Rethinking the Fashion Collaboration: An avant-garde fusion of ideas, or oversaturated marketing plays?

Nina Hanz discusses the influx of fashion collaborations within the high-street market, and questions whether these are authentic amalgamations or a sales tool utilised by designers and high-street labels alike.

By Molly Fitzpatrick

On your toes, sneakerheads. The Pharrell x Chanel x Adidas collaboration might actually be a thing.

Whether or not you keep up with the latest fashion gossip, dream-team collaborations like the new Adidas trainers inevitably show up on your radar. This is because the fashion industry has recently become saturated with such collaborations. Collaborations like Stella McCartney and Adidas, Supreme and Champion, or Demi Lovato and Fabletics have become more than fashionable. But what is it about this trend that has made it so popular?

Along with the rise is ‘athleisure’, the active wear departments have become the most common site for brand collaborations. As labels blur the line between fashion and active wear, collaborations like Rhianna’s Fenty and Puma have allowed the respective brands to both expand their audience. Even though the athleisure was primarily labelled as a passing fad, collaborations have made this trend stick. Within the United Kingdom alone, sales within the sportswear section have grown by 42% over the past seven years. The growth has been so successful that it is now almost impossible to go to a high street store without finding athleisure clothing. However, when it comes to fashion collaborations, there is more than just a financial incentive as these profit margins are not always promising.

There is much to be said about the benefits that come out of collaborations, but the audience is not always happy with the results. If a designer brand works with a high street brand, it results in ostracising the original consumers who are not able to afford a ‘luxury’ product—even if they are made more affordable. This is what makes collaborations sometimes risky for street wear brands.  In an interview with Bonafide Magazine, senior menswear editor Rob Nowill explains, “Many of them have been built on a core audience, who were drawn to these brands for their subcultural appeal. By moving into the mainstream so drastically they risk alienating their fans in the long term.” This can be seen with the backlash from the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and the streetwear label, Supreme.

However, despite these risks collaborations have only increased in the past years. For athletics brands, this is because of the ‘cool factor.’ Sportswear in the past has always been boring and overlooked by designers and consumers. Collaborations helped to change that and even help with the prominence in athleisure wear seen on the runways during the past fashion weeks. It is of course undeniable that limited edition producers do contribute to impulse buying, but the re-branding is often times the primary reason for collaborations. For sports brands, collaborating with popular celebrities and designers make the clothing more attractive to consumers. Instead of just seeing the athletic brand, you see the particular branding of the celebrity with it. Ivy Park is more than just athleisure; it is selling Beyoncé’s image at high street prices.

The same idea works outside the realm of athleisure. Consider the global fast fashion brand H&M. Over the past years, H&M has not been short of collaborations, and since 2004 the company has released one or two collaborations a year. Designers like Alexander Wang, Karl Lagerfeld and Kenzo have all worked with H&M. A big reason why H&M is so interested in these partnerships is because the collaborations allow for re-branding in small doses. In the fashion world, H&M isn’t exactly the most forward thinking. Rather than set trends, they copy them. However, many of the designers and celebrities in collaboration with H&M are those very people envisioning the next season’s trends. Therefore, such alliances strengthen H&M’s stance in the fashion world as a company influencing the rest. For affordable fashion, you get cutting-edge style.

Fashion collaborations aren’t just for the high street though. The high fashion market has also played a role in this trend. When leading labels in fashion collaborate it gets even more exciting. Just last week, Christian Louboutin and Sabyasachi Mukherjee released their Bollywood-inspired show collection. While still peeping Louboutin’s signature red heel, these diverged into a new and colourful territory of mosaic embroidery. When Vogue asked Christian Louboutin about the collaboration, he said that collaborating with the Indian designer was “marrying different points of view” to create something new. Not only do luxury designers work with each other, but they also work with individual artists. In August, Gucci unleashed their collaboration with artist Coco Captán. This not only gave the Spanish artist a new platform to share her ideas through clothing, but also with other attractions like the #Gucciartwall. On top of this, it broke into a new and off-beat area for clothing to move into.

And that’s exactly what fashion is all about. It is about taking inspiration and building on previous ideas to create something original and avant-garde. This is what makes the products stand out within something that represents a wider audience. Collaborations might lead to shift in the demography as seen with the uproar by Supreme fans, but the fusion of different ideas to create new and wearable art is where art and fashion should be headed. The truth is that almost everyone collaborates nowadays and it is almost impossible to avoid it, the fashion industry is no exception. It might be a local bar sponsoring a university event or a YouTuber and a start-up collaborating, the result is the same: a new space for invention and improvement. Fashion has always been about collaboration.