ashion brands have worked with artists, musicians and athletes for decades, from Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí’s ‘art-fashion’ collaboration in the 1930s to the pairing of Vivienne Westwood and Keith Haring in the ’80s. The Air Jordan was born of a partnership between Nike and Michael Jordan in 1984 and remains the sportswear brand’s most ubiquitous shoe.
But in the Noughties the collaboration game changed, largely thanks to fast-fashion outlet H&M. In 2004, the Swedish outfitter partnered with Karl Lagerfeld to create a one-off collection – it whipped up a media storm, and consumers clamoured to get their hands on cheap pieces designed by the Chanel and Fendi frontman. It was an eye-opener for the fashion world; collaboration, once shunned as a form of brand dilution, was now a leading and lucrative strategy.
In recent years the blueprint has updated, with brands looking for ever-more inventive ways to reach both consumers' wallets and social media feeds. Here's your essential primer to the shifting world of the fashion collaboration.
The high-low collaboration
The high-low collaboration – a marriage of retail and luxury – was perhaps the original iteration of the trend and, as anyone who watched Halston on Netflix last year will know, has been around for decades.
Pioneered by H&M and its dalliance with Lagerfeld, retailers including Topshop, Uniqlo and Target in the US followed suit, and the formula has been played out again and again by a who's who of high-end labels including Balmain, Comme des Garçons, Moschino, Marni, Erdem, Christopher Kane, Versace and Stella McCartney.
The appeal here is clear. It’s about the democratisation of fashion and drawing in an aspirational audience – the consumer that can’t necessarily afford luxury, but aspires to the lifestyle. According to data platform GWI, 37% of global consumers fit into this category, making it a huge resource for brands.
Of course, the idea of ‘cheap luxury’ has always held appeal. In 2001 Marc Jacobs recruited cult artist Stephen Sprouse to design a collection of Louis Vuitton bags, resulting in the iconic graffiti motif. Sprouse bags cost up to £6,000, so they can hardly be called cheap, but the idea was there when Jacobs referred to the partnership as ‘anti-snob snobbism’.
While consumers may no longer be camping overnight on Oxford Street to be the first to shop the latest collaborative collection, the concept is still going strong, with one of the most iconic high-low coalitions of our time welcoming a third name into its fold last week: Yeezy Gap. Ye’s high-fashion label joined forces with Gap in 2020, at which time analysts estimated that the partnership could bring in $1 billion in sales in the first year. While financials for the Gap, Ye, Balenciaga team-up haven't been disclosed, it goes without saying that designers are well-compensated for such projects – Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld reportedly earned around $1 million per day for their work with H&M.
The mutually beneficial collaboration
West and Gap’s collaboration breathed new life into both. The latter, reliably providing the mass market with everyday essentials, was suddenly cool – and received a fresh stream of positive press at a time when it was struggling to keep its bricks-and-mortar stores open. Yeezy, meanwhile, enjoyed a gateway into the mainstream.
This is the fundamental driving force behind fashion collaborations: mutual benefit. For instance, in 1999, then-nascent Supreme wanted to make trainers. It didn’t have the resources to do so, so it approached a name who did: DC Shoes. Today, Supreme generates more than $500 million in annual revenues.
By partnering up, brands can benefit from each other’s budget, reach and reputation. Collaborations are huge marketing boons for both high-street retailers and emerging luxury brands: Proenza Schouler, Meadham Kirchoff, Halpern, Marques Almeida and Ashish are just a few beneficiaries of the strategy. Meanwhile, labels like Richard Malone and Ahluwalia owe their success to teaming up with bigger names (Mulberry and Ganni respectively), while UGG and Crocs have been given a new lease of life thanks to collabs with Balenciaga, Telfar, and Molly Goddard.
But it’s not all about business. At the risk of sounding totally naive, sometimes collaborations are based on a certain simpatico – matching sensibilities that produce something magical. For example, Malone described his partnership with Mulberry as a ‘meeting of minds, where two brands… truly work together’. How sweet.
Similarly, the Fendace collection, which dropped in September of last year, at least appeared to be a labour of love between longtime friends Kim Jones and Donatella Versace. The relationship between Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons has also been cast in the language of creative affinity: speaking at a press conference, Prada said of their co-directorship, 'we like each other, we respect each other, we will see where that takes us’.
