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Do Fashion Collaborations Need a Revamp?

Mass-market fashion retailers could learn a thing or two from streetwear brands and sportswear giants about keeping their collaborations fresh.
A screenshot from the Erdem x H&M trailer by Baz Luhrmann | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Sarah Shannon

LONDON, United Kingdom — For years, mass retailers like H&M and Target have worked with designer labels to produce limited-edition, "cheap and chic" capsule collections. Success was less about sales and more about generating media impressions and driving footfall to stores. After all, the collections themselves were usually produced in relatively small volumes and carefully calibrated to quickly fly off the shelves.

For participating designers, these collaborations offered both major marketing exposure and significant cash payments. Marc Beckman, CEO of DMA United, an advertising and talent agency that has brokered deals with Target for several designers, says sums in the six and seven figures are the norm.

For a while, the formula worked very well for both sides.

But on July 13, when H&M announced its latest annual fashion collaboration with Erdem, the London-based brand designed by Erdem Moralioglu — it's safe to say the internet did not break. In the days after the announcement, the hashtag #ErdemXHM clocked up 53.7 million impressions on Twitter and Instagram, well below what the brand's previous two fashion collaborations registered when they were announced. #KenzoXHM (2016) registered 81.6 million impressions on Twitter and Instagram, while #AlexanderWangXHM (2014) registered 266 million impressions, according to social media monitoring and analytics firm Brandwatch.

"I think Erdem is a great brand, it ties into the embellishment trend, but I'm not sure it has the same level of brand love," says Petah Marian, senior editor at WGSN Insight. To be sure, Erdem Moralioglu — though highly respected for his intricate dresses, stocked at influential retailers like Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman — has a relatively small following. And coming after collaborations with major names like Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Versace and Balmain, it looked as if H&M was running out of names.

"Every year when we do this we ask ourselves should we continue it? Should we do something else?" reveals Kristina Stenvinkel, H&M Group communications director, who has worked on every one of H&M's fashion collaborations since its first designer capsule collection with Lagerfeld back in 2004. "But we think we come up with great and talented designers and customers are really appreciating everything… People are taking the day off school or work for the launch day to be in store."
That may be true, but as the formula pioneered by the likes of Target and H&M becomes more widespread, it's starting to feel, well, formulaic.

The retailer really needs to fight to capture the attention of the consumer now.

And yet collaborations are as powerful as ever. Just look at the success of brands like Supreme and Adidas, for whom collaborations have been a critical component of success. “For years I thought this trend would slow down but it’s not at all,” Beckman says. “I think the reasons these partnerships will continue to go forward is predominantly because the advent of technology in manufacturing and in communications means the retailer really needs to fight to capture the attention of the consumer now,” says Beckman.

That element of newness and surprise that collaborations can offer is a critical weapon in the war to stay present in the news feeds of consumers. "The unexpected is a very important factor in collaborations," says Cary Leitzes, founder of creative agency Leitzes & Co. But as expectations (and attention spans) increasingly move at the speed of Instagram, annual collaborations à la H&M may no longer be the solution. In comparison, Supreme drops a new collaboration each week, helping to drive continued buzz around the brand. Adidas, too, releases a much more regular stream of new collaborations.

Authenticity is also increasingly important. “Collaborations have definitely been more ubiquitous in the past five years and I think, in this oversaturated space, it’s all the more important that there is a sense of authenticity, that there’s something real behind it — a genuine connection between the collaborator and the brand,” adds Leitzes, who says the consumer is savvier than ever and can tell when something is simply fabricated for marketing.

What’s more, as brands run out of fashion designers for their tie-ups, they are increasingly looking at other verticals. “Platforms like art and sports that can create compelling storytelling are critical to these retailers,” says Beckman, citing football players and NBA basketball players who “put on a fashion show every night” and could be powerful collaborators for retailers. “It’s not just about fashion designers.”

As for H&M, “we are excited about Erdem,” says Stenvinkel. “We still have really good names on our list but we also want to surprise our customers so we take it year by year.”

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