Why designer collaborations are good business
Photographer: Getty Images
Buy One, Get One Free isn’t the sort of sales incentive you’d expect to find in a luxury fashion boutique. Yet in the last few years, one would be forgiven for thinking there are bargains to be found in the form of two-for-the-price-of-one luxury goods that bear the branding of not one, but two monolithic brands.
Fashion – or luxury, rather – has caught the collaboration bug. Look no further than Louis Vuitton and Supreme, which sold out at eight dedicated pop-ups around the world and has rocketed in resale value on platforms such as Grailed and eBay – you can currently buy a red keepall for just under £14,000 on the latter, almost six times the original retail price. Elsewhere, there’s also been the unexpected combinations of Fendi and Fila (above), Polo Ralph Lauren and Palace, JW Anderson and Converse, Burberry and Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Vetements and just about everyone.
In February 2018, Moncler launched a dramatic new business structure entirely centred on multiple collaborations with a diverse range of designers, such as Valentino’s resident couturier Pierpaolo Piccioli, lauded London designers Simone Rocha and Craig Green, buzzy streetwear label Palm Angels, and cult Japanese designers Hiroshi Fujiwara and Kei Ninomiya. The Italian brand put its 27 per cent jump in revenue in the first half of 2018 down to its Genius project, which has already lived up to its name.
Tod’s has also launched a similar initiative titled Tod’s Factory, a non-seasonal collaboration in the form of a capsule collection, the first of which is designed by Alessandro Dell’Acqua. Last year, Burberry dropped a capsule collection designed by Vivienne Westwood – just in time for a collaboration-friendly Christmas.
If it all sounds familiar that’s because it is – albeit at a much more accessible level. Limited-edition collaborations are nothing new. In fact, they’ve always been a mutually beneficial trade-off for catwalk designer and mass-market retailers or sportswear giants.
Just look at H&M’s ambitious partnerships with just about every monolithic fashion designer – from Karl Lagerfeld and Martin Margiela to Rei Kawakubo and Donatella Versace. This year, the Swedish fashion label’s buzzed-about partnership is with Paris-based couturier Giambattista Valli. The collaboration was announced at the 26th annual amfAR Gala, with Kendall Jenner, Chiara Ferragni, Bianca Brandolini, Chris Lee [Li Yuchun], H.E.R., and Ross Lynch turning the red carpet into a veritable runway. For the first time, the retail giant will do a double drop: a limited edition collection launching in stores on May 25, and a second (larger drop) in November, as per tradition.
Indeed, making catwalk fashion available to a wider audience is a central tenet to H&M’s approach. Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s creative advisor, points out that when the first collaboration (with Karl Lagerfeld no less) was launched, it was expected to be on the rails for weeks, but completely sold out. “The word collaboration is now part of fashion’s everyday language,” she says. “With each of the collaborations, the aim is to pinpoint the essence of the brand. It is all about capturing the designers’ or the brands’ DNA and offering it to the world."
At the height of H&M’s collaborations – which have arguably waned over the years, according to media impressions – it was the blue-chip designers who were in feverish demand. In 2018, the tables have turned with Jeremy Scott’s Moschino [tv] H&M. Now, it’s the cheap-but-cool streetwear and sportswear labels that really matter – and the luxury brands are the ones eager to get in on the action.
For younger designers, collaborations with mass-market retailers can be a lifeline. In New York, designers such as Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu and Proenza Schouler have partnered with Target. In London, runway stars Christopher Kane, Ashish, House of Holland, Charles Jeffrey and the now-defunct Meadham Kirchhoff have relied on collaborations with Topshop to bolster business.
“We have to keep it interesting and keep the momentum going, and I have to keep challenging myself, otherwise I would still be making ruffled shorts,” Jonathan Anderson said at the launch of JW Anderson’s collaboration with Converse (above). “Sometimes you have to change the fundamentals of what you’re into, which takes a lot of energy. You have to question yourself and think of how you keep your brand moving forward.”
Anderson has collaborated with several brands including Uniqlo (above), Sunspel, Topshop, Converse and even Diet Coke, and has acknowledged that collaborating with flagship brands is an essential part of growing a fledgling label. “Converse or Uniqlo serve an incredible purpose to me,” he says. “They are universal and I would love JW Anderson to be that universal, but we don’t have that [production] volume.”
“Collaborations are not going away soon — they are a much needed marketing tool to assist institutions with cutting through the massive amount of noise which is disseminated through owned, earned, and paid-for media every single day,” says Marc Beckman, CEO of DMA United, an advertising and talent agency that has brokered deals with Target for several designers, as well as deals between Jeremy Scott and Pepsi and the NBA. “North of seven digits is not uncommon now,” adds Beckman, who points out that pre-recession a designer could earn as little as US$20,000 to participate in a mass market collaboration. Today, Beckman says that fees continue to increase exponentially. “If properly executed, this can bring [designers] significant brand awareness, exposure to new audiences, and of course, meaningful revenue.”
So why are established luxury brands tapping into collaborations right now? As creative directors continue to play musical chairs, coming and going at an unprecedented speed, collaborations provide a sense of security for fashion executives and allow brands to tap into the non-seasonal ‘drops’ that have been popularised by streetwear labels, such as Palace and Supreme. Collaborations are no longer just celebrity lines for mass-market retailers or designers creating cheaper facsimiles of their most recognisable designs or looks. Right now, it’s about high-low, hype-slow, luxe-street juxtapositions.
“Fashion collaborations are one of the levers that brands are using to surprise consumers, get their attention and drive traffic to stores,” explains Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas. “We are living in an era of abundance, with many brands competing for the consumer wallet. Surprise – with new products, new communication, new stores – is of the essence and that’s the main reason behind pop-up stores and collaborations.”
It’s no coincidence that Off-White, which is known for its relentless collaborations, was named by Lyst as the “hottest brand on the planet” last year, according to the inaugural Lyst Index. Part of the brand’s meteoric success, according to Lyst, is Virgil Abloh’s collaboration with Nike. However, there’s also his hook-ups with Ikea, Rimowa, Levi’s, Dr Martens, Byredo, Jimmy Choo, Kith, Moncler, Warby Parker, Umbro and Champion to name a few.
What once would have been considered brand dilution for a luxury brand is now seen as brand enrichment. If there was ever any doubt, in March 2018, Abloh was named the new artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, a brand that has a long history of collaborations with artists and designers, and recently experienced blockbuster success with its logo-heavy Supreme collaboration, which sold out at pop-up locations around the world.
For the customers who queued and were limited to purchasing only a few items, it all came down to one thing. Well, two things, really.