Collaboration is a human universal. Like baking bread or growing potatoes, the urge to share ideas with one another transcends culture, and with good reason. There is proven strength in collaboration – without diverse perspectives involved to refine an original creative spark, some of history’s greatest tech (Apple) and fashion (Yves Saint Laurent) innovators would have never created the polished final products that let a spark catch fire. Meaningful collaboration between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge, is largely responsible for each duo’s world-changing success.
Within sneaker culture, “collaboration” has a transcendence all its own. Carrying a connotation anywhere between “rare colorway” and “product of a Pacific Rim-style mind merge between industry luminaries”, the mere suggestion of a collab (ex. two juxtaposed logos with a “soon” Insta caption) is enough to grab headlines. Perhaps it’s because the most iconic sneaker of all time – the Air Jordan 1 - is a collaboration. Maybe, it’s even because Nike itself was founded by an iconic collaborative duo – left-brain Knight, right-brain Bowerman. Whatever the reason, in the three decades since the Jordan 1 put collabs on a pedestal, sneakerheads have been conditioned to associate the very word “collaboration” with greatness.
Yet, if the recent history of the sneaker collab is any indicator, that association is vastly undeserved. Perhaps under the weight of the very successes it created, the pedestal once reserved for everything labeled “collab” has sagged if not crumbled.
The plain truth: in 2017, the state of sneaker collaborations is worse than ever. I’ll explain.
Whether they came from athletes or designers, sneaker collabs burst onto the scene because they provided differentiated (and often limited edition) shoes with a natural element of storytelling and a fresh new take on what ‘heads already loved. The first true mass market collab, the Nike x Michael Jordan “Air Jordan 1” hit stores in 1985. 14 years later, one of the first recurring designer collabs, Nike x COMME of the GARÇONS, began with Junya Watanabe’s Japan-only Zoom Haven. Both continue defining the industry today.
The staying power of both these OG duos is testament to the brilliance of collabs done right. Like a good remix, the inclusion of a fresh artistic perspective (with respect for and work with the original creator) made for certified bangers.
The pure novelty-fueled enthusiasm for just what those fresh perspectives could do led to a post-Junya “golden age” of sneaker collabs during the 2000s. At that time, sneaker collabs like the early Supreme Vans were seen as bespoke artistic projects, not just stamped-out limited editions. In my mind, three traits defined this decade’s consistently legendary collabs. The truly great collabs of this era all had risk-taking colors and silhouettes (1), authentic stories (2), and the design vision of both parties evident in the final shoe (3).
Simple? Yes. Easy? Anything but.
For the brands, wild colors and left-field designs represented business risk, like Nike's overseas collaborations with atmos - there’s a reason the best-selling Jordan 1s all involve black, white, and a primary color. While the collaborators (often artists or sneaker stores) carried a relatively smaller burden, their corporate partners – the ones who had the power to put the shoe into production – held the purse strings.
Those three “greatness” traits, processed through the productive tension above, produced some of the most legendary sneakers in the history of footwear. The atmos x Nike Air Max 1 "Elephant;" the Kanye West x Louis Vuitton “Jaspers;” the OG Stussy x Nike Huarache – all a testament to that process in action. Their sellout launches, and the cultural clout each holds to this day, are evidence of the potential greatness within every collaboration.
Unfortunately, despite more collabs hitting the market than ever before, fewer and fewer have realized their potential in the years since that golden age. Yes, there are still some monster collabs - Rihanna x PUMA, for example. However, as a measure of proportion, the whack now far outweigh the fresh. In simpler terms: for every instant classic, there’s a sales rack full of co-branded turds.
While we have seen some great co-branded drops in the last few years, you could argue the bar is getting lower on average. In my mind, three traits define today’s sickly state of sneaker collabs. The past few years of collabs have leaned heavily on co-branded gimmicks pandering to hype (1), predictable colorways that didn’t really need a collaborator (2), and – the kicker – general release shoes with new graphics and literally no other changes (3).
