Harnessing The Power Of Designer Collaborations

One of the challenges to living in North America is that by the time most of us wake up in the morning the European fashion capitals are on an afternoon tea break and a fair amount of fashion news has already been made. We wake up to headlines like these:

  • Topshop and Halpern Collaborate on a Disco-Inspired Collection
  • H&M To Launch Lingerie Capsule Collection With [Dutch label] Love Stories
  • Uniqlo’s UT Collaborates With [ New York-based artist] Kaw and Sesame Street
  • Birkenstock and Berlin Porcelain Maker KPM Join Forces On Limited-Edition Sandal Collection
  • Vionnet Teams With Artist Marc Quinn on Sustainable Collection

Fashion collaborations are nothing new. Department stores have utilized the power of limited capsule collection from name-brand designers for decades. What has changed in the past ten years is their ability to launch careers and bring much-needed investment to designers struggling to be noticed.

Take the Topshop/Halpern deal, for example. While Michael Halpern’s eponymous label already feels like a London standard to some, one needs to remember that it was just last year that Halpern received his first nomination for up-and-coming womenswear designer. The designer only graduated from Central Saint Martin’s in 2016. He is so much not an easily recognized designer that a Google search of his name lists several other Michael Halperns ahead of him. Yet, here he is, having scored a 28-piece capsule collection that hits Topshop stores in November, just in time for the holiday party season. For Halpern, both as a brand and as a person, this collaboration is a big deal.

Like many designers, Halpern has done a couple of runway shows. He was on the “must watch” list for this past February but, despite his glittery and attractive collection, has yet to grab that level of recognition that brings automatic sales with each new season. Doing such a high-profile capsule collection should do a lot to boost both his name and brand recognition.

Do collaborations work on a smaller scale, though, and do they have the ability to replace the effort and expense that one puts into runway shows? The answer, unsurprisingly, is a very qualified “maybe.”

The key to any collaboration, large or small, is having that critical relationship that allows the collaboration to happen. On a smaller, local level, having a boutique owner one has worked with before is important. Boutiques typically operate on a narrow budget and are understandably reluctant to give up valuable shelf space to someone new. A familiar name, though, can be successful and the boutique collection is a good place to try out new fabrics, new cuts, and other fresh ideas.

Another important element is that the capsule collection fit the boutique’s core audience. Sure, both the designer and boutique hope the capsule brings in new customers. Regular shoppers, though, are the ones most likely to buy first and then tell friends. Halpern’s normal 70’s vibe is a natural fit for the disco theme Topshop is pushing this fall. Some stores are even installing mirror balls. The same collection probably wouldn’t go over as well at Target, though, who uses capsule collections heavily but gears them toward the young, working mom who’s on a budget.

Collaborations are attractive to emerging designers because they can get their name out to an entirely new group of people without having to shoulder all the marketing and other related costs themselves. However, there are some significant challenges to consider before one just goes charging into this arena.

First up, one has to consider how much they can reasonably produce. Not every designer wants to have dozens of people working for them. Catherine Fritsch of Rue Violet told us, “I don’t want so many orders that I need to hire someone.” Being able to scale production up, and then, at least temporarily, back down is important. While I’m sure Topshop is helping with some of the production costs for its capsule collection, the greater burden is on Halpern who has to be able to deliver a significantly higher number of clothes than he normally produces, without missing other deadlines for his own label.

Second, one has to consider what to do with the pieces that don’t sell. For a designer who has limited space and keeps inventory low, producing a higher-volume runs the risk of having to take back a higher number of pieces than would normally be necessary. Where is one supposed to put everything? The temptation is to lower prices severely, but for emerging brands that run the risk of reducing perceived value along with it.

Unsold clothes may be the biggest, dirtiest secret in the fashion industry. For the past several years, discarded clothing is the second largest contributor to landfills around the world. Fashion labels have long held the opinion that it is better to throw items in the trash than risk the brand being devalued by sale prices that are too low. Fast fashion, and especially capsule collections resulting from collaborations, are a significant part of that problem.

Collaborations are risky and it would be foolish to claim that they work even 70% of the time. Yet, when carefully planned and executed with a compatible partner, they can be a great tool for boosting a young fashion label’s popularity and customer reach at a level that catwalks can’t achieve. If this kind of partnership doesn’t seem like a good fit, our next two articles look at the potential of pop-up shops and working with influencers.

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