zara: Who comes out on top in battle of cheap chic flagships?

H&M exterior Galleria store
The H&M flagship is located in the Nordstrom wing of the Galleria. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Zara children's wear
A children's sweatshirt at Zara mirrors our sentiments. Photo by John Dascoulias
Zara exterior Galleria store
A newly revamped Zara in Galleria has expanded to two floors. Photo by Clifford Pugh
H&M interior women's department Galleria store
H&M features classic styles, including a navy pencil skirt with floral embroidery, right. Photo by Clifford Pugh
H&M interior menswear at Galleria
The H&M menswear department is jammed with cheap chic merchandise. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Zara menswear department Galleria store
The new Zara menswear section is modeled after the New York flagship Photo by Clifford Pugh
H&M interior women's department Galleria store
Mannequins greet guests at the entrance to the new H&M flagship store. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Zara interior women's department Galleria store
The Zara womens department has less merchandise than H&M  presented in a more artful way. Photo by Clifford Pugh
Zara children's wear department Galleria store
The Zara children's department is filled with cute clothing. Photo by John Dascoulias
Zara women's department Galleria store
The new Zara womens wear department. Photo by Clifford Pugh
H&M exterior Galleria store
Zara children's wear
Zara exterior Galleria store
H&M interior women's department Galleria store
H&M interior menswear at Galleria
Zara menswear department Galleria store
H&M interior women's department Galleria store
Zara interior women's department Galleria store
Zara children's wear department Galleria store
Zara women's department Galleria store

Houston fast-fashion shoppers should be in heaven now that H&M has opened a big two-story flagship store — finally — in the Nordstrom wing of The Galleria. Not be outdone, Zara has expanded and revamped its store, located in Galleria I, into a two-story flagship that sparkles with the latest styles.

So, naturally, CultureMap had to scour both stores to see who's comes out ahead in the battle of stylish, inexpensive fashion.

Our verdict: Houston shoppers are the big winners, although waits can be daunting and the quality can vary. Here's the scoop from recent visits.

H&M

Background: H&M already has three stores in the Houston suburbs, but serious shoppers have waiting for a flagship store that offers more of the trendy looks that has made the Swedish retailer a fashion powerhouse. The new Galleria store is indeed a step above the others, with a wide of array of trendy fashion, along with pieces from the new Alexander Wang X H&M collection found in only a select few United States stores.

 A big sign saying "H&M ♥'s Houston" flashes on a stairway linking two floors that are jammed with clothing and accessories.   

Store tour: A big sign saying "H&M ♥'s Houston" flashes on a stairway linking two floors that are jammed with clothing and accessories.  Upstairs is devoted to women's wear, while downstairs includes more women's wear, with an emphasis on party clothes, along with a sizable men's and children's area. The decor is blindingly bright white, with mannequins in groups of eight or nine wearing holiday styles in red, white and black at store entrances.

How to navigate: The store, which has been open barely a week, is incredibly popular, with waits of 90 minutes or longer in the checkout lines and waiting rooms. "I've never seen a store this busy," says one Houston socialite who had accompanied her granddaughter to the store over the weekend.

Making the way through the aisles is akin to navigating an obstacle course because the store is so packed with merchandise and shoppers. Best bet is to get there early; the store opens at 10 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. on Sundays. And wear minimal clothing so you can try styles over your clothes without waiting for a changing room.

Style index: H&M is known for making cheap trendy fashion. On close inspection, a lot of it doesn't look well-made and the fabrics aren't soft to the touch, but at $14.95 for a holiday dress, who cares?

Amid the overload of merchandise there are some incredibly stylish pieces, such as a navy pencil skirt with floral embroidery that looks like an Oscar de la Renta knockoff, black lace tops, leopard jeggings and a gray pullover sweater with a sequined perfume atomizer on the front.

For men, there is some terrific outerwear, including camo puff jackets and black military-style coats with zippers and a faux-leather collar, along with cool accessories like socks emblazoned with skulls, Elmo caps and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, "Don't Push Me Because I'm Close to the Edge."

On the day were were there, these cheap chic pieces were going much faster than the remainder of the Alexander Wang collection, which retails at a much higher price point. Wang-designed leather jackets at $399 each were languishing on the racks, while dresses and jackets priced at under $25 were gobbled up.

Zara

Background: Zara is the flagship chain of the world's largest apparel retailer, the Inditex Group. Headquartered in Spain, it was originally named Zorba after the classic Greek movie, but there was a bar by the same name two blocks away, so to avoid confusion, the owners changed the name.

Store tour: When Zara came to Houston a few years ago, the store was frankly a disappointment, with an outdated layout and a selection that didn't seem to live up to its reputation as a cheap chic leader. But things have changed with a recent major revamp.

The store, expanded to two floors, now has a much richer look, with gray slate floors, black marble trim and nifty electronic signage. It resembles the New York flagship, and a store employee bragged that the Houston store was now No. 2 in sales in the nation, behind two New York stores.

 When Zara came to Houston a few years ago, the store was frankly a disappointment. But things have changed with a recent major revamp.  

The entire first floor is the women's department, while upstairs an expanded men's department and a new children's department offers lots of stylish, low-cost options.

How to navigate: The Zara store is much less jumbled than H&M, with fewer selections presented in a more inviting way. However, with fewer sizes on display, harried store clerks with Bluetooth headsets were constantly calling for additional merchandise to be brought out when a customer asked for a pair of stylish men's boots in a different size. Dressing rooms are easily accessible and the check out lines move quickly.

Style index: There was always a previous feeling that the Houston Zara store didn't have the latest merchandise carried in New York and other global centers. But now an abundance of hip styles are on display. Some, like black sweatshirts with swaths of metallic gold threading and Donna-Karan like wrap coats for men, might be a little too fashion forward for the Houston male, but it's refreshing to have the choices.

The range of hip women's clothing is extensive, from paisley tunics to nubby pastel coats and a distinctive shift in wool and leather like-fabric. For nighttime, a black Jackie O sheath is a classic at $100.

The kid's department is among the best we're shopped in, with selections including adorable pint-sized velvet tuxedos, pink faux fur vests, puffy pastel jackets and an sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan, "I am not a Morning Person." Wish they made that in adult sizes.

Final verdict: H&M certainly has more selection and a wider variety of stylish looks for a younger audience than Zara. Prices tend to be a little higher at Zara but the quality seems to be better and, on our recent visit, there appeared to be more "I've got to have it" pieces at the revamped flagship.

Fortunately, both stores are within walking distance of each other in the mall, so serious shoppers can hit both in a single outing. And there's more to come as the British fast fashion retailer Topshop plans a big two-story store in the Galleria, opening next spring.

We can't wait.