In this monthly column by Eugene Rabkin, the founder of StyleZeitgeist shares his opinions, observations, and insights about the world of fashion. For the second installment, Eugene explains why he thinks there needs to be less collaborations in fashion.
If you read this publication chances are you own something from a collab, a shorthand term for a collaboration between two brands. The fact that there is a term “collab,” already speaks to the significance and omnipresence of collaborations. It seems like there are now at least several collaborations announced every week: Supreme x The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren x Palace, Virgil Abloh x Everyone and Their Mother.
There is nothing wrong with collabs per se—a good collab can lead to a fresh take on a tried-and-true product, take a brand out of its comfort zone, and create something genuinely new. It can give a designer a chance to bring a honed perspective to another industry, or provide access to materials and means of production he or she otherwise wouldn’t have. Of course, collabs have become a vital source for one’s brand image and publicity. Even if collaborations don’t provide a major revenue source, they bring brand awareness and keep the marketing/publicity/media treadmill going. Not all of us may like it, but such is the consequence of our fast-paced consumerist world.
Many collaborations make sense for reasons outlined above. When for example, Junya Watanabe brings his brilliant deconstruction skills to a Levi’s product or Chitose Abe of Sacai to that of The North Face, or Craig Green and Kei Ninomiya bring their magic to Moncler, something worthwhile is born. When NEIGHBORHOOD collaborates with Dr. Martens, its biker ethos can be closely aligned with the ethos of Docs.
There are collaborations that are cringe-worthy in their pathetic attempt to chase the millennial customer—that elusive unicorn that’s responsible for a lot of anxiety in corporate boardrooms. But as the number of collaborations in the past couple of years have grown exponentially, they have become more and more indiscriminate, and sometimes downright absurd—an inevitable consequence when brands begin to run out of options.
The undisputed king here is Virgil Abloh, whose greatest achievement is to slap quotation marks on everything he can get his hands on. And these days he gets his hands on everything from IKEA furniture to Moet champagne.
But even brands I hold in high regard, like Japan’s NEIGHBORHOOD, often produce eyebrow-raising collabs. What is the point of NEIGHBORHOOD x adidas, NEIGHBORHOOD x Billionaire Boys Club, or NEIGHBORHOOD x J.Crew? Yes, you read that right: J. Crew. I try to imagine the client for the latter—a low-level marketing exec who rides a Harley on Sundays? A Hell’s Angel in touch with his inner gentrifier?
And what to make of the collaboration between The Hundreds x Andrew Lloyd Weber, of Broadway musical fame? In a May 2017 post on their Facebook page, The Hundreds posted the following bombastic statement: “Streetwear without culture is just fashion.”
But if the musical CATS is the kind of culture you are aligning yourself with, you are turning streetwear into fashion with the level of gusto that would make Walt Disney green with envy. The larger point here is the same one that goes for the entire world of fashion, streetwear included: The loss of any cultural meaning that happens when context is removed until everything becomes mere surface.
It is the point of contention exactly when collabs began to consume the world, but there is somewhat of a consensus that the point of departure was the first H&M collaboration, the one with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004. The publicity hurricane it unleashed, with long lines of harried consumers descending on H&M flagships in a downright feeding frenzy trying to get a piece of that (highly questionable) cool, was an eye-opener for everyone in the fashion world.
H&M went on to collaborate with everyone from Balmain to COMME des GARÇONS (Rei Kawakubo later expressed regret at having done it), to most recently, Moschino. Other mass chains like Target got in on the game, as did the sportswear giants. The story here was clear—democratization of fashion, masstige, inclusivity. Ostensibly, but not really so, as all of these collaborations were produced in limited numbers, and even though they were not exclusive in pricing, they were in availability.
Scarcity has always been the single primary driving force for collaborations—it’s a fantastic marketing tool for engaging the increasingly low attention span of the consumer class. And because our attention spans are getting ever shorter, more collaborations are needed. Of course the grandmaster of this game is Supreme, the brand that has been putting its logo on anything it can get its hands on, including crowbars and bricks. To be sure, Supreme has done some valuable collaborations with artists and musicians, cross-pollinating culture in a way few brands have.
But more often than not, their collaborations aren’t much more than getting two logos for the price of one. These contribute to—rather than fill—the cultural void. As the comedian Hasan Minhaj (half-)joked in his brilliant skit on Supreme, “Without the objects that make me stand out, what am I? Then I just have to be myself and that’s terrifying, because I’m insecure and I need things to make me feel better about myself.”
He hit the nail on the head. But, as a culture, can’t we do better?
Few companies resist the lure of collaborations with hype brands. Surely, it’s cosmic irony that it fell onto Birkenstock, of all brands, to be more discerning. They have turned down collaborations with both Supreme and VETEMENTS.
"There’s no benefit for us except prostitution,” Oliver Reichert, the company’s head, told Cathy Horyn of The Cut, explaining that both brands wanted to simply slap their logos on Birkenstock sandals. Instead Birkenstock decided to collaborate with Rick Owens, who actually designed the footwear.
But Birkenstock is an outlier. By now even food companies have gotten in on the game. Diet Coke x J.W. Anderson, Pepsi x Jeremy Scott, KFC x NIGO. And it’s certainly the sign of the times when even The New Yorker runs humorous columns like Hot New Fashion and Design Collabs. My favorite here is “Consumer Capitalism x Human Weakness.” It’s self-explanatory.
What’s to be done, if anything? I suggest taking a page out of Dieter Rams’ book, and using a “less but better” approach. Because the collaborative diarrhea is not without its risks. There is such thing as consumer fatigue. We are seeing the signs of this happening, with people retreating from the barrage of the ephemeral into something lasting, namely into either the classic or the basic way of dressing that all of a sudden seems truer than any new hype collab that fizzles out before the next one is fed into the system.