How does H&M's latest designer collaboration measure up? Here's what four members of team Highsnobiety think...
H&M's annual designer collaboration has produced some big hits in its time. It's also had some embarrassing misses. Zig-zagging its way across the fashion landscape like an erratic shopper with an attention deficit, the project has veered from Viktor & Rolf to Versace, from Karl to Kawakubo, each time turning over a new leaf entirely. With that in mind, it's perhaps unsurprising that they chose to follow up last year's bout of monochromatic minimalism from Alexander Wang with something at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum: Balmain.
With the first lookbook shots from H&M x Balmain arriving yesterday, the team here at Highsnobiety have had 24 hours to form some first impressions. Read on for our take on the collection, and the impact it's likely to have on the fashion landscape of 2015 and beyond.
Total Hype Vacuum
Most people on Earth are aware of the “chicken & egg” conundrum — that ancient paradox of creation, as old as time itself, that has tied the world's greatest minds in knots over the years. Well, regardless of whether you believe the chicken or the egg came first, one thing’s pretty certain: you need one to get the other.
So what happens when you apply that theory to fashion? If we take a moment to imagine last year’s all-encompassing all-black, all-neoprene everything trend as the chicken, then H&M’s Alexander Wang collaboration was surely the golden egg at the end of it all. Selling out in hours in locations across the globe, the collection was broadly deemed both a critical and commercial success. But would it have fared so well had the nest looked a little different? Would, for instance, kids have been queuing around the block to purchase hats, hoodies, sweaters and backpacks emblazoned with "WANG," had the prevailing winds of hype been blowing in a different direction?
That’s a question we’re about to find out, with the release of H&M’s latest experiment in high-fashion-on-the-high-street. It’s fair to say that no-one — not even the most generous Balmain apologists — can claim that elaborately beaded, brass-buttoned, faux military regalia is part of any major trend right now. Equally, the house’s signature ribbed biker jeans, patterned leather jackets and gaudy opulence all feel about five years late to the party, especially in a time when worn-out, heavily distressed, over-washed fabrics are the on-trend looks of the moment. In many respects, this collection could not be more different to the streetwear status quo. That means it has a whole lot more work to do…
So, what we have here is an interesting test of "star appeal." Is the combined effect of H&M’s gargantuan marketing budget, backed by the kudos of Kendall Jenner, Jourdan Dunn and anyone else Olivier Rousteing can rope into being a celebrity clotheshorse, enough to re-shape the face of popular dress (if only for a short while)? How many billboard posters does it take to assemble a “Balmain Nation,” all decked out like a bunch of off-duty servicemen at hotel happy hour? I guess we’ll know, soon enough. Either that, or the kids will cherry pick the basics and leave the rest to gather more dust than Michael Jackson's props cupboard.
Haters Need Not Apply
Let's get this out of the way: H&M x Balmain is not going to reverse any negative feelings you might already have about the fashion house. Bringing down the price tag of Balmain — no matter how substantially — will not convince you to give it a try. Judging by the first lookbook shots and campaign imagery, there doesn't appear to be one subtle piece among this collection. But then, that's not the point.
Ostentation is the name of the game here and Olivier Rousteing doesn't care what you think. If you don't like it, don't buy it. It was never meant for you anyway. While, in your book, the collaboration might fail on all fronts — whether by being unashamedly off-trend, by appearing prohibitively luxurious despite being manufactured like most other H&M product, or by placing more importance on celebrity endorsement than on the merits of its design — it nonetheless succeeds wholeheartedly for fans of the brand.
All of the house's signature pieces are on display here, including leather biker jackets and biker jeans, captain and pilot jackets, and double-breasted blazers — at a fraction of the cost of their top-tier equivalents. Even Balmain's iconic typographic logo appears across a selection of tees (albeit with the word "France" substituted for "Paris," to let the world know it isn't quite the real deal). For those who really want to communicate their allegiance to the brand, but have never had the funds to do so, Olivier has given them their chance.
