The cost of luxury and streetwear collaborations

From Y-3 to Supreme and Louis Vuitton, we chart the rise of luxury and street collaborations, and ask whether they’re useful or harmful to the latter culture.

Words: Jessica Beresford

Appropriation has always been a point of contention for the fashion industry. Borrowing from cultures, artists, musicians and movements is a way for designers to explore new creative boundaries and, most importantly, make statements about wider society.

In some instances, that appropriation is mutual: two entities teaming up to create something bigger than either, like the recent collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme. Few fashion moves have caused more noise in recent times, as evidenced by the smattering of similar pictures – red, white and logo-ed all over – dominating social media feeds at the time of the event.

Style.com senior menswear editor Rob Nowill says these kinds of collaborations give each of the brands the opportunity to tap into the other’s customer base. “The luxury brands gain a younger audience, who will become the high-spending customers of the future, while the streetwear brands attract a new base of affluent consumers, who are keen to tap into the authenticity and credibility that streetwear is supposed to represent.”

Much like other creative realms, the fashion industry has repeatedly sought to create this kind of synergy, beneficial both commercially and creatively. The fusing of luxury and street brands has been particularly lucrative – as early as the 1990s, Japanese designers Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto tapped into the popularity of brands such as Adidas and Nike. Of his collaborative line with Adidas, Y-3, Yamamoto says his desire is to make sportswear elegant and chic. “Adidas is a very personal inspiration to me … it enriches my creative life,” reads a quote on the Y-3 website.

 

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Since then, there have been numerous iterations, although largely in the sneaker domain – Maison Martin Margiela with Converse, Raf Simons with Adidas, to name but a few. This came to a head on the spring summer 17 runways, when Vetements presented a collection comprised entirely of collaborations, including brands such as Carhartt, Champion and Reebok, in an apparent exaggeration of the idea.

Renowned sneaker enthusiast Kish Kash says collaborations are a good thing because it means street fashion is being taken seriously in a luxury context. “It’s just showing how street fashion is not going anywhere, it’s basically on that level. People on the street always aspire to wear LV – even back in the day with Dapper Dan customising tracksuits. The street has always appropriated luxury into its look. Right now that’s the apex of everything. Everyone has this aspiration for high fashion at the moment.”

“By moving into the mainstream so drastically they risk alienating their fans in the long term.”

But what if, in collaborating, a brand’s original customer base becomes ostracised? For a brand whose success is largely a result of its ties to street culture, pushing into a market more able to splash cash could mean excluding previous customers from the equation. Or, if not that, morphing into a brand that represents something other than what its original customers identify with.

“It’s far riskier for the streetwear brands,” says Nowill. “Many of them have been built on a core audience, who were drawn to these brands for their subcultural appeal. By moving into the mainstream so drastically they risk alienating their fans in the long term.”

In the instance of Louis Vuitton and Supreme, there’s already dissatisfaction among the latter’s skate crowd as a result of the expected high price tags on the collection. Women’s Wear Daily recently sounded out skaters in New York City’s Lower East Side, who were less than gushing in their reviews of the collaboration.

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“It solidifies Supreme’s place in fashion, which is so stupid,” one told the publication. “They started the brand as a f–k you to fashion, and now they’ve become it.”

In a statement, Supreme told WWD: “Throughout the history of the brand, we’ve seen our customers have apprehensions whenever we do something unexpected. However, we have always stayed true to the culture from which we came.”

Vetements’ collaborative collection has been similarly criticised – a cotton-blend twill Carhartt shirt retails for £760; a Champion hoodie will set you back a cool £650.

“There is a danger that some people might not be able to afford it, but it’s not about that,” says Kish.

“They want to explore what they can do together and what can be done together.

“The (Supreme x Louis Vuitton) box logo T-shirt is going to be £400. The average customer would be able to afford that. Would they be able to afford the [£55,000] LV trunk? No. But that’s not the purpose of this, it’s the LV aficionado that’s going to buy into this.”

Ultimately, says Nowill, it comes down to credibility. “Undercover is a perfect example of a brand that has been very canny in its collaborations: they have expanded their audience without sacrificing their perceived left-of-centre appeal.”

No doubt we haven’t seen the last of luxury and street collaborations, considering their obvious effectiveness in terms of marketing and, in some instances, success in creating a product that genuinely reflects and heightens the ethos of both parties. But of negative consequences? Inevitably it will mean a shifting in demographic, where original supporters reconsider their loyalties and those willing to accept the new direction embrace it with wide, affluent arms.

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