Almost a decade ago, when Karl Lagerfeld and H&M paired up to launch the high street brand's inaugural designer collaboration collection, the mass hysteria that ensued as shoppers fought to get a piece of designer clothing at bargain prices was unprecedented.
Fast forward to 2013, where it has become the norm for luxury or cult fashion designers to create limited edition collections in partnership with mass brands and this seemingly charmed formula may have lost a little of its stardust.
These days, although some collaborations — think 2012's Topshop x JW Anderson or H&M x Martin Margiela collections — still draw crowds that queue up overnight to score a coveted piece, most pairings are now greeted with what can best be described as lukewarm responses. Even the aforementioned collections did not sell out within minutes, or even hours of their launches unlike their predecessors, despite the hype they drummed up.
To industry watchers, this comes as no surprise. Too much column space has been devoted to proclaiming the decline of the designer collaboration. For example, Mickey Boardman, editorial director of Paper magazine, was quoted in a Forbes article as saying: “It's become very formulaic at this point. Everyone does them and so they don't really seem as special.”
But it would be presumptuous to assume that designer collaborations are passé just because too many brands appear to be doing the same old song and dance. Instead, collaborations have simply evolved as consumers become increasingly sophisticated.
From masstige to prestige
These days, designers are increasingly partnering higher-end retailers such as Net-A-Porter and Luisaviaroma by creating exclusive capsule collections for these retailers.
E-commerce website NET-A-PORTER frequently works with designers and fashion personalities to create one-of-a-kind collections for its site and has launched lines with Stella McCartney, Victoria Beckham and most recently, Esteban Cortázar, among others.
Fashion Director Holli Rogers says: “Anticipating our customer's needs and wants is an important part of what we do and exclusives allow for greater flexibility in order to achieve this.”
Such designer collaborations also allow the site to “rework” favourite pieces from past sell-out collections, she adds. Some examples of NET-A-PORTER exclusives include Isabel Marant's Bekket sneakers in an exclusive Hawaiian motif and Proenza Schouler's surf-inspired classics.
She says: “As we are a global business, we have women living in different countries and climates shopping with us. Collaborating with designers is one way we can cater to them all. Esteban Cortázar has created a collection of dresses, skirts, tops, jackets, jewellery and shoes that can be mixed and matched and layered, and worn all year round.”
Having this opportunity to showcase their wares to a wider audience, but at premium price points, can be a boon for some lesser-known designers who do not necessarily wish to take the high-low route. For example, Singapore-born London-based exotic skin handbag designer Ethan Koh's luscious handbags would lose much of their charm, character and luxe factor if they were mass produced in pleather.
In 2011, the then 24-year-old scored a coup when he clinched a deal to debut an exclusive collection of Ethan K minaudières made of the finest Niloticus crocodile skin at Harrods in London. Says Koh: “I wanted to be able to showcase my creativity to those who really appreciated substance, stories and experiences.”
The designer, whose family runs Heng Long International tannery, first caught the eye of fashion editors both in Singapore and internationally with his exquisitely crafted bespoke handbags made with the best crocodile, snake and lizard skins he would hand-pick from the tannery. This family heritage and expertise, an integral aspect of his brand, is the reason he chose to work with Harrods.
“I wanted to work with a retailer who could really show to the client my passion and understanding of the art and science of working with precious materials,” he says. “True luxury has lost its meaning over the last few years, but Harrods gives me the opportunity to have a base where I can bring back the true meaning of luxury.”
High-end collaborations between luxury labels and artists have almost always received critical and commercial acclaim every time they are launched.
This close affiliation between art and high fashion is one of the ways luxury brands convey their cachet to consumers. But beyond commissioning artists to create artwork for their store displays or playing host to exhibitions, labels are increasingly beginning to incorporate art into their merchandise.
Marc Jacobs, creative director of Louis Vuitton, has consistently shown a canny ability to work with artists who embody the zeitgeist of the moment. Stephen Sprouse's neon graffiti prints in 2001 and Takashi Murakami's 2002 reimagining of the label's iconic monogram into a multi-coloured kaleidoscope endeared the label to a whole new generation of luxury lovers.
Both collections were so successful the brand launched subsequent collections with these artists in later years. Last year, another Louis Vuitton collaboration with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, drove fans dotty with whimsical offerings of polka-dotted merchandise.
