There’s always been a relationship, or more accurately, many different relationships, between the luxury and the mass market. It’s said that in post-revolution France, women of lesser means would wet their clothing to attain the look of fine and sheer fabrics worn by Josephine Bonaparte. Fast forward a couple hundred years and Balenciaga is selling a ripped T-shirt for $1300.
All throughout fashion history, there’s been trickle-up and trickle-down, blatant copying and unabashed selling out. Still, counterfeiting aside, it can all be filed under “peaceful coexistence.” But in recent years, we’ve seen a new relationship emerge: the collaboration between a luxury brand and a mass-market one. It’s a collision of classes that may not seem to make sense or be very wise, yet these collaborations have proven so successful for both sides of the deal that this is certain to remain among the hottest trends in retail.
Way back in the 20th century, luxury brands were highly protective of their images (and price points). At the same time, they had huge costs and very small addressable audiences, making profitability a constant challenge and predictability impossible. With an emerging middle class increasingly buying off the rack, luxury designers realized they needed a way to get some of that sweet mass-market money. When Christian Dior made a deal to put his name on hosiery produced elsewhere and sold in the United States, the era of licensing began.
Yves Saint Laurent is among those designers who, following the political and societal upheavals in the 1960s, needed to expand to new markets if he was going to keep the high-end fashion afloat. He and many of his contemporaries, like Pierre Cardin and Bill Blass, went all in with licensing. Some of these deals, such as for perfumes and cosmetics, led to products that were perfectly suited to the brand. They were still luxury products, yet they were luxuries that the hoi polloi could afford. Eventually, however, Yves Saint Laurent’s name was on over 100 different items, and with limited oversight or quality control in place, the “luxury” luster faded.
Eventually, with perfumes generating 10 times the revenue of the fashion, the company was sold to a pharmaceutical company. But the fading glory of the brand impacted the fragrance sales, too. The brand was sold again, and then again to Gucci in the late 1990s. With far fewer license deals to dilute the brand and hot young designer Tom Ford initially at the helm, the brand eventually came back into vogue (and in Vogue).
By this time, designers had learned from the drama of Yves Saint Laurent and others whose brands suffered from their licensing deals. For this generation, the strategy for greater reach was the diffusion line. Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana and Marc Jacobs all launched lower-priced lines that gave them far larger customer bases without tarnishing the flagship brand’s image.
Then in the early 2000s, fast fashion took off. And it’s really H&M that launched the “masstige” era when they partnered with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004. The 30-piece collection sold out in a flash, and in the years since H&M has unveiled a steady stream of similar collaborations. The collections from the likes of Lanvin, Margiela, Marni, Comme des Garçons, Versace, Moschino and more are nearly always highly-anticipated (and rapidly-selling). Each has shoppers lined up for hours outside, while others trying to get their hands on a piece end up crashing the e-Commerce site. Pieces end up in the secondary market within hours.
Fast-fashion retailers aren’t the only accessible brands making the designer collaboration an important part of their business plans. It’s also now common with athletic apparel brands. Adidas may be the king of this pack, with Rick Owens, Yohji Yamamoto, Stella McCartney, Alexander Wang and more all contributing their high-end styling to the more affordable brand with the three stripes.
There are a few reasons why so many collaborations prove positive for both brands. First, the sales are additive, not cannibalistic. A true collaboration isn’t just sticking a different logo on the same product. It’s creating something that is different than what each brand offers.
It’s highly unlikely that the shoppers purchasing from the collaboration are opting to buy a co-branded piece over one from the brand’s regular inventory. The risk of that is certainly higher for the mass merchant, however, because these lines are usually priced at a premium and the inflated margins ensure a net gain. For example, in 2014, the average item price at H&M was $21.40, while the average price of that year’s Alexander Wang collaboration was $116.02. The designer, on the other hand, may benefit from newfound brand affinity from younger shoppers who perhaps can’t afford them now, but very well may in a few years.
Next, these partnerships are generally publicity juggernauts. Not only are these collections creating in-between-season publicity for the designer, they’re giving both brands vastly more media coverage. This fall’s H&M x Moschino collection was covered by all the top fashion magazines like Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar — all outlets for which coverage of the store’s regular lines would be incredibly out of character. Alec Leach, Highsnobiety’s Digital Fashion Editor, explained in an interview that, “The way media works now, you can’t just do a collection and hope people care six months later — you’ve got to always be on. Collabs are a handy way of doing that.”
Perhaps even more value than the extra ink is social media hype. In fact, many an editorial has posited that these collections have become less about the clothes than about the bragging rights. And in our social-media age, bragging is done with selfies and spread across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
In the months prior to the release of the Balmain x H&M collaboration — one of the retailer’s most successful — the hashtag #HMBalmaination received 93,000 Twitter mentions. Again, that’s before the collection was even in stores. Another example of social media success is the 2014 Alexander Wang collaboration, which social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon found generated over 171,000 social media posts from the time it was announced up until two months after release.
In an article for luxury retailer SSENSE, fashion writer Calum Gordon notes:
“As always, the Internet has played its part, both in how we understand and how we consume the collab. Now more than ever we define ourselves through a process of cultural aggregation. Online we take a bricolage approach — in the articles we post on our Twitter feed, the people we follow, the places we tag on Instagram — to create a complex public perception of self. This has also seeped into our offline lives and wardrobes.”
Lastly, while the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of these collections is great for generating FOMO, it also minimizes risk. Unlike the poorly-thought-out licensing deals of the 1970s, a bad collaboration isn’t going to inflict long-lasting damage to either brand. Even if the collection were to have zero sales, the merchant generally doesn’t produce much of it (supply and demand, you know), and the free publicity and increased traffic would more than make up for it. The designer label has less to lose financially, and in fact they probably got a lump sum for the deal. Meanwhile, their luxury lines continue as if nothing happened.
As Andy Warhol once said, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” As long as these masstige partnerships keep yielding enviable business results, I expect we’ll see more collaborations between luxury and mass market labels of all types and for products of all types, for many years to come.
Vidyuth Srinivasan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Entrupy and the co-inventor of Entrupy’s patented technology. Originally from India, Srinivasan earned a degree in journalism from Bangalore University while simultaneously designing and developing video games for Raptor Entertainment. He then embarked on a stellar career across a variety of roles including sales, business development, marketing, PR and film-making, while also working for software giants such as Intuit, Microsoft, etc.