Collaboration Culture Has Exploded, Are Luxury Brands Panicking?
If it were measured against national GDPs, it would be the 7th wealthiest country in the world. Valued at around $3 trillion, the fashion industry seems to be booming. But whilst it may be financially healthy, questions have arisen as to the health and integrity of its creativity. In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of bizarre high-low collaborations between brands with opposing values and audiences – Off White x IKEA, Erdem x H&M, and now a Supreme brick encased in a Louis Vuitton glass cube… what is driving these brands to sacrifice their creative vision? And furthermore, is this collaboration culture at a saturation point?
The $54,000 Louis Vuitton x Supreme Brick – Is collaboration culture at saturation point?
The fashion industry of today is a remarkably changed landscape, contending with the pressures of the hyper exposure that comes with social media, the voracious appetite of the millennial consumer and the shift in consumption trends between streetwear and luxury. Brands seem to be reacting to all of this in blind panic by succumbing to the culture of collaboration.
Of course, the benefits of creating a social media hype cannot be ignored, as a new generation of digital consumers takes hold. The exposure that both Louis Vuitton and hype machine Supreme experienced after the debut of their collaboration at the AW17 Men’s show in Paris was unprecedented, sparking overnight queues, fights in the street and a media frenzy. As a result of this viral fever, the commercial reward for both brands was evident, with instant sell outs and demand for more – even the basic pieces from the collection such as the plain white Supreme and LV logo tee is now available at resale on eBay for a cool $2,500.
Eager buyers waiting for up to 20 hours at the Louis Vuitton x Supreme London Pop Up
But there is something deeply worrying about this kind of clickbait culture, that so transparently has the sole aim of reaping financial success, becoming the mainstay of the fashion industry. Leading trend forecasting agency WGSN has also noticed this toxic relationship between luxury brands, streetwear brands and the Gen Z consumer. Senior editor Nick Paget commented on the trend saying, “Do these kind of projects cheapen the artisanal reputation of high-fashion brands and does the subversive message of streetwear get diluted when it’s channelled through a luxury brand? Or is this levelling simply the expression of the generation who consume this stuff – that the Instagram-able pic of max brand opportunity is king and whatever enables that to happen is what a successful brand will look like?”
As brands everywhere bow to the current trend towards PR stunts such as these viral collections, some go so far as to completely reject the creative direction and audience that has taken them to where they are now. Take for instance the recent announcement that the latest Vetements collaborator is Tommy Hilfiger – the All American brand usually adorned by an Ivy League student somewhere coming together with the new Eastern European anti-fashion trailblazer. Is this a meeting of minds? Most likely not, but it is hard to ignore the pull of a brand that has the eyes and ears of every Gen Z fashion consumer, so why not take a ride on the wave of their success? While its recent identity shift may have helped Hilfiger in newer markets outside of the US, with sales up by 8% in 2016, the move away from the core message of Tommy Hilfiger has negatively affected sales in the brand’s heartland, with sales in the US down by 7% in the same period. This can serve as a warning to established brands that reinventing in order to keep up with the demand of the current industry landscape may inherently mean the loss of its original following.
It might just be that brands are trying to make sense of these new opportunities, attempting to respond to changing demographics and relationships with customers. Antonia Thompson Weisman, group strategy director for ITB, the entertainment marketing consultancy for brands ranging from Calvin Klein to Dior, says, “There is no doubt a growing opportunity around peer-to-peer influence which brands today cannot ignore: ‘crescendos’ of trend discussion and ultimately aspiration and desire to purchase on social media. What is important is how this activity complements and supports existing marketing activity for a brand – rather than replacing it.”
One brand that is an exemplary success story of how to adapt to the changing landscape of fashion consumerism is Gucci. Since being under the helm of creative director Alessandro Michele, Gucci has regained its title as the go-to cool brand – not through random streetwear collaborations that veer from the Gucci aesthetic, but rather through a radical rethink of its marketing campaigns with the main focus is on reaching Gen Z consumers through mediums such as Instagram and immersive experiences like the Gucci 4 Rooms art pop up in Tokyo, 2016. This shift in thinking, partnered with a commitment to beautiful, thought-provoking luxury collections, has allowed it to extend its client profile to a younger audience while remaining loyal to its original aficionados, and is reflected in the fact that the profit of parent group Kering shot up by 16% at the end of 2015, largely thanks to the impressive 13% rise in Gucci sales.
So if it is possible to marry financial success with a commitment to brand identity, how are the Louis Vuittons and Tommy Hilfigers of the world getting it so wrong? Perhaps this creative anxiety and lack of identity in fashion is actually a deeper response to our homogenised global society. Fashion is supposed to be a cultural reaction in society, so if the society it has as a canvas consists of filtered Instagram posts all sporting the latest logo hoody, is there much room for groundbreaking creativity? There needs to be a balance between luxury brands adapting to a changing market and reaching out to wider audiences – all of which is laudable – and keeping in sight their overall voice and brand identity. If that means missing out on some of the Vetements hype, then so be it, but at least it will mean that in 10 years time when looking back on the history of the brand, there will be a clear vision of development and evolution rather than a selection of forgetful, instant sell-out hype collections.
Written by sub editor of 52 Insights, Chloe Long