The profitable game of fashion collaborations

Fashion collaborations aren’t exactly new but have reached greater heights in the last few years. While 2021 was touted the year of the collab, the trend shows no sign of dying down. So why are they working so well and how can they risk a fashion flop?

Morgane Nyfeler

By Morgane Nyfeler31 mars 2022

Balmain released a ready-to-wear collection with Barbie starting at $2,000 (Balmain)

Wherever you click or scroll, another fashion brand discloses a new surprising collaboration. Fashion designers have always worked with artists, musicians and athletes as a way to fuse different creative fields resulting in unconventional pieces that could bring originality to a brand. But since the early 2000s the nature of the collaboration has shifted into a business strategy aimed at reaching consumers’ wallets and social media feeds.

Luxury becomes attainable

Yeezy X Gap X Balenciaga collaboration to be launched in June targets over $1 billion in sales (Yeezy)

According to data platform GWI, 37% of global consumers aspire to a lifestyle they aren’t necessarily able to afford. H&M became the first fast fashion brand to partner with high-end labels from Karl Lagerfeld in 2004 to Kenzo in 2016. This alliance between retail and luxury is a way for the average consumer to buy designer items at a cheaper price and for high-end brands to infiltrate the mass market. While H&M’s collabs have now ceased, the concept is still extremely popular as seen with the ongoing partnership between Jil Sander and Uniqlo. Earlier this year, the iconic high-low coalition between Kanye West and the giant retailer Gap has brought the luxury fashion house Balenciaga into the mix. Yeezy X Gap X Balenciaga is expected to launch in June and aims to increase sales by $1 billion – a much needed helping hand for the high street company who’s been struggling to appeal to a young and diverse audience.



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When executed successfully, collaborations can become a lucrative business for luxury brands who are tapping into a new market. Take Gucci for example, who’s recently teamed up with streetwear brand adidas for its autumn/winter 2022 collection presented during Milan Fashion Week. Not only did it create a buzz but it’s also a way for the luxury brand to reach the streets and speak to a young generation. Historically, Gucci has also partnered with The North Face blending the aesthetic and craftsmanship of the Italian house with the innovative technology and design of the outdoor brand. In a nutshell, the capsule worked because the brands complemented each other and there’s no doubt Gucci X adidas will perform just as well.

Skateboarding label Supreme's last collaboration was with iconic jeweller Tiffany & Co (Supreme)

When talking about fashion collaborations, it’s hard not to mention the skateboard label Supreme who’s been working with absolutely everyone since the Louis Vuitton collab in 2017. The most surprising outcome? The latest collection of affordable jewellery and T-shirts with the iconic American jeweller Tiffany & Co, which sold out immediately. Or what to say of the chaos caused in London by the Supreme X Burberry drop ahead of its autumn/winter 2022 show? Luxury labels are more and more embracing a streetwear aesthetic by growing into sneakers or recruiting multifaceted talents like the late Virgil Abloh – a breath of fresh air in an otherwise old-fashioned and predominantly white industry.

A meeting of minds

The "Fendace" collection broke the Internet and generated a huge media impact for Fendi and Versace (Versace/Fendi)

If these capsule collections are aimed at selling more products on top of an already oversaturated market, some collaborations are still a creative experimentation where competitors become co-partners and play with each other’s codes or DNA. In April 2020, Raf Simons joined Prada as co-creative director alongside Miuccia Prada and their first collection for spring/summer 2021 was described as a ‘dialogue’ of ideas and signature styles. “We like each other, we respect each other, and we’ll see if we go somewhere,” said Prada at a press conference. Similarly, the ‘Fendace’ collection, which hit the runway in September last year, not only broke the internet generating $33 million worth of media impact value for Versace and $27 million for Fendi according to fashion data and technology company Launchmetrics, but was also the result of a strong friendship between Fendi’s creative director Kim Jones and Donatella Versace, which added an extra level of authenticity to the collaboration.

Therefore some collaborations are directed at creating a memorable moment rather than purely selling products. When Balenciaga featured the cast of the cartoon series The Simpsons in its spring/summer 2022 show, it created a viral effect shared by a wide audience on social media creating a strong engagement and community response.

Pushing the limits of collabs

Jeff Koons’s re-appropriation of great masters’ works for Louis Vuitton has been the subject of considerable criticism (Louis Vuitton)

Not all collaborations are created equal, however, and a handful of them have garnered a great deal of criticism. Coach’s capsule collection featuring the deceased artist Basquiat or Jeff Koons’s re-appropriation of great masters’ works for Louis Vuitton are obvious examples. By choosing artists at the opposite of the luxury brands’ beliefs and values, these collaborations felt hypocritical and created for sole commercial purpose rather than a celebration of the artists’ legacy.

Virgil Abloh has not only collaborated with fashion brands. One example is his collaboration with Evian (Evian)

Sometimes collaborations also need to be called for what they are: a pure marketing ploy ending up in very random products. Virgil Abloh once told Dazed that being a fashion designer isn’t “just limited to making clothes.” This was an entrepreneur who partnered with the likes of Ikea, Evian or Rimowa to elevate them into desirable brands. Elsewhere, Balenciaga sold its own version of the Ikea blue tote bag for $2,145, and more recently, Balmain released a ready-to-wear collection with Barbie starting at $2,000. And the list goes on and on.

Ahluwalia’s upcycled collection for Danish brand Ganni (Ganni)

Brands aren’t ready to stop exchanging ideas resulting in a melting pot of creativity and commercialism. But limited edition collaborations are only fuelling our desire for more stuff and our fear of missing out, while risking becoming a deceptive caricature. To really make the cut, these collections need to appeal to a younger audience who are highly interested in authenticity, reuse and resale. If collaborations could make more use of the incredible volume of deadstock fabrics flooding the luxury industry – see Ahluwalia’s upcycled collection for Danish brand Ganni – instead of producing more goods just for the sake of it, the world would probably be better off.

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