This collaborative way of working reflects a shift in the mood of society, and could do tangible good. In early 2021 budding designer Harris Reed sent a DM to Veronica Etro that resulted in one of the year’s best mash-ups: Etro donated old fabric to Reed, who used it to make upcycled shirts. Creative solutions like this could be the answer to a fashion culture that demands more while undeniably needing to waste less.
The makes-absolutely-no-sense collaboration
In 2018, Birkenstock was approached by Supreme to join forces. CEO Oliver Reichert refused in no uncertain terms, explaining that he stood to gain nothing ‘except prostitution’. Strong words, but, to be fair, Birkenstocks are what your dad wears on holiday while Supreme’s target demographic is teenage ‘hypebeasts’.
But this kind of logic means nothing in the world of fashion collaborations. Perhaps the turning point came in 2014 when Vetements linked up with courier company DHL, but, somewhere along the way, collaborations got kind of weird. In fact, the fact that both Birkenstock and Supreme do footwear actually makes them more qualified to get into bed together than 99% of modern partnerships, where their wildly differing target markets would be the very thing that presented the appeal.
Today, ‘out of the box’ pairings with the apparent sole purpose of garnering attention are common. We have our internet and social media culture to thank – brands are scrambling for relevance in a world of constant information-sharing. For example, no one saw a collection co-authored by Supreme and Tiffany & Co. – preserve of Park Avenue princesses – coming. What does that target audience even look like? A 23-year-old sneakerhead who holidays in the Hamptons? And yet, when the collection went live in November 2021, it sold out within seconds.
Then there are the cross-demographic partnerships, like the new coalition between Balmain and Barbie, that are even stranger. Other examples include Frame Denim and The Ritz Paris (are you even allowed to wear jeans in The Ritz?), or Japanese designer NIGO and KFC (just why…). And what to make of the combination between The Hundreds and Andrew Lloyd Weber, which resulted in absolutely baffling ‘Phantom of the Opera’ bomber jackets?
Once you find yourself wearing Pepsi-branded sunglasses, one may wonder whether fashion join-ups have become more about cash than creativity. But, done right, cross-demographic partnerships can be fun. We loved Balenciaga’s short film featuring The Simpsons characters catwalking its clothes. The late, great Virgil Abloh was the king of random collaborations, once telling Dazed that ‘being a fashion designer is selling it short if it’s just limited to making clothes’. So, he made water bottles, rugs, and cars in partnerships with Evian, Ikea and Mercedes Benz respectively.
Even heritage giants like Dior have got in on the action with recent collusions with Technogym and Vespa – the latter given even greater exposure thanks to its starring role in season two of Emily in Paris (even Netflix isn't immune to the charms of a good partnership). Creative and wonderful or tacky and cynical, mismatched collabs provide an element of surprise that is a critical weapon in the war to stay current.
The high-high 'blockbuster' collaboration
What’s more unlikely than a fashion house partnering with a fast food outlet? Joining forces with its biggest rival, of course.
As the world of collaborations became noisier and noisier, the biggest brands decided to do something to shut everyone up. Enter the high-high collab: the concert of two fashion behemoths. Versace and Fendi thrilled us all with ‘Fendace’ – ‘the swap’ that saw Donatella Versace and Kim Jones create collections for one another. Not to be outdone, Gucci and Balenciaga embarked on their ‘fashion hack’, which followed a similar format. High-high collabs are a bit like when characters from your favourite show cameo in your other favourite show – it’s so bizarre and delightful to see them on one runway.
But they can also feel like planets colliding – two astronomical budgets being rear-ended to create more money, more spectacle, more stuff… more, more, more. Weren’t the lessons we learned from Covid all about scaling back fashion? Wasn’t it all about levelling the playing field to make room for upstart designers? If so, why are engorged collaborations between legacy brands dominating the stage?
Brands will always swap ideas and images for clout, and the results can encapsulate everything that is right about fashion: the creativity, the beauty, the ingenuity. But the industry should be mindful of wielding its collaborative influence for good – the limited edition collaboration is the antithesis of slow fashion, and the majority are in addition to the constant stream of seasonal, resort and pre-collections (and their fast fashion copycats) already creating a sustainability crisis. Is our planet really worth an Off-White-branded water bottle or Balmain x Barbie necklace?