The debut of Balmain’s collection for H&M last month involved a runway show, a performance by the Backstreet Boys, cameos by Kardashians, an effective use of live-streaming app Periscope and lots and lots of hashtags. And that was weeks before any of the merchandise was available to purchase.
The French label Balmain, known for its sharp shoulders and intricate embellishments, announced this spring that it would follow in the footsteps of Alexander Wang, Karl Lagerfeld and Versace to collaborate with Swedish mass retailer H&M this fall. That announcement, with the advertising and ensuing media discussion would have been enough to form winding blocks around stores when the collection went up for sale this month. The fanfare surrounding the launch spoke to a broader theme that has become a touchstone of fashion labels, of art and possibly of modern times at large: hype.
Perhaps the sensational nature of Balmain’s aesthetic — a look fueled by excess, overt sexiness and a strangely high-low mentality — called for this kind of attention. But can the reality of the collaboration live up to the hype?
It is said that without the expert atelier team behind creative director Olivier Rousteing, Balmain would be less luxury and more kitsch. Without the handwork of beading, palettes and studs, Balmain loses the high price tag, but also the intensity of fabric. Without the rows and rows of buckles or network of fishnet knots or microchainmail, the garments lose dimension and visual impact. In essence, it becomes its own knockoff. Maybe that doesn’t matter.
The truth is that H&M designer collaborations are generally met with enormous success, which says as much about their customer as it does about the dialing down of design. Ironically, the Balmain and H&M customer have little to do with each other. The former will pay $16,000 for a patchworked fringe and velvet dress, while the latter will pay $449 for a similar version. The former is looking for the weight, the astounding texture and instant uptick in status that a signature Balmain piece imparts. The H&M customer is less concerned with whipstitch technique and hand-tanned leather and more concerned with emotional participation. But maybe the stark discontinuity in customer base is precisely why the collaboration will work.
The target markets for the retailing behemoth are millenials and Generation Z, both endlessly analyzed demographics who are known for their sophistication, narcissism and blinking attention spans. The fanfare and hysteria of these groups do not necessarily translate into expectations of quality — this might be the first exposure to Balmain they have ever had — but it makes these digitally native market segments feel connected emotionally. The various segments are accustomed to experiencing fashion passively on their smartphones, and these collaborations between designer and fast-fashion outlets are a way to bring the two-dimensional fantasy into a tactile reality.
Rousteing has collected a massive social media following, comprised mainly of people who will never buy, nor are interested in his over-the-top, expensive goods. He is selling a lifestyle, one that is filled with glamour, celebrity and wealth. The purpose of the runway show and party, then, seemed to be less about selling dumbed-down knockoffs as it was about selling a studded, beaded, Balmain-packaged image. You don’t need hand-creased plisse to accomplish that. Hype, along these lines, may became its own beginning and end.