In an article at the turn of the 2010s, our founder and CEO David Fischer recounted the decade when “Streetwear Rewrote the Rules of Luxury.” And it is clear that the most important tool in this process of rewriting was collaboration.
The “collab” — which is now a noun and a verb — has become the win-win trade behind almost all modern fashion marketing. Larger and older brands reap the energy of outside creatives with their own loyal cohorts, and in return said creatives get a platform and an infrastructure to latch onto. This is that force that brought Kanye to Louis Vuitton, then Nike, then Adidas. It’s what turned Vetements into the Hot Tub Time Machine of ’90s trends.
But as we barrel into the deeply uncertain 2020s — where you have brands like Stone Island and Persol meeting on co-branding Tinder every other day — it’s clear that the This x That gambit needs to evolve somehow. And two big announcements this week perhaps give us a sense of where that is going.
This weekend, in an unsurprising surprise announcement, news broke that Aimé Leon Dore founder Teddy Santis would be taking the helm of Creative Director at New Balance at the beginning of 2022. The New York-based designer’s appointment comes on the heels of a slew of highly coveted collabs with the brand, which hit the nail on the head in terms of activating the golden age of the running shoe, one that evoked eggshell rubber, heather gray sweats, and someone carrying a rolled-up Daily News with a bodega coffee. To boot, Santis’s “Life in the Balance” ads are more New Balance-y than New Balance itself, tapping into a nostalgia for the brand that has since catapulted into the new stratospheres within the resale market.
The news of Santis’s new gig follows two strikingly similar announcements from late last year: Kerby Jean-Raymond’s appointment as Global Creative Director of Reebok and Kiko Kostadinov’s new post as an in-house operative for Asics. All three designers are founders of their own labels. All three designers were hired following successful collaborations with their new bosses. And two of them are now entering the mysterious terrain of what it means for a multinational footwear company to have a “creative director,” a monarchical level of creative control normally reserved for the heads of luxury brands.
Taken together, these moves hint toward a collective realization on the part of brands that they might get more out of acqui-hiring their collaborators than they do out of doing one-off products with them. And in a market place where young new luxury consumers are stoking more and more demand for product that comes from the minds of their favorite creative directors, this strategy might be driving toward a reality where the hyped rarities of yesterday are the status quo of tomorrow.
But wait, isn’t that whole thing of luxury giants hiring big independent designers — a la Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones, and Demna Gvasalia — already a narrative for almost a decade? Yes, but this is completely different. Designing for a luxury house is an inherently smaller-scale process, and in the case of creators like Abloh and Jones, these creative gigs are limited to menswear (and now in the case of Jones and Fendi, womenswear) collections within the larger brands. Companies like Reebok and New Balance, on the other hand, operate on a much larger scale and with a much larger audience. And, in this commercial context, crossing the Rubicon from niche designer collabs into “main-line” (the stuff that you can find at any Footlocker) is a really big deal.
In the case of both Jean-Raymond and Santis, a closer existing corollary is the Raf Simons experiment at Calvin Klein — one in which the designer came on to lead the creative of a global company that sells everything from ready-to-wear to boxed underwear at Macy’s. And the failure of this experiment — and the lack of creative control that Simons inevitably had to wrestle with — might be why Kostadinov’s role comes with the much different title and remit of being a semi-autonomous “consultant and curator.”
Brands of this size are slow ships to turn in any kind of direction. Santis isn’t even breaking down at New Balance until 2022, and nearly half a year into Kostadinov and Jean-Raymond’s announcements, we’ve yet to see any of the output of their new gigs hit stores. But no matter how these new relationships go, the writing is on the wall that in the post-Streetwear decade, This x That is now turning into Them.