In the same way Roger Ebert would review a film purely for its prospective audience, I'm going to applaud Balmain for offering genuinely affordable alternatives to its loyal, window-shopping following. H&M's latest collaboration won't change the game and it won't fly off shelves the way Alexander Wang did, but it will give those people that want to dress like the Kardashian Klan the chance to do so.
Consider It A Warning
Personally, I find it laudable when a designer decides to make a bold step away from the trend du jour; it demonstrates an ability to liberate sartorial narratives without fearing a furore of criticism. But when the tide turns away from style Bibles and lands in some Ibiza “bottles and models" club where hair-gelled Eurotrash soak up vapid conversation over $30 gin and tonics, this I find harder to digest.
“I don’t believe that all my 1.2 million followers can actually get Balmain, obviously,” Olivier Rousteing recently admitted in an interview. “My followers are dreaming of getting Balmain.” Well by God, those dreams (or nightmares) have finally been made a reality. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the “Balmaniac” cult of celebrity-obsessing, trend-ravenous tweens and 20-somethings — also known as H&M’s prime consumer market — will be scrambling through every crevice to snatch up whatever garish “look for less” they can get their hands on in an attempt to be part of Olivier's cool club. As a designer, Rousteing has managed to accrue a squad of “you can’t sit with us” glitterati so formidable that they will back his vision, no matter how bejewelled, bright or eye-wateringly brazen it may be. And, as we all know, when a brand has been endorsed by so many of the clan Kardashian-Jenner, good taste and common sense are but trivial matters.
While last year’s Alexander Wang collaboration embraced the style zeitgeist of monochromatic tech sportswear just months before health goths decided to void their gym memberships en masse, this year’s edition couldn’t steer further away from today’s eagerness for a more worn and distressed look. Instead, Rousteing seems intent on ushering in the return of the vulgar age of "golden-era" Paris Hilton, “being on the list” and trashy, glossy showboating. If this recycled age of glam succeeds in gaining traction within the fashion community, then so be it; I just hope you’ve saved all those Ed Hardy shirts and rhinestone-encrusted denim, because those will surely follow suit. And when they do, don't come crying to me.
Breaking Down The Walls
I'm not going to attempt to discuss the aesthetic merits of this collection; I don't like the clothes, I was never going to. What's really interesting about H&M's latest high-fashion partnership, however, is how it's really not a collaboration at all. Rather than two disparate forces coming together to create something fresh and entirely new, here the archetypal Balmain look has literally been recreated at an entry-level price point, demonstrating how the worlds of streetwear, fast fashion and luxury are now almost indistinguishable.
Nowadays, luxury designers rub shoulders — and take selfies — with pop stars, rappers, actors and celebrities so regularly that, in many ways, they become A-listers in their own right. Few people exemplify the celebrity designer phenomenon better than Balmain's Olivier Rousteing, who frequently invites his 1.4 million Instagram followers to peer behind the scenes of his ruthlessly "cooler-than-thou" existence, as he anoints everyone from the Kardashians to Beyoncé as members of his #balmainarmy (which has over 28,000 tags on Instagram, FYI). Putting the fashion before the brand, this really is not. If Martin Margiela were dead, no doubt he'd be spinning in his grave.
With H&M x Balmain, Rousteing has taken his paradoxical "exclusive openness" to its logical conclusion, and extended a gilded olive branch to all those who were formerly stuck on the outside. Where diffusion lines have stumbled in the past, by offering watered-down, slightly less interesting versions of their parent brands, this collection drags Balmain's glitz-and-glamor right onto the high street, right down to the last gaudy, oversized gold detail.
Does this make it a success? Maybe. It's unlikely we'll see any other Parisian houses rushing to release entry-level iterations of their most prized designs any time soon, so perhaps Balmain really have done something unique. One thing's for certain, the line between high and low fashion has never felt thinner.