If familiarity breeds contempt, bad luck for sacai. The Japanese brand has been everywhere this summer thus far, popping up seemingly every week to announce a new headline-worthy tie-up. KAWS! Dior! ACRONYM! Nike! Gaultier! Gaultier and Nike! It’s a particularly all-in approach to the collaborative fever that’s struck the luxury industry; a magpie’s nest that glitters far brighter than most of the partnerships churned out by sacai’s stodgy industry peers.
Any collaboration that sticks in the wake of the Gucci x Balenciaga affair, Travis Scott x Dior, and Louis Vuitton x Nike is either incredibly important or really persistent. sacai is a little of both. Founder Chitose Abe operates a company far smaller than those titanic fashion houses, but her knack for persuading heavy-hitting colleagues on board speaks to the operation’s acumen.
Working with Gaultier, KAWS, and ACRONYM alone is pretty impressive, but remember this has all been revealed in the past couple of months alone. Looking back over 2021, sacai has created bags with exclusive couturier Tomo Koizumi, illustrations with Dr. Woo, hybrid jeans with A.P.C., and a seasonal collection with artist Hank Willis Thomas. It’s not even fall!
If any moment can be plucked out of time to denote sacai’s “arrival” into the mainstream, these consecutive, huge collaborations are it.
This isn’t necessarily a new trend for sacai, which has dished out joint efforts with the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Hender Scheme, The New York Times, and, er, The Big Lebowski in the past. But this summer’s frenetic series of partnerships is pretty remarkable, even for the brand that released nearly 100 collaborative pieces all at once a couple of years back.
There’s something to be said of the very Japanese nature of collaborations, though it’s best not to generalize designers with such broad strokes. “I’m not very happy to be classified as another Japanese designer,” Abe’s former boss, COMME des GARÇONS founder Rei Kawakubo, once famously said.
Still, collaboration is very much a cornerstone of Japanese fashion. Fellow Kawakubo proteges Jun Takahashi and Junya Watanabe are legendarily gifted at it and domestic brands of all scales will frequently link up with a big retailer or company. Abe has made an art form of collaboration, fleshing out sacai’s seasonal deliveries with infrequent drops shaped by Abe’s network of cool creatives.
But why is Abe spreading her label out so far for all these dual-name drops this summer? Isn’t she concerned with diminishing returns, that the relentless rollout will cheapen the weight of each new announcement? Maybe, but I doubt she cares. Abe isn’t motivated to collaborate for the sake of generating revenue — sacai is fabulously successful in its native Japan and does good international business too.
Rather, it’s the personal connections that engender sacai’s partnerships these days, as evidenced by the testimonies offered by her contemporaries. “Chitose Abe has been a friend for about 15 years,” Kim Jones said when sacai x Dior was announced. Similarly, ACRONYM founder Errolson Hugh said that he had “known Chitose… for many years” before they teamed up.
Some pals meet up to merely break bread and clink glasses; Abe and her friends make plans to shake up the industry.
"The problem with two giant luxury brand collaborations, however, is that the outcome often results in nothing more than a hard sell," Highsnobiety’s Christopher Morency recently wrote. "There’s little cultural value in them beyond glossy marketing and the customer getting a two-for-one deal."
sacai's output is a mirror image of that pastiche. Take the sneakers it releases with Nike multiple times a year, for example. To the casual observer, these are just one of many exclusive drops that get lost in the endless shuffle hyped kicks, part of a deluge of “collaborations [that] feel like they’re ticking boxes or exist for collaboration's sake,” as Highsnobiety footwear editor Fabian Gorsler recently put it.
But sacai doesn’t issue Nike sneakers every year because it has to. Abe simply likes the remixed shoes that she designs with Nike; she’s rarely not pictured wearing them these days. Sure, they’re guaranteed to sell out and turn a profit, but sacai doesn’t have to keep fiddling with the designs, nor does it have to introduce new silhouettes each year.
Like ‘em or not, sacai tinkers with its successful sneakers because there’s no desire to take the easy way out. Otherwise, wouldn’t it have printed cheaper KAWS clothing? Easy money is clearly not the driving force.
What is, then? Easy: People. It’s always people. I mean, sacai created its own #sacaithepeople hashtag just to showcase Abe’s friends and muses wearing her clothing. The human element is so crucial to sacai, that some of these hashtagged posts end up on the brand’s web store instead of the usual flat lays.
In some essence, this is yet another connection between Abe and Virgil Abloh, the modern-day don of collaboration. Abloh admittedly doesn’t come from the same background as Chitose Abe, nor do they share the same design principles. However, they both understand the power of partnership.
Frequently, Abloh is feted — and rightly so — as one of the industry’s foremost skilled networkers. Like his confrère, Kim Jones, he’s adroit at getting the right people in the right places and allying the brands that he oversees with the appropriate outlet, often the same outlets that team with sacai (Nike, colette, fragment design).
Abloh’s personal and cultural cues justify Off-White™ and Louis Vuitton’s alignments, whether they be with Nike, Futura, Theophilus London, or Blood Orange. Likewise, Abe isn’t the only creative behind sacai, but she’s the brand’s driving force, dictating the conceits at the core of its collections.
Detractors can cynically decry the meaningless rush to capitalize on a brand's hotness (and maybe we didn’t need Off-White™ x Cha Cha Matcha), but one of the reasons that Off-White™ and sacai’s collaborations continue to feel headline-worthy (as opposed to, say, every Supreme collab) is the personal touch that distinguishes them beyond merely being an easy co-sign.
For instance, Off-White™’s drops with the likes of Braun, Pioneer, and Vitra came about not because it needed these illustrious brands to make furnishings or DJ equipment for itself, but because Abloh himself admires these companies and uses their products himself.
Really, Off-White™ can work with anyone these days, so it can afford specificity. Think Abloh couldn’t have enlisted, say, Tiffany or Chrome Hearts for his paperclip jewelry? He’d already worked with the latter a few times by that point, but opted to bring Jacob & Co. into the fold. Wonder why?
"We have been friends for a long time," said Jacob Arabo when the collection launched. "Working together just felt so right."
Perhaps not every collaboration that Off-White™ and sacai is a pure passion project — I’m not personally privy to the rationale behind every single drop — but both brands and their designers are stable and savvy enough to know what they want from each tie-up. No need to drop meaningless co-branded hoodies for the sake of it: nowadays, collaborations celebrate your friends’ achievements, boost their causes, or just bring two pals together.
"Collaboration is just the way new ideas, garments, and artwork are generated today," said Highsnobiety editor-in-chief Thom Bettridge last month. We’re beyond the days of meaningless shirts and sweatpants that feature co-branding for the sake of it. Sure, those dull drops still exist (and are thriving in the social media age, even), but sacai doesn’t deal in those.
Chitose Abe’s brand is big enough that she never has to do another joint effort, they’re just creative victory laps at this point. Done properly — the sacai way, if you will — a collaboration will speak to the strengths of both entities, intertwining both participants’ efforts. It doesn’t have to be seamless, just intentional and satisfying. Why come together to joylessly chase money when you’re lucky enough to run a cash-positive company?
The summer of sacai wasn’t about the hype, but a celebration of the ideators that Abe has met along the way. There are easier ways to get rich quick, after all: these big drops are the culmination of weeks, months, or maybe even years of putting two (or two hundred) heads together to design, license, produce, and perfect the partners’ vision, all while sacai was designing its own piecemeal clothing.
Don’t like it? Fine: they aren’t for you anyway.