“Often, luxury brands differentiate themselves from mass market brands by associating themselves with the world of art,” says Michel Phan, associate professor of luxury marketing and director of the Masters programmes in luxury management at Emlyon Business School. “Art and luxury go hand-in-hand and such collaborations serve as a good reminder that products by luxury brands could be regarded as works of art.”
Indeed, well-heeled consumers were so charmed by Taiwanese-American artist James Jean's dreamy illustrations of wood sprites and fairies in Prada's 2008 Trembled Blossoms collections that they rushed to acquire these pieces before they ran out.
This spring, Givenchy further pushed the limits of wearable art in collaboration with British artist Benjamin Shine, whose handcrafted images of Riccardo Tisci's Spring/Summer 2013 Madonna and Madonna and Child on the brand's T-shirts and sweatshirts were done by manipulating a single piece of tulle over the garment's fabric. These by-order-only creations were available only at Givenchy haute couture salons, further emphasising the rarity and artistic value of the pieces.
Matches Made in Heaven
These days, the spirit of cross-pollination has even inspired high-high collaborations between luxury brands. For instance, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons was invited by Hermès to create limited edition designs for the brand's renowned scarves. The two collections were launched in February and April this year in selected Comme des Garçons stores and at multi-label boutique Dover Street Market.
In May, Donatella Versace tapped young British upstart JW Anderson to create a capsule collection for the newly revamped Versus Versace label and this September, Loewe and Junya Watanabe have teamed up to launch a collection marrying the best that both sides have to offer.
This is the first time both parties in the latter example have teamed up with another fashion designer from a different brand and right from the get-go, they knew there was magic in their partnership. Stuart Vevers, the former creative director of Loewe who initiated this partnership, says he had always been keen to work with Watanabe. “I have always been a fan of Junya's work, of the way he twists classics and I wanted to see his take on Loewe.”
Similarly, Watanabe says of his experience: “All along, Loewe's approach has been ‘request whatever you want and we will listen'. When I rather selfishly presented what I wanted to do, Stuart just said: ‘Ok, let's do it.'”
The Loewe and Junya Watanabe collection features nods to Watanabe's avant-garde yet utilitarian aesthetic with a liberal use of premium denim in jackets, jeans and bags, while Loewe's signature buttery-soft nappa leather forms the framework of these pieces.
While pairings like these sound like sartorial matches made in heaven, they are not as easy to pull off, compared to high-low or even designer-artist collaborations.
“Such high-high collaborations happen when brands are not in direct competition with one another,” says Professor Phan, adding that it is “improbable” for direct competitors to team up.
“It is more about what each party will get from such collaborations. For example, Loewe may need to boost its ‘fashion' image since it wants to offer more than leather goods to its customers, so collaborating with a fashion designer like Junya Watanabe is a good opportunity. For Watanabe, it may help him to get more exposure worldwide in a very short period of time.”
From a designer's perspective, high-high collaborations can be seen as an artistic experiment that can even challenge the way people perceive fashion. Says Kawakubo of the Comme des Carrés collaboration with Hermès: “In our project together, rather than wanting to wear the scarves, I was looking forward to the change that would happen when I added something to the beautiful ‘paintings' of Hermès scarf designs. I think through the addition of abstract images, we have transformed the scarf and created something new.”
The future of fashion?
Ultimately, fashion collaborations are widely regarded to have played a key role in shaping the contemporary fashion landscape and contributed much to spicing up the retail scene.
Before 2013 comes to an end, at least two more hotly anticipated collaborations, Isabel Marant for H&M and Net-A-Porter's Art Capsul collection, designed by celebrated artists including Marina Abramovi and Terence Koh, will be launched. Although these collections will be priced at opposite ends of the spectrum, they have both already drawn enough attention to suggest that consumer fatigue is possibly a long way from becoming reality.
Clearly when it comes to the democratisation of fashion, the luxury of choice can only be a good thing.
We take a look at some of the most unforgettable collaborations ever launched — and pick out some current and upcoming partnerships worth splurging on
H&M x Viktor&Rolf
Dutch duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, who are known more for their couture-like, almost-subversive designs are arguably the most avant-garde designers that H&M has ever worked with for a capsule collection. But their 2006 collaboration with the Swedish chain proved that they are equally adept at designing for the street with an assortment of pretty separates and easy-to-wear dresses and coats. Predictably, the collection sold out, so if you still own any of these pieces, keep them close because there is very little indication that these rather reclusive designers are planning on launching another collaboration soon.
