Scarcity, high barriers to entry, and authentic storytelling are what make sneaker collaborations so special — for brands, consumers, and collaborators alike. In the past, when sneaker collaborations were announced or set to be released, there was a tangible excitement in the air.
Collaboration lies at the core of sneaker and streetwear culture and yet, in recent times, it feels like what was once the most exciting part of being a sneakerhead has gone stale, as evidenced by drops like the new UNDERCOVER x sacai x Nike LDWaffle, which elicits more exhaustion than excitement.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any good sneaker collaborations being released anymore, but rather that far too many are less considered than in the past. We live in an age of gluttony, where overconsumption is a big reason things that used to be special are now not. That extends to sneaker collaborations, which have now become the norm in an industry increasingly obsessed with reach and hype.
It’s an obsession that, in my opinion, has resulted in brands cannibalizing themselves with the frequency at which they release sneaker collaborations. Too often nowadays, collaborations feel like they’re ticking boxes or exist for collaboration's sake. Whereas previously, you’d have one or two top-tier releases a month, consumers’ already short attention spans are being pulled in every which way by multiple “heat releases” a week.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon, however.
Take a trip back to 2017, when Virgil Abloh’s Off-White™ x Nike “The Ten” reigned supreme. Nearly four years on from the release of the original ten sneakers and the Louis Vuitton creative head has just confirmed 50 upcoming Off-White™ x Nike Dunk Low colorways. This comes after the original ten have all been released in multiple colorways.
“The Ten” is already “The Fifty,” with at least 50 more shoes joining the fray. The original collaboration was industry-shifting and firmly landed Abloh on top of both the sneaker and the fashion world, but at what point do subsequent releases (most of which are just the same shoe in another colorway) hurt the project’s legacy? I would argue that point is long behind us.
Kanye West, another sneaker and streetwear genius, is just as complicit. Look at YEEZY’s ongoing partnership with adidas and tell me with a straight face that you can tell all the YEEZY 350 V2 colorways apart.
Another example of unnecessary collaboration is the still-unconfirmed-but-very-much-happening Travis Scott x fragment design x Nike Air Jordan 1. What genuine reason is there for that collaboration aside from fueling the unsustainable hype machine? It’s a collaboration that pairs the most hyped celebrity with the most hyped Japanese brand with the most hyped sneaker of all time.
At this point, Nike is playing a game of mix & match, and it’s a solution to a problem of Nike’s own making.
Hype in sneaker culture is out of control. The new age of sneaker consumers has been bred to respond to hype and only hype.
If a sneaker isn’t the most limited release of the week, or if it isn’t designed in collaboration with whatever brand, designer, or celebrity is the hottest right now, many sneakerheads consider it not worth owning. So how does Nike try to stay ahead?
When even industry veterans such as Nike are struggling to come up with new ways to reinvigorate the sneaker collaboration, it’s no surprise that other parties are pushing the boundaries to an extreme just to stand out. MSCHF’s “Satan Blood” Nike Air Max 97, created in collaboration with Lil Nas X, is one such “collaboration” that is more gimmick than genuine sneaker collab.
Collaboration is not a problem when it’s thoughtful, genuine, and there’s a point to it. Unexpected collaborations can be great, such as Salehe Bembury x Anta. But one result of collaborative over-saturation, is that brands are falling over themselves trying to one-up each other and the consumer is left with products they didn’t ask for.
Sneakerheads are slowly but surely taking notice and public opinion seems to be swaying. As a result, more and more collaborations end up sitting on shelves, which is not a knock against the quality of some of those collaborations, rather just indictive that there are too many.
With multiple big releases in a week, consumers have to choose where they want to put their money. Ultimately it’s the mid-level heat that suffers at the hands of the high-heat releases.
Additionally, sneakerheads seem to be sick of paying big price premiums for collaborations and are often turning to more budget-friendly alternatives. Sneakers such as the New Balance 480, which arrives with a sub-$100 price tag, or the Nike Waffle One, which looks like a sacai x Nike Lite, have resonated with sneakerheads on Instagram over the past month.
Brands have also taken notice that the sneaker collaboration isn’t the be-all-end-all that it once was. Several leading brands, such as ASICS, New Balance, and adidas, have brought creatives they would normally have collaborated with in-house.
Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond is now the creative director at Reebok following several highly successful fashion collaborations. Teddy Santis of Aimé Leon Dore will head up New Balance’s Made in USA program starting in 2022, while Kiko Kostadinov and his team now have a hand in the creation of mainline ASICS sneakers.
What makes a good collaboration is, of course, subjective. But the fact that more and more collaborative sneakers are sitting on shelves, that consumers are looking towards cheaper and more accessible alternatives, and leading collaborators have moved in-house begs the question: how much is a sneaker collaboration worth anymore? While the exact figure is incalculable, the answer is probably less than it used to be worth.
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