Collaborations are an integral part of the fashion industry. After all, is not the process of cycling through new creative directors every other couple of years in itself a series of collaborations between fashion houses and the designer community at large? This might have surely and splendidly been the case for Loewe with Jonathan Anderson since 2013 and more recently, Louis Vuitton with the late Virgil Abloh from 2018 to 2021. The fashion world may be in unanimous agreement on the profound impact Anderson and Abloh have made in their respective tenures finding a meeting point between art and couture, but is this truly where fashion’s love of collaboration lies?
The Bottom Line: Market Reach
Every other season seems to be rife with collaborations between seemingly disparate entities such that “collaboration” has almost become a buzzword, if not a trending hashtag to power social media views. The advent of the collaboration trend leads one to ask, why does fashion do collaborations at all? 2022 saw Loewe begin their foray into sporting goods with an unprecedented collaboration with Swiss running brand, On. In terms of stretching at both ends to score for functionality without sacrificing form, the luxe Loewe-On Cloudventures surely made the cut. It even did so without an exorbitant price hike from the embossed Loewe stamp of luxury it now enjoyed.
Still, critics were left wondering, what was the point of it all? Was Loewe trying to venture into sporting to create a new performance range for its consumer-base, or was On trying to venture into luxury to create a new luxury athleisure range for its consumer-base? “Luxury trainers”, while looking pretty, cannot be said to have advanced any great amount in the work of either fashion or performance. Rather, collaborations like Loewe and On’s seem to focus on the singular agenda of expanding market reach, thereby capturing new audiences. Sales, after all, are what make the fashion world go round and round.
The Beauty of “Ugly Pretty”
Be that as it may, the fashion collaboration landscape yet remains a fertile space for the new and exciting. Such is the nature of collaboration — we cannot always predict what will come out of the furnace of brand amalgamation. If the Loewe-On project lies on the “safe and pleasantly pretty” end of the spectrum, two notable projects which come to mind on the opposite end of “risky and almost ugly” are fashion’s flirtations with the notorious Birkenstock and Crocs sandals.
Demna Gvasalia famously unleashed on Balenciaga’s runways in 2018 and 2021 more aggressive variations of the controversial all-American rubber clogs, namely a pair of 10cm high platforms and a series of chunky militarywear-inspired rain boots to a nearly immediate cult following. The Balenciaga-Crocs reminded the fashion world that almost anything can be turned into haute couture with the right design, a contemporary fashion principle which would ring through again in the 2022 Dior-Birkenstock collaboration featuring a luxury refresh on the German sandal-makers open-toe “Milano” and closed-toe “Tokio” mules.
Kim Jones retained the orthopaedic cork footbed and the overall silhouette of the Birks, choosing to switch up the materials instead with a mix of suede and felt embroidered with quaint floral patterns reminiscent of Provence in bloom. A mini industrial buckle taken directly from Jones’ 2019 Dior Men’s Saddle Bag completes the upper while half of the sole is plastered with an oblique Dior monogram pattern. Despite Birkenstock and Crocs’ polarising position in fashion as lifestyle products prioritising comfort over style, the Dior Birks still came into its own and found its own demographic of loyal fans.
Trading in Cultural Currency
Turning that which is polarising into haute couture is of course not luxury fashion’s invention, but has instead long been core to streetwear — the style of mavericks, dissidents and rebels. High and low fashion is most often if not always bridged by street culture which stylises the contentious and unpopular as an embodied resistance to standard beauty and fashion norms. It is this spirit of “going against” which lends power to streetwear and gives rise to the cult-following its trends often enjoy.
Notable examples include the rise of oversized denim in the 1990s as worn by breakdancers, hip-hop artists and skateboarders. These alternative groups imbued in their baggy jeans a new social meaning of nonchalant indifference as they styled them to fit their street art and sport. Today, apart from its influence on the popularity of relaxed denim as a symbol of effortless style, baggy jeans continue to feature prominently in streetwear, worn more to make a statement than to be simply fashionable.
True enough, both Crocs and Birkenstock had been adopted by streetwear long before luxury did, worn specifically for their representation of all that was unpopular and rejected by high fashion. It is ironic then, that this new cultural currency streetwear imbued in these sandals was what likely paved the way for their transition into luxury fashion. Not that luxury fashion is interested at all in what is specifically unpopular, but rather the enigma of being beloved precisely for being scorned is so alluring that luxury fashion has no choice but to respond and make sense of its glaring presence in fashion’s grand arena.
So, What Makes A Good Collaboration?
Is this where the allure of collaborating lies? In its boldness to make new space for itself in the fashion realm, space that otherwise would not have been? As Abloh said of his 2019 collaboration with Swedish home goods and services giant Ikea, “It’s about elevating the anonymous, everyday icons that we use without noticing. When we put a doorstop on one of the legs of an ordinary chair we create something unexpected – an interruption.”
Yet, constant interruptions to the baseline do not allow for any meaningful thing to be said, only noise and chatter for marketing hype and fodder. In this vein, a good collaboration must at least be timed appropriately. It is, after all, only stylish to reveal oneself at an opportune time, i.e. exuding what it means to be fashionably late.
Perhaps the best and most beloved collaborations are those that can stand the test of time. This may be products that have their ups and downs but ultimately come back to win over our hearts, or products that are so revolutionary that they set new fashion norms to follow after, e.g. The Balenciaga-Crocs rain boots arguably set the precedent for the equally controversial Big Red Boots by disruptive art collective, MSCHF.
Or maybe the collaborations that endure simply stay true to the core principles of craft and goods which are made to last. Like how fine wine only gets better with age, how luxury leather gets its charm from aging into softness or how true gold will never tarnish, its perfection revealing its purity.
Much like the equally loved and hated Birkenstocks which are meant to be worn in over months as it moulds to the specific curvature of the wearer’s feet, the best collaborations are perhaps that ones that are truly meant to be lived in, timeless yet memorable hallmarks of the culture they were born from.
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