Considering how long sneaker culture has been around, sneaker collaborations are a relatively new phenomenon. When the Stüssy x Nike Huarache LE — the sneaker many credit as being the original sneaker collaboration — was released in 2000, it was a wild new approach, which saw retailer and brand join forces to create a special version of an existing sneaker.
Fast-forward over 20 years and there are several sneaker collaborations dropping every weekend. In fact, it’s gotten to a point where sneakers that are not part of a collaboration are sometimes considered “lesser” by certain members of the sneaker community. That’s obviously not the case, but there’s no denying that collaborations add an extra layer of energy to certain products. That energy is also known as hype.
Most people know what collaborations are and why — superficially, at least — they happen. But with several different stakeholders, including brands, retailers, and independent creatives, there are various motivations behind collaborating on a sneaker. How and why certain parties link up, how brands decide who to partner with, and what those parties deem a successful collaboration varies wildly, depending on who you ask and what the goal of the collaboration is.]
With sneaker collaborations defining our cultural zeitgeist, it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of those factors — whether you’re a budding creative hoping to land your own collaboration at a major sportswear company or a consumer who wants to better understand what it is you’re buying and how it’s being marketed to you.
Below, experts from all areas of the industry outline what goes into a successful sneaker collaboration.
Why do sneaker collaborations happen?
Why sneaker collaborations happen really depends on the stakeholder and the POV you approach the collaboration from. So, to start, it’s important to understand who the different parties are and what their wants and needs are. This includes sportswear brands such as Nike, adidas, or New Balance, artists or creatives such as Travis Scott, Beyoncé, or Ronnie Fieg, or retailers such as Patta, Solebox, or Bodega.
Patta’s Lee Stuart explains that there are several elements to consider — the first being that the Patta team are enthusiasts and sneakerheads themselves. “Whenever you get the chance to work with a bigger brand that you respect and to bring your perspective to the product, you're going to jump at the opportunity,” he says, before outlining another important aspect. “From a strategic perspective, you now have something exclusive that will draw people in. A lot of the time we try to use collaborations as a means to do things that we couldn't do on our own and to shed light on issues that we feel are important.”
That sentiment about tapping into bigger brands’ supply chains and taking advantage of their resources is one that is shared by Bernard Koomson, who leads the Berlin-based collective deadHYPE and dropped his first adidas collaboration last year as part of the Three Stripes A-ZX project.
“Independent creators can be very creative with a certain amount of money. But there will always come a point where you don't have the infrastructure that a big brand has,” Koomson explains.“ A collaboration allows you to experience that.”
Like all collaborations, sneaker collabs are a give and take. A link-up needs to be mutually beneficial; otherwise, there’s little point in doing it. As Koomson explains, it’s a win-win in the sense that smaller brands or creatives get access to resources they normally wouldn’t have, and the bigger brands get access to the creative’s energy and can speak authentically to a new audience.
Joe Grondin says as much when outlining why New Balance places such a big emphasis on partnerships. “In general, you get the full audience of the given brand you're working with when you launch it. If you launch something on runway, you can really position a model through a fashion lens,” he says. “And then with something like the 992, a very versatile silhouette, we looked to pair that with a bunch of different type of collaborators. We wanted to have that Japanese vibe with WTAPS, where we had more of an OG sneaker consumer. And then more of a subdued fashion execution with someone like JJJJOUND.”
Why different stakeholders engage in sneaker collaborations ultimately varies depending on who the stakeholder is; however, it’s clear that all sides are aware that everyone needs to benefit from the partnership. In Koomson’s case, that can be learning from and absorbing processes at bigger brands, while bigger brands such as New Balance are able to more authentically communicate with niche audiences through their partners. Factors such as shedding light on certain social issues — which has become more crucial than ever following the events that transpired in 2020 — are also important.
How do sneaker collaborations happen?
Following the “why,” the question of how these sneaker collaborations even come to fruition is an important one. While the answer varies slightly from stakeholder to stakeholder, most are in agreement that it comes down to authentic relationship building and networking.
“You need to have a certain base relationship with the brand,” details Solebox GM Aljoscha Kondratiew. “If you partnered up on a few activations in the past, this helps.”
Koomson adds that networking and staying connected with people working at brands — at least from the creative POV — increases the chances that an organic collaboration could happen. “When I'm stuck or I'm trying to do something with deadHYPE, I'm constantly talking to my network,” he shares. “You might not necessarily be top of mind, but you're in communication with [brands]. And they're savvy to what you're doing. As soon as the opportunity arises, they're thinking, ‘Oh, who did I think could do that best?’ or ‘Who have I been talking to that's...’”
