2+2=5: We Dissect The Fashion Collaboration
In 1996, Helmut Lang was tasked with reinterpreting the Louis Vuitton monogram – a special gift for a design celebrating a century. Other designers were asked, too. Big ones – Azzedine Alaïa, Vivienne Westwood, Isaac Mizrahi, Romeo Gigli – designers who had, in their own way, defined the decade. They embraced the brief by making bags or purses.
If you’re interested, Alaïa’s is particularly good. Deliciously OTT, it has the round, edge-to-edge zip of Vuitton’s top-handle Alma bag in classic monogram, but his was half-wrapped in cheetah-print fabric that tied at the top as a handle, like coquettish Playboy bunny ears. But Mr Lang, being Mr Lang, did not make a bag. Or a purse. Instead, he made a record box, like something a DJ might carry – made with room for, as The New York Times reported at the time, 70 albums. Only 50 were made. Each one retailed for $5,300.
It’s the campaign, though, that remains lodged in the memory – Grandmaster Flash, forefather of hip-hop culture, crouches atop the box and looks directly into the camera. On the right-hand side, another image – his eyes closed, he listens to mu sic on metal headphones. Flash (real name, Joseph Saddler) was initially unsure about doing it. “I said, I’m not what you’d call professional model material,” he told the Washington Post that year. It was, by and large, before houses used celebrities for campaigns. But he liked the box itself, so he did it. In the ad, he does not wear Louis Vuitton, but a pair of Timberland boots, a lumberjack shirt and a Kangol cap. He set his own rules: “I didn’t want to wear any of that blush stuff. It had to look like me.”
It stands as one of the earliest examples of the electric power of fashion collaboration, here a three-way – the all-out luxury of Louis Vuitton, the cool, subversive modernity of Lang and the culture-bending, popular appeal of Grandmaster Flash – proving that, when done right, collaboration can create something of a Molotov cocktail. Because this was a statement – where once Louis Vuitton (or any of those brands favoured by ’80s and ’90s hip-hop stars) would have been keen to disassociate themselves from the flashy world of rap, here the house embraced the appeal and power of the street. That’s when collaboration works – when it refocuses the eye. When it surprises you.
Step forward 20 or so years to Paris. It is January, and Kim Jones is showing his AW17 menswear collection for Louis Vuitton in the courtyard of the Palais Royal. There had been rumours (quiet ones, mind you, most of which had broken only earlier that Thursday), but here it was, IRL – Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with James Jebbia’s cult skatewear brand Supreme, interspersed among Jones’s collection. As if in suggestion, Jones had posted the Grandmaster Flash campaign on his personal Instagram account just the week before.
In purely aesthetic terms, it was the red of the accessories – the backpack, the bum bag – that jolted the eye. Red is not a typical hue for the house of Louis Vuitton, which meant the bright Supreme logo sent a disruptive shiver through the collection.
Everybody seems to know something about Supreme – the way that Jebbia tapped into a moment in skate culture and turned it into a hysterical new way of shopping, where every new word-of-mouth “drop” caused street-long queues of teens, some of whom would sleep out all night for the pleasure. Or perhaps you know the way they mine pop culture – Kate Moss starred in one campaign, Kermit the Frog another. That they have collaborated with Playboy and The North Face, Nike and John Smedley, alongside many more. Or you might know that a red brick (yes, a brick) branded with the Supreme logo sold for $1,000 on eBay.
It’s clever and it’s tongue in cheek, Supreme retaining a subcultural authenticity through its continued association with skateboarding. Because, while a minority accuse Jebbia of selling out, skateboarders haven’t on the whole deserted the brand, even as it becomes ever more conspicuous.
But what Supreme also proves is that, as a brand, you can be both democratic and exclusive. The prices are mid-range. Technically, anyone can queue – but it’s the very point of having to queue in the first place that maintains the mystique. Drops sell out the same day. It makes Supreme just as aspirational as, say, Louis Vuitton. Just in a different way.
The way the brand works is also not so far away from the consumerist power of 1990s hip-hop stars and the clothes they wore – it reflects that deep desire to own, to mimic, to display your allegiance to a brand because of the connotations it has. For who it says you are. Which all makes for a frenzied shopping experience each Thursday morning in Soho when new product comes in. Fashion works best when it feels like it will slip away from you, like you will never have it again – and Supreme have got that down to an art form.
