With branding collaborations almost as frequent as regular collections these days, the premise behind that little "x" is becoming thinner all the time. David Hellqvist asks, "what makes a collab worthwhile and how much is too much?"

When I moved to London from small-town Sweden back in 2001, there was an electro wave sweeping UK nightclubs (at least, the ones I went to at the time). The movement was a form of electro that borrowed its attitude from punk and its glamour from fashion. Androgynous “electroclash,” as it was known, was very much a cultural snapshot of the time, with producers and musicians like Tiga, Fischerspooner and Felix Da Housecat (among others) dominating the scene. I remember traveling from record shop to record shop to find rare 12-inch singles, and I became obsessed with following artists, producers and record labels as they released music across new constellations, collaborating with each other on tracks and albums in fresh and exciting ways. Finding a new combination became like a drug – you’d spend hours flicking through milk crates to locate your next fix.

14 years later and a lot has changed. A new generation of kids is still out there looking for awesome new music, but these days it’s mostly digital milk crates rather than dusty record stores they’re searching through. What has stayed the same, though, is the collab-hungry mentality and the consumer’s fascination with it. Bringing together two artists – in whatever creative discipline – seems to have a timeless allure to it. And now, in 2015, nowhere is that as obvious as in fashion.

The constant demand for new clothes, footwear and accessories has raised the bar in terms of what we expect brands to do to keep us interested. In response, brands dial up the frequency and volume of their output, the media (under its own kind of internal and external pressure) speeds up the promotional hamster wheel and, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in an endless maze of product. But the consumer isn’t necessarily suffering; we clearly want all this. We won’t buy into all of it, but certainly enough to “feed the beast” and keep both the designers and brands busy. They, on the other hand, are continuously tasked with finding new collaboration partners to keep pace with seemingly insatiable demand.

But, as the saying goes, quantity doesn’t always equal quality. For every good collaboration hitting the shelves there are a dozen partnerships whose only function is to inflate egos and beef up the column inches – and that’s not a good enough reason to team up with another brand. So what is? What defines a good collaboration, and what signifies a bad one? Can good brands do bad collabs?

A few years back, COMME des GARÇONS’ CEO Adrian Joffe neatly summarised the concept of collaboration in an interview with Highsnobiety’s own creative director, Edward Chiu: “There’s no point to collaborate with another designer or artist unless there’s something that can be found in between,” he explained. “For example: we don’t make swimwear, so we collaborated with Speedo, who [are] the best swimwear makers. So there has to be some meaning to it. So many collaborations these days are meaningless, therefore we try to find collaborators who can have an added value for both parties.”

The point Joffe makes is spot on. A collaboration, when it’s good, brings out a new product or service that neither of the participating brands could have accomplished on their own. That’s the secret formula, right there.Very often the best partnerships are between a popular lifestyle brand and a niche label with specialised expert knowledge: think Supreme x Stone Island, A Bathing Ape x Inverallan, CNCPTS x Canada Goose – none of those would have been possible via one brand alone.

But there’s many layers to the notion of collaboration, and several ways of getting it right. In the last few years it’s been especially popular for brands to incorporate classic animated characters into their work. Vans x Peanuts, A Bathing Ape x The Simpsons, Soulland x Babar – these are just a few examples, but none come close to the popularity of that most iconic character of them all: Mickey Mouse. Brands to have teamed up with Mickey in recent years include Sophnet, Bedwin & The Heartbreakers, Opening Ceremony, Joyrich, Bounty Hunter, UNIQLO, Supreme and Marc Jacobs… to name but a few. But it was arguably Danish brand Wood Wood who tackled the hookup best. Instead of simply plastering a Mickey Mouse face over a set of generic tees and shirts they distorted and played with the Disney mascot’s image in subversive fashion, creating a completely new look for both the brand and Mickey himself.

On the flipside of such an approach are brands who think it’s simply enough to trade logos. Sure, it’s technically a collab, but it doesn’t bring anything fundamentally new to the table; it’s the perfect example of half-arsed cashing-in. It’s not even just mass-market brands falling foul of this; there have been plenty of highly respected brands guilty of such behaviour. The Nike x COMME des GARÇONS collab, for example, was not much more than a Comme jacket with a Swoosh, or a Blazer Low Premium with CDG stamped on it, while much of the adidas Originals x NIGO collection was simply the adidas trefoil with “by Nigo” printed underneath. We should expect far more from such creative and market-leading entities. While logos are undoubtedly a huge part of street- and sportswear, there’s a fine line between lifestyle branding and plain laziness.

Looking further afield, the idea of celebrity collaborations is, more often than not, a bad one. Most small brands with any self-respect won’t go near a celeb, given the terminally phoney reputation of many celeb-endorsed products. Just look over Pharrell’s collaboration resumé for an idea of what market saturation looks like. However, elsewhere you have figures like Kanye West, who’s worked with Louis Vuitton, A.P.C., Nike and now adidas over the years, and managed some success. Kanye is a divisive man; you either love him or you dislike him, strongly. But what he’s managed to do, using his two apparel collabs as an example, is work with brands to create a visual representation of himself. Both his A.P.C. and adidas collections contain some form of “Kanye DNA,” and you can see his style in them regardless. His friend, Givenchy creative director Ricardo Tisci, did a similar thing when working with Nike. While done officially under his own name, his AF1 range used clear Givenchy colours and the result was intrinsically linked to him, and therefore considered honest.

Honesty is, of course, key. If we don’t genuinely believe in the spirit behind a collab, we won’t buy the product. Look at the Raf Simons x Sterling Ruby collaboration – undeniably one of the biggest of 2014. It was so successful because art has always been a major influence on fashion, and Ruby’s work has long been of personal importance to Simons. For the AW03 season, Raf worked with Factory Records designer Peter Saville on a Joy Division and New Order inspired collection, fusing fashion with graphic design and music. Like the Saville collection, many of the Sterling Ruby collaborative pieces were considered artworks in themselves. But clothes and shoes should, arguably, never be paraded as mere art – they are meant to be worn, and look their best on real people. For me, having bought into Raf’s early ’00s collections, the AW14 season was the Belgian designer referencing his own early work, only via the artist’s input. The colours, the prints and the slogans… It was ‘Consumed’ SS03 all over again. It was nostalgic and contemporary at the same time, and Raf Simons couldn’t have done it without Sterling Ruby. It was the perfect collaboration.

That said, there isn’t some magic formula for achieving perfect results. The best ones start when two brands or designers genuinely come together to create something new, and the ambition has to be to further themselves using the knowledge and point of view of another creative force. As always, the consumer has to benefit from the coming together of these forces, or else it’s nothing more than a shallow marketing exercise. With more and more collaborations appearing on the market these days, we, the consumers, have to ask more of what’s put out there. It’s our job to question before we buy. Small brands, big labels or individual designers – it doesn’t matter because, as always, product is king.

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