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the x files: when did fashion become so obsessed with collaborations?

From high fashion take overs of the high street, to designers working with artists and very rare streetwear drops, we investigate the phenomenon of the fashion collaboration.

by Felix Petty
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Jan 31 2017, 2:15pm

Here are just some of the fashion collaborations that happened last year: Uniqlo and Lemaire, Alexander Wang and adidas, Palace and adidas, Gigi Hadid and Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and A$AP Rocky, Raf Simons and David Sims, Raf Simons and Robert Mapplethorpe, Riccardo Tisci and Nike, Gucci and Gucci Ghost, Balmain and H&M, Rihanna and Puma, HBA and PornHub, Christopher Kane and Crocs. Then there was all of Vetements spring/summer 17; every piece was made in conjunction with another label. Most of Gosha's last season was, too, when he reimagined Italian sportswear giants in his post-soviet world. Supreme almost exclusively rolls out work created with another brand, artist, or designer. 

Read: For its first collection on the haute couture schedule, Vetements collaborated with the master manufacturers of the industry.

Hood by Air x PornHub

There must have been a lot of synched iCals and breakfast meetings, and that's without even tallying the just-finished season of menswear shows, which seemed to roll through a newsworthy collab a day. Gosha (again), who worked with Stephen Jones and adidas on his show in Kaliningrad. Junya Watanabe continued his experiment in brand reinvention with North Face and Carhartt. Cottweiler and Reebok at Pitti. Bobby Abley and Power Rangers. Christopher Raeburn and MCM. Balenciaga and Bernie Sanders (lol jk). And then of course, the big daddy, Louis Vuitton and Supreme — box logo meets heritage monogram in Instagram explosion. There's something out there, it's spooky. We could call the collaboration phenomenon The X Files, maybe (gettit?).

This spate of collaborations isn't a homogenous whole, though. We could roughly divide it into a few categories. There are those that blur high and low, or rather, high fashion and high street. It's obvious what both parties get out of it: money, cred, reach. Since Karl Lagerfeld first collaborated with H&M 15 years ago, everyone from Topshop to Target, Comme des Garçons to Margiela, has joined the cult of creative director at common people price point. The ubiquity (name a brand that hasn't done a high street line) means it's almost killed off the need for the diffusion lines. But, arguably, it's also killed off the surprise and excitement — with few notable exceptions.

Comme des Garcons x Cindy Sherman

Beyond that there's celeb x brand collaborations, which stand to reason as a bit of mutually beneficial exploitation for both. The fashion x sports thing makes sense, too, as a kind of elitist utilitarianism — very rare, super limited edition, but vaguely affordable. There are also collabs, for example, between artists and designers who share an aesthetic sensibility, reaching for something by working together than they couldn't achieve themselves.

This is not to say that there aren't genuinely creative partnerships out there, but the sheer number right now is certainly clouding our judgment. So why are we living through collaboration fever? Are we all suddenly BFFs or just in it for the cold hard cash? Have we reached peak-collaboration? How close are we to collaboration fatigue?

If we look further back, we can find in the fashion collaboration more altruistic and artistic roots than what we're witnessing right now might suggest.

Read: "I wanted to mix the cultures of English soccer fans and German sportswear and Russian skate kids altogether," Gosha Rubchinskiy.

Yves Saint Laurent x Piet Mondrian

Maybe the first was Schiaperelli x Dali. The Italian couturier used the surrealist-in-chief's iconography on her creations in the 30s, most famously in the Lobster Dress and Shoe Hat. This artsiness was at the root of much of the collaboration that happened in the years between Schiaparelli and 2017's overload. Yves Saint Laurent and Mondrian, that dress of course, or more recently, Comme and Cindy Sherman working together in the 90s stands out as a moment of memorable beauty.

If art and fashion formed the historic root of the collab, or at least its gilded edge, it's easy enough to understand why. On a commercial level, high fashion and fine art both appeal to a certain 1% of the world — a beautiful, global, rich jet set. Art lends fashion a certain credibility, whilst fashion gives the art a mass appeal and takes it out of the white cube and into real life. Which, you can imagine, holds a certain attraction for a certain kind of artist.

While art and fashion made mutually beneficial bedfellows, brands were hardly clamoring to work with each other. Instead, throughout the 70s and 80s, Moschino — or Iceberg under JC de Castelbajac, for example — was engaged in a game of bootleg cat-and-mouse; appropriating and replacing with gleeful anarchic spirit images culled from pop culture, art culture, mass culture, and high culture.

Moschino x Roy Lichenstein via Museum FIT

Franco Moschino, specifically, took from fashion history as much as he did pop culture, mashing together things like Chanel, Roy Lichtenstein, and prints built out of everyday items. He crafted clothes with a healthy disregard for the snooty attitudes of the fashion elite. His anarchic attitude rooted the idea of fashion collaboration as away of smashing through imagined barriers.