And in this collaboration, even more reason to shop. Combine Supreme’s street smarts with the immense craftsmanship of Louis Vuitton and Jones’s brilliant eye (one that has always drawn from streetwear, Jones having collaborated for many years with Umbro), and you have another of those Molotov-cocktail moments. The perfect storm: on the first day of the pop-up in Tokyo, an estimated 7,500 people queued up. In London, queues snaked around the block. By the time you read this, the entire collection will probably have sold out. “It’s probably the greatest example of a collaboration that two masters of logo have created,” says Stavros Karelis, founder of London store Machine-A. “Does Supreme need Louis Vuitton or vice versa? Surely not. It’s not a commercial move. It’s a great marketing and PR experience that will be studied by many in the future. But how do you top that? Maybe you don’t!”
The collaboration also speaks to this idea of the everyday having as much seductive appeal as its luxury counterpart. Take the example of Vetements. For the past few seasons, they have redefined the modern fashion collaboration by taking (mostly) cheap things and making them – for want of better words – very, very expensive. It’s the polar opposite of the H&M model that has reigned for the past decade or so.
At Vetements it started, of course, with that DHL T-shirt, but it was at Paris couture week in July last year that the idea was crystallised, with the label’s head designer Demna Gvasalia’s decision to collaborate with not one but 18 other brands on the SS17 collection. Each piece was made by taking another brand’s product and “Vetementising” it. Gvasalia picked those brands that he saw as the very best at what they do – Hanes for T-shirts, Levi’s for jeans, Juicy Couture for tracksuits – all product that generally retails far below Vetements prices. It was the kind of daring move that had many commentators gasping at the audacity of it all. When it came to the shop floor, a basic Vetements X Hanes T-shirt sold for £100, the one with “STAFF” written across the chest for £300. On Hanes’s own website, a three-pack sells for about £11.
But is outrage, in fashion terms at least, not a mark that it’s probably quite good? What fashion movement hasn’t made the generation above it bubble up in indignation? Either way, there are two things that stick out. One: at heart, this was very good design – the ability to make the familiar unfamiliar, to make something old feel new. Two: Vetements woke people up.
“I think brands have become increasingly aware that there is a new generation of shoppers whose boredom threshold is set to low,” says Simon Chilvers, men’s style director of Matches.com. “It also allows designers to be more playful with their output – after all, there really are only so many times you can reinvent the shape of a pair of trousers.”
At Balenciaga this season, where Gvasalia is also creative director, he continued to play with the power of labels – his boys wearing T-shirts with “Kering” across the chest – the name of the luxury conglomerate that owns Balenciaga. “I don’t think the end customer, or the customer I like to dress, cares about the deeper meaning behind the logos,” he told Business of Fashion. “It is really for the fashion insiders.” So Gvasalia, for all the perceptions of seriousness, knows best the power of a knowing wink.
That autumn collection marked a season of collaboration. Not all designers, though, embraced it for that visceral, must-grab appeal of Vetements and Louis Vuitton. Some chose a quieter approach – such as Junya Watanabe, for whom it was about combining expertise, about learning from other experts. He chose his favourite brands: Levi’s, Carhartt, Vans and Barbour, among others. For the veteran Japanese designer, the project was about calmly piecing together a utopian men’s wardrobe – the normality of the garments interrupted by Watanabe’s incredible knack for pattern and shape. So, too, at Sacai, where Chitose Abe’s collaboration with The North Face was presented without fanfare; it just sat, serendipitous, among the collection.
So why now? Yes, the lust for the new. Yes, the want for something to interrupt a fashion system that soars ever onwards, flooding us with collections and product. But perhaps it’s more than that. Widen the lens outwards, towards a world outside our own, and you will find a society divided – one sliced down its middle. Maybe it’s a stretch to call a handbag a political statement. And it probably is. But collaboration – whether between two fashion monoliths or just a group of young designers deciding to make a collection because, together, they might have just enough money to get by – signals that, in fashion, the power of two (or three or four) can be really quite extraordinary.
What wonders – or merely just a fabulous accessory – can be achieved by pulling together? Ponder that for a moment. Quite a nice nice thought, isn’t it?
Taken from the most recent issue of 10 Men, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…
Photographer Maciek Kobielski
Fashion Editor Simon Rasmussen
Text Jack Moss
Hair Thomas Dunkin at Bridge Artists
Make-up Zenia Jaeger at The Wall Group
Models Mike at Red, Dusty, Guy and Mahi at Midland and Daniel at Tomorrow Is Another Day
Photographer’s assistants Paul Park and Juan Carlos Zorilla
Fashion assistant Caitlin Hickey
Prop stylist Whitney Hellesen
Prop assistant Sarah Miller
Casting Clare Rhodes at Casting By Us
Production Pawel Walicki