For projects between independent brands and creatives, upcycling wizard Helen Kirkum reveals similarly organic beginnings. “For my collaborations with other creatives, such as Bethany Williams or Matthew Needham, it usually starts in an organic way,” she says. “We have a mutual appreciation for each others’ work and we want to explore how our aesthetics and points of view can work together.”
But as for who reaches out to who? That really depends on the project. As the insiders detail, sometimes bigger brands reach out to retailers or creatives with a specific idea or project in mind, while other times the creative or retailer will pitch projects to brands.
“At the beginning of the season, we'll have a few silhouettes that we're looking to tell stories around,” says Grondin. “Now that we have a roster of partners, it's a little bit easier. We have these long-term partners that fit a certain aesthetic.”
“With most of our partners, we have a longstanding relationship anyway, because we carry their product,” adds Stuart. “We mainly carry brands that we highly respect, so we have ongoing conversations with these brands and sooner or later something is going to come from that.”
In the end, it all comes down to authentic relationship building, regardless of who pitches the initial idea for a product. Obviously, big sportswear brands will have a better idea of what their plans for the next few seasons will be, as Grondin notes, so they are more likely to reach out to their roster of retailers, brands, and creatives.
It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes brands’ and collaborators’ timelines won’t align perfectly in order for the sneaker collaboration to happen at that point in time. “One thing that we try not to do is force a silhouette on anyone,” warns Grondin. “I think that's a recipe for disaster, as we've seen many times.”
How do brands decide who to collaborate with?
When brands and creatives clarify what they want to achieve through a collaboration, they can then identify which partner would put them in the best position to achieve their goals.
Patta, for example, prefers to stay away from mainstream trends and go for the unexpected, Stuart tells me. “We either go for something that has that nostalgia factor and is something we’ve grown up on, or just who is the absolute best,” he says.
“The best” is of course subjective, and depends entirely on what needs to be achieved. It’s clear, though, that both parties need to gain something from the partnership.
As Koomson explains, it’s important to deadHYPE that its partner also feels like it’s winning by collaborating with the collective. “I think that it's nice to find a brand that believes in you, wants to champion you, wants to also try and let you take what you're doing to the next level.”
Helen Kirkum adds that her decisions on who to partner with have evolved as her brand has grown. In the beginning, as an independent creative trying to establish herself in the industry, she was more focused on growth and exploring what types of collaborations were a good fit for her brand.
More recently, though, she says it has become “important for me to consider my collaborations and the purpose behind them. I always want to offer authentic and genuine products to my audience, so I have to collaborate with brands that not only understand my vision but that share it.”
Regardless of if you’re a big brand, independent creative, or a retailer, who you collaborate with needs to be a conscious decision. “I think nowadays, especially because the collaboration market is so saturated, any collaboration needs to happen organically and be more thought-through than ever,” says Kondratiew.
Kondratiew’s point about the oversaturated market is the crux of it. To stand out, collaborations need to be authentic, organic, and offer something different to the consumer and the culture. Simultaneously, all parties involved need to benefit from the partnership. If those factors don’t align, for whatever reason, the collaboration runs the risk of falling flat, especially when it’s competing with a growing number of collaborations each week and strong general releases as well.
What determines the success of a sneaker collaboration?
Similar to how brands decide who they collaborate with, what constitutes a successful collaboration depends largely on what the objective of the collaboration was in the first place. Once you figure out what the goal of the collaboration was, you can then measure the outcome against it.
If a larger brand wanted to tap a smaller, more niche brand or creative so that the smaller brand’s audience buys and wears the shoes, and they ultimately do, then the project can be deemed a success. Similarly, if a creative or smaller brand wants a bigger company to support a certain social issue via a collaboration, the establishing of a foundation or grant may be the result of a successful collaboration.
For Joe Grondin, this is the case, too, although he clarifies that there is one overarching marker for success. “First and foremost, you have to look at sales. However many pairs you decide to put in the market, there's usually a liquidation goal for those pairs,” he explains. “If no one's buying the product, then you can't argue it was successful.”
But having goals beyond sell-through is also important. “In some cases, getting pairs on an influential network of people is the goal. In some cases, it's getting the product seen virally through social media or various blogs and websites,” adds Grondin.
