Not too long ago, Alexa Chung, an English television presenter, model and contributing editor at British Vogue, released a 20-piece collection with American denim label Adriano Goldschmied. This is yet another facet of an interesting trend in fashion: the celebrity clothing line, collections "designed" by industry insiders/famous faces, who are not, in fact, fashion designers.
Kanye West for Adidas, Kate Bosworth for Topshop, Kate Hudson for Ann Taylor, and Rihanna for River Island and more recently, Puma, come to mind. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who actually lack formal design training or Victoria Beckham, who recently admitted to working with a design team - all of whom have managed to gain industry acceptance for their offerings, are less offensive examples. The extent of how much actual designing takes place in these celebrity collections is questionable, but that issue is eclipsed by a more interesting one: what is driving the ongoing desire to shop