Prada x James Jean
The award-winning Taiwanese-American visual artist, who first made his name as a cover artist for DC Comics, won the hearts of fashion lovers the world over with his 2008 collaboration with Prada. His dreamlike drawings of fairies and sprites combined with Miuccia Prada's stunning garments and accessories are the reason this Spring/Summer collection is the stuff that sweet dreams are made of.
Louis Vuitton x Stephen Sprouse
Back in 2001, who would have imagined graffiti would go so well with high fashion? Well, Marc Jacobs, creative director of Louis Vuitton, certainly did when he collaborated with Stephen Sprouse for the first time. In 2009, in tribute to the friendship he shared with Sprouse, Jacobs released a reinterpretation of the original collection, featuring the most iconic Sprouse motifs — the enlarged rose and dayglo graffiti prints. It is a true testament to the vision of both Sprouse and Jacobs that nearly a decade later, the exuberant shoes, bags, accessories and clothing remain as fresh and inspiring as when they were first launched.
Topshop x Mary Katrantzou
Fashion lovers adore this British high-street chain for its championing of up-and-coming designers and for good reason. Topshop was one of the first brands to take notice of Greek-born Mary Katrantzou in 2010, when she was just a fledgling designer. The first two lines she created for Topshop, comprising mainly of jersey separates, featuring Katrantzou's signature trompe-l'oeil prints, made her a fashion insiders' darling. But it is the third, more extensive capsule collection, launched in 2012, that is truly memorable. Katrantzou's sophisticated clashing prints used to great effect on the faultlessly structured garments would fool even the most experienced fashion eye into thinking they were made in an artisan's atelier.
Hermès x Comme des Garçons
While both brands are no stranger to collaborations, this specific partnership stands out from the crowd for effectively turning a fashion object into an artists' canvas. Rei Kawakubo's graphic superimpositions over the house's designs forces the observer to look at the scarves, as they would with a painting in a gallery, in order to unravel the multi-faceted layers of the design. We wouldn't be surprised if the lucky ones who snagged the pieces when they were launched in February decided to frame them up instead of wearing them.
Versus Versace x JW Anderson
British wunderkind JW Anderson certainly had big shoes to fill when it was announced he would be creating a capsule collection for Versus Versace following the departure of Christopher Kane, who had been designing for the brand for the past six seasons. Still, Anderson, who is known more for his androgynous, gender-bender aesthetic did not shy away from the challenge of designing va-va-voom Versace-style pieces. The collection, which debuted in May, certainly bared more flesh compared to Anderson's own designs, but he was still able to leave his imprint on Versus Versace with his signature apron-style knits, asymmetrical lines and slashed garments. Most interestingly, the pieces are meant to be worn by both women and men. How provocative to be subverting traditional norms of sexy.
Loewe x Junya Watanabe
This partnership between a Spanish luxury leather accessories brand and a cutting-edge, ultra-modern Japanese designer may initially sound like an odd coupling. However, it is precisely this element of the unexpected that has resulted in a highly covetable capsule collection, launching this September, featuring exquisitely crafted denim and leather bags, jackets and jeans for both men and women. Our prediction: Loewe's signature Amazona handbag, funked up with denim and leather patches, will be a runaway hit.
Art Capsul by Net-A-Porter
The Art Capsul collaboration could be the closest a fashion lover comes to being a walking work of art. Curated by Stacy Engman, herself a style icon, five of the most celebrated artists alive — Marina Abramović, George Condo, Terence Koh, Vik Muniz and Mickalene Thomas — have been enlisted to design clothing to be sold on the website. The pieces, which were unveiled during Paris Haute Couture Week, will showcase elements found in these artists' best known works. Expect gold leaf from Abramović, silk screens from Condo, pearl motifs from Koh, photographic prints from Muniz and Swarovski crystals from Thomas. This is the first time any of these artists have dabbled in clothing design and hopefully, not the last. The bespoke garments are available on a made-to-order basis on Net-A-Porter.com from September.
Unless otherwise stated, these collections are no longer available in stores.