Typically just one of the above is enough to tank even the most promising collab. If you really want to stomp out any potential, you can happily choose two. Hell, if you’re feeling really hateful, you can even choose all three! Enter YEEZY Powerphase.
While there’s nothing truly original under the sun, today’s collab scene – and the traits that define it – appears the result of an allergic reaction to creative risk.
Why suffer the politics of co-designing when attaching another logo also proves that a designer was involved? For every Rick Owens x adidas Tech Runner, there are dozens of blog-baiting shotgun weddings (Supreme Uptempos, Anti Social Social Club x Vans, Converse x colette x Club 75 Chuck Taylors, etc.) whose only functional purpose is icon worship.
The result: a sneaker game drowning in identical “collabs of the week,” each inching closer to the inevitable moment of self-parody where identical shoes are differentiated only by the cultural value of the additional logo they carry.
Worst of all, the sorry state of today’s collab scene is due entirely to the success of the collaborative process done right. While consumer spending as a whole increases, Milennials (the bulk of the vaunted 18-35 demographic that represents most sneaker buyers) are spending less on goods and more on experiences. If you’re making goods (in this case, sneakers), the obvious way to get some of those dollars back is to make what you sell an experience – emotional, involved, and above all, fleeting. You see where I’m going with this?
The success of limited edition programs like Nike’s Quickstrike – and by extension, limited-run “Golden Age” collabs – put the writing on the wall: even in good times, nothing moved unit`s quite like the fear of missing out. As spending on goods further decreased after the 2008 financial crisis, that writing became doing. In an attempt to spread that desire-driven-by-fear buying behavior to a miserly market, brands began scaling both their number of collaborators and the quantity of shoes released with each collaboration. Kanye once bragged to Harper’s Bazaar that a Yeezy 350 launch sells “40,000 shoes in 2 minutes” – a far cry from the 1/1000 Nike x Eminem “Shady Bursts” of yesteryear.
With the current incentives in place, the conditions appear set for saturation followed by burnout. The upshot: an increasing proportion of limited editions as a share of total sneakers sold, with no end in sight.
Or, to paraphrase The Incredibles: “When everything’s a desirable limited edition, nothing will be.”
However, it’s not all doom and gloom and Trapstar x PUMA. While the ultimate authority rests with the brands, we – the sneaker community – can do a lot to revive the luster of sneaker collabs. As consumers, we need to get skeptical and think beyond the #influencer posts. For every Concepts x New Balance 999 “Kennedy,” there are countless Palace Workout Lows: jumping on the logo hype train for otherwise factory models is voting with your dollar for more (and worse) collabs. If you truly, genuinely love that specific colorway, then go for it. That’s the magic of sneakers. The game just wouldn’t be the same without emotional impulse buys - pairs you wear twice a year but derive daily joy from owning.
But, if you’re buying a phoned-in collab – say, a Vans Sk8-Hi with new laces, or ones that are slightly, uh, different-er – simply because the logos attached it are popular or because you want the social capital of that #hype “weekend essentials” Instagram post, why even bother? Especially when there are still some truly great collabs (Nike x ACRONYM Air Presto Mid, Converse x Margiela “Paint Chip” Chuck Taylor High, KAWS x Air Jordan IV) releasing in the shadows of the BAPE NMD’s of the world.
Yes, the current state of sneaker collabs is worse than ever. Yes, the sneaker collab is partly a victim of its own success. Yes, there’s a strong economic incentive for brands to push out apathetic garbage instead of taking the risks they once did.
But despite that all, I’m optimistic.
Instead of passive absorption, let's use our unparalleled access to visual media as a means to gain perspective. With the healthy skepticism that comes with that industry awareness, we the sneaker community can more effectively identify meaningful collabs and spend accordingly. As before, the core premise of sneakers remains the same: wear something fresh, look fresh for it. The same hunger for greatness that drove the truly legendary collabs of old is still an integral part of the community; if we want collabs to get better, it’s as simple as letting that hunger out.
For more Highsnobiety opinions, read up on why sneakerheads have no excuses for wearing terrible pants.