NEW YORK, United States — Moncler’s Genius collaboration project has pushed the design boundaries of the brand’s signature puffer material, producing everything from floor-length turgid caftans designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli to futuristic Michelin-man style suits from the mind of Craig Green. But for all the hype, the Italian outerwear brand still mostly sells just one product, the Maya hooded jacket.
But the formula hasn't been easy for other brands to copy, with similar approaches at Tod’s and Calvin Klein failing to cut through the online noise in the same way. Though brands less tied to the fashion system, like Birkenstock, have made frequent collaborations work to their advantage.
The Genius project is successful because it casts the brand’s core styles in a more favourable light, and brings the brand to the attention of a new generation of consumers who need limited-edition drops to get them to stop scrolling and shop in stores.
The collaborations strategy is not new at its core, taking the classic fashion marketing partnerships model and turning up the speed and volume. But even if another brand has the formidable cash, production and delivery capabilities to make such a strategy come to life, it needs a solid bread-and-butter product at the core of the business — that consumers will actually want — to drive real results. And that product needs to be designed for a modern consumer, one who needs more storytelling to understand why to buy something and how to wear it. For Moncler, that’s the Maya jacket. For another brand, it could be a blockbuster accessory or branded basic apparel.
Collaboration series are not a slam dunk approach. Tod’s announced a series of designer projects, called Tod’s Factory, last November to replace its season collections. The Italian footwear and accessories brand enlisted designers Alessandro dell Acqua and Alber Elbaz. But according to data from Tribe Dynamics, the digital content related to the Factory collaboration failed to generate meaningful earned media value, with hashtags for Milan Fashion Week and the influencer outfit tracker LikeToKnowIt generating more engagement. And in the first nine months of this year, brand sales fell 8.5 percent year-over-year on a reported basis, reaching €344.3 million ($381 million). Its signature loafers may be timeless accessories, but they are not positioned in a way that feels modern or urgent.
Meanwhile, Calvin Klein’s own collaboration strategy, called inCKubator, will likely never see the light of day under that name. Conceived by former chief marketing officer Marie Gulin-Merle, who exited in October, under former chief executive Steve Shiffman, who also exited in June, the project is being rethought under the new senior leadership at the brand, which still plans to execute a project-based collaborations strategy.
The strategy cannot solve deeper problems and, more likely, will exacerbate them.
The inCKubator was originally meant to fill the hole for more aspirational and limited edition fashion after the exit of former artistic director Raf Simons at the end of 2018. But the company, which outsources the production of its denim line to licensee G-III, may have larger product issues to address before launching a radically different type of marketing plan from what has been working, such as the underwear campaigns starring Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin. Stefan Larsson took over as president of parent company PVH Corp in June; in the second quarter of 2019, Calvin Klein’s revenue decreased 4 percent on a constant currency basis to $873 million, during which the North American business decreased by 12 percent.
An example of a company well-suited to bearing the fruits of a collaboration series strategy is Birkenstock. The cult-favourite German brand is known for its classic footwear styles, the Arizona and Boston. After years of navigating an uneasy relationship with the runway and fashion trends, Birkenstock set up a creative studio in Paris in July called 1774 to highlight collaborations with designers like Rick Owens, whose second capsule for the brand debuted last spring. That collection reached 300 global wholesale accounts and generated a global media value of over €40 million (about $44 million), according to a representative for the brand.
Over the last year, the brand has also partnered with a larger range of fashion and luxury partners, including Valentino, 032c (the independent magazine turned fashion brand) and Proenza Schouler, releasing the results in a more systematic way than in the past. A MatchesFashion-backed collaboration released this summer with Il Pellicano hotels sold out and generated €12 million (about $13 million) in media value.
The strategy has helped Birkenstock keep up with the projected growth of selling 28 to 30 million shoes this year, up from 25 million last year, following a period of 3x growth between 2012 and 2016, at the end of which the company generated about $800 million in annual sales.
Much like Rimowa — which has become a new luxury status symbol over the last handful of years through collaborations with Virgil Abloh, Supreme, artist Alex Israel and Dior men’s designer Kim Jones — Birkenstock doesn’t have a core offering problem. For both brands, and Moncler as well, collaborations are a layer on top of a foundationally strong product business. Such a strategy cannot solve deeper problems and, more likely, will exacerbate them.
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