For most of the industry experts, success goes beyond the actual product. Stuart reveals that one of his favorite collaborations — and one that he deems Patta’s most successful — is a Patta-exclusive, in-store online Reebok Club C because of the community organizations proceeds from the release support.
“We try to have it on our shelves in the stores all the time,” explains Stuart. “And every pair that we sell, part of those proceeds go to organizations supporting creatives of color, or bringing creatives of color together. For me to be able to support these organizations with a tennis shoe, that is the biggest success we could ever have.”
For Patta’s Stuart, Solebox’s Kondratiew, and Helen Kirkum, success in its purest form is also just seeing people wearing sneakers that they’ve worked on. “I really like being outside and then all of a sudden a product that I worked on pops up in front of you,” laughs Stuart. “It's a very cool thing.”
“If I see consumers are actually wearing and enjoying the product and it ages well within your catalog of projects, that’s when I rank something as successful,” says Kondratiew.
“It is great to start to see the organic spread of those products on peoples’ feet and out and about in the wild, to hear peoples’ reactions and see your work come to life,” says Kirkum, summing up what everyone involved in sneaker collaborations sees as the end goal: satisfied customers.
Everything from financial or brand awareness-based goals to supporting social causes through drops and, ultimately, just seeing people enjoy and appreciate good product plays a role in what constitutes a successful sneaker collaboration.
What challenges are there to collaborating on a sneaker?
When a sneaker is being collaborated on, it means that two different teams or brands are working together, sometimes for the first time. That’s why it’s important that the collective is unified on what the key objective of the collaboration is. It’s also important for both sides to understand what the other party wants to get out of the collaboration, so that everyone can work together to help each other reach their goals.
Still, sometimes the very differences that make a collaboration so special can lead to challenges during the process. Helen Kirkum, as an independent creative, has her own aesthetic and ethos. Brands collaborate with her because of that, but letting go of control can be hard for the bigger brand sometimes.
“It's all about listening to each other and being open to new ideas,” says Helen Kirkum. “Sometimes brands can feel precious about their logos or specific designs. The brands I work with have to be prepared to let go of some of their control to allow me to really create the most authentic product.”
Koomson echoes those sentiments and adds that time is another challenge from the POV of a smaller brand. “If I have an idea, I would just do it. My timeline is very different from a brand’s timeline,” he explains before adding: “And satire. You can't do satire as well because big brands have so many legal guidelines.”
In addition to timelines and meeting deadlines, Kondratiew explains that making sure a product stands out when there are so many collaborations launching every week is another major hurdle. “The market is full of collaborations, so doing something unique that pushes the needle is the biggest challenge,” he says. “Delivering everything on time is also a big challenge, because you work with so many different stakeholders. When you create a product for a special occasion in the calendar, it gets even more complicated as everybody needs to be aligned to meet the deadline.”
When two brands, creatives, or collectives meet to work on a sneaker collaboration, it’s imperative that they’re working towards the same goal. Like in all facets of life, there will be growing pains and hurdles to overcome. Ultimately, though, everyone wants the same thing — a successful release, and for the product to have a lasting legacy.
What happens after a sneaker collaboration is released?
When everything is said and done, the dust around a release has settled, and the product is (hopefully) sold out, most brands, retailers, and creatives are already looking ahead at — or even knee-deep in — the next project. But what happens after the release is just as important as what happens before it.
Everyone contacted for this article stressed the same point: No sneaker collaboration should be a one-time thing. All of them approached sneaker collaborations as long-term partnerships.
Stuart said it best: “We are hardly ever in it for the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, one-time thing. I don't see the value in that. We're in it for the long haul and we just do what we do. We're not trying to be the flavor of the month and then be out next year or whatever.”
“I don't know a person that would do something just once,” Koomson muses. “Imagine if ACRONYM and Nike were just a one-time thing.” Or Travis Scott x Nike, or Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance, or Solebox x adidas. Every single worthwhile collaboration has multiple parts to it, released over a longer period of time.
It’s exactly this philosophy that New Balance has built its industry-leading collaboration strategy on. “Oftentimes with long-term partners, the second or third project is the best because you learn a lot from the first couple,” Grondin reveals. “You learn the working style of the collaborator and the trust increases. Collaborators start to lean more on us to really perfect shoes, which is always a good thing.”
Sneaker collaborations, just like real-life relationships, are built on trust and flourish when given the time and space to grow.
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