In November Nike released its collaboration with Riccardo Tisci. Maybe you’ve never heard of the former creative director of Givenchy, but doesn’t the exotic spelling of his name make you curious? Likewise, you may not have heard of Erdem, but their ads lend just enough austerity and quirk for the average consumer to qualify them with fashion credentials and elicit some looking into. And as your research of the London-based designer concludes, the collection will conveniently arrive at your neighborhood H&M just in time for holiday shopping. Add to the list: Balmain with Victoria’s Secret, Prabal Gurung and Lane Bryant, Balenciaga and Crocs. We are living in the age of high-low designer collaborations on hyperdrive.
Clearly, there is a practical motive – these partnerships give designers and fashion houses a chance to escape their expensive, isolating price tags for low, impulsive ones. It allows them to switch or expand their audience from the aging and measured Generation X on down the alphabet to Y and Z.
In addition, collaborations often broaden the presence of a designer and pave the way for sales in accessory collections to these same aspiring customers. But alongside the number crunching and corporate strategizing, there is also a growing subtext with these alliances, whose message seems to become louder with every new pairing: luxury and fashion belong to everybody.
On the one hand, yes it does. But this does pose a philosophical conundrum to the industry, as a foundational principle of designer fashion is its exclusivity and luxury. Arguably, without those two things, fashion as an industry would not exist at all.
If the iconic Chanel tweed jacket were available to everybody, would it have become one of the flagship symbols in fashion history? What the industry forgets while attempting to embrace these new egalitarian morals, is that the luxury segment is fueled by consumers who want things that are special and available only in short supply.
Because when it comes down to it, nobody wants a knockoff Chanel jacket; they want the real thing. But in order to get the real thing, they have to pay for special yarn dyed in a custom color, woven into a limited run fabric and sewn together by seamstresses in France using special edition buttons and proprietary lining. All of that costs money (unnecessary as it may be, but that is luxury), about $7,000 worth. Could they use cheaper fabric, generic buttons and produce the jackets in a third world country? Yes, but it would not be Chanel and therefore not expensive and therefore not special or desirable. Fashion seems to self-regulate itself in this way, as beautiful, ephemeral things in small quantities require more specialized resources, which often translates into an inflated price.
Certainly, everyone has the right and should certainly express themselves through clothes if they want to, which is fashion in its broadest sense, whether it is a misfit junior high student cutting up a school uniform or the next Alexander McQueen at Central Saint Martins. Whether you want to ascribe that right to a freedom of expression or speech or something else, take your pick. But the industry of designer fashion, which thrives on deep pocketbooks and a class of people who use social, financial and cultural cues in order to distinguish themselves from the masses, is the sun around which the fashion world revolves. The ethic is less about our modern, complicated idea of fairness and equality and more around the simple idea that you can have it if you can afford it.
When the mid-tier, contemporary designer level emerged in the early 2000s at the hands of Andrew Rosen, the designer market responded with extravagant, ostentatious goods including hand-painted bags by famous artists, exotic skinned shoes with hefty five-digit price tags and amped up, ready-to-wear goods sitting atop the same lofty pedestal.
When fake designer bags became big business on the streets and on the internet, Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy and Gucci Group spent millions suing those operations, aiming to preserve the image of the brand as well as the demand for the authentic, licensed version of their goods. The counterfeit market is evidence of the desire of the general public to enter into this elite group. People say they want fair, but it seems that they want the opposite.
Even in other industries, like real estate, when homes and renovations can now be bought on cheap interest and done to look old or new or European or futuristic, the super rich are now buying up townships and renovating entire islands.
The designer collaborations aim to mimic the same invincible feeling with a somewhat synthesized product, and sometimes it works. Early on in the whole genre of the designer collaboration, H&M did a collection with Karl Lagerfeld, which sold out in a matter of hours.
The goods may not have been expensive, but they were very limited, creatively engaging and light-hearted. Even magazine editors went wild. But these days, these partnerships don’t feel new or exciting anymore. They are perceived more and more as an overt scheme to pad the wallets of designers, their backers and to help keep giant companies relevant.
Another basic principle of fashion is progress and a constant evolution of form. While the industry is deeply into the groove of these never-ending partnerships, it is also shifting, catering to a younger set who need more meaning, guidance and attention than previous generations. The current market blurs the lines of the traditional format of fashion, which is also one of the great axioms of fashion and of life: you can’t ever know.