Menswear, in particular, has been ripe for collaborations of this sort. Maybe it's because menswear is traditionally so reliant on the strict uniforms of tribalism — whether that's city boys or punk rockers — and its entrenched codes, whether that's the cut of a suit or the patches on a leather jacket. The collaboration becomes a way to explode the traditional method of dressing.

Like much of the current fashion scene, Raf did it best, if not quite first. Throughout the late 90s and early 00s, he refined and almost single handedly created an artsiness and authenticity in menswear beyond an idea of Savile Row tailoring or luxury and heritage wear. Raf presented menswear as something to be taken seriously, too. His work during the period was run through with what we may now think of "collaboration" — his works with Peter De Potter, for example, or his Manic Street Preacher or Kraftwerk referencing collections. Later on, he'd make more wholesale integration of influences into his work; Brian Calvin is one artist who he's based collections on. 

Read: The work of Robert Mapplethorpe took center stage in Raf Simons' spring/summer 17 show.

Raf Simons x Sterling Ruby

Most famous, though, is Raf's Sterling Ruby collaboration from fall/winter 14, which feels like one of the most complete collaborative meetings of minds we've been lucky to witness. It helped, surely, that Sterling is a prolific maker of clothes himself, turning the discarded extras of his works into studio wear. The collaboration was more than a simple cashing in, it was artist and designer creating together. Raf repeated the trick last season with his Robert Mapplethorpe collection, altered though, in that he was treating his clothes as walls to hang the photographer's pictures upon.

If Raf set the high water mark, the baton's been passed and carried in hundreds of different directions. We can be cynics or optimists about the intentions of the places the humble creative fashion collaboration has ended up. At a creative dead-end? Try a collab! Running out of money? Try a collab! Need some reinvention or rejuvenation? Try a collab! A bit harsh of course, but sometimes it's easy enough to feel that there's a plethora of collaborations out of there whose existence is more of a branding and marketing exercise than a genuine creative dialogue. Some stand out, though.

Amongst the plethora of high fashion meets high street at the moment, Uniqlo x Lemaire feels tailor made for both brands. The French designer's approach has been fully integrated into the Japanese fast fashion behemoth, something further underlined by the fact that Lemaire has taken on a larger role within the company recently — moving beyond a mere Lemaire x Uniqlo tag to more unified and long lasting collaboration. Or on the other hand, take something like Palace and Adidas' years-long work together. It's clearly mutually beneficial to both, as Adidas has a reach, expertise, and budget that Palace can utilize. Beyond that, who can really blame smaller labels for working with bigger brands if it means they can keep the lights on?

Palace x Adidas

It is a different impetus, you imagine, that propels Gosha's recent sportswear collaborations. A designer as obsessed with symbols as Gosha is, it feels natural that he should be engaged in subverting and recontextualizing the iconography of fashion through his post-Soviet lens. The same with Junya Watanabe's continued destruction and reinvention of classic pieces from iconic brands like Levi's or The North Face.

Naming no names, some collaborations feel less holistic. In a fashion system sped up and twisted all out of shape, there's a need to stay relevant year round — hard to do if you stick to the traditional twice yearly rotation of show and product release. How do you secure coverage, press, and interest in the in between times? A larger brand has an option of the pre-collections and newsworthy advertising campaigns, not something most independents or streetwear brands will find financially possible. A mid-season collab-drop teased out on social media and with its own buzz makes perfect sense, then.

It also makes sense that a consumer increasingly obsessed with uniqueness (or at least, rarity) as a projection of self via Instagram would want to get their hands on the most exclusive hard to come by collab as way of standing out. But everyone's wearing the most exclusive hard to find garms, and it's led to a kind of collaboration fatigue and creative homogeneity. If everyone's busy being unique, then uniqueness becomes ubiquitous. It's the kind of dichotomy that led to normcore's sudden rise a few years ago. 

In the digital age, the speed of everything — including the cycles of action and reaction — increases. We're cycling through trends at an increased rate. And this is off the back of 15 odd years of designer x high street collaborations, as democratic and utilitarian as high fashion can possibly get. The shock of affordability has gone, too.

Read: Five ultimate sports-fashion crossovers, from Chanel boxing to Margiela baseball.

Supreme x Louis Vuitton

So, then, Supreme x Louis Vuitton, feels like the collab to end all collabs. Or at least, try topping that. It contains within it everything that's defined the collaboration in the last 18 months or so, just ramped up past the max. Two brands, at the very height of very different worlds, built upon their own powerful iconography, melded together, somehow managed to create something more powerfully iconic than both on themselves. 

I say that it's the collab to end all collabs because it feels like there's simply nowhere left to go, creatively, or in terms of impact, nothing quite as shockingly exciting left to chart or propose. And if the collaboration is partly a way of bridging different worlds, then surely LV x Supreme, is a finite way of saying those different worlds are no longer that far apart.

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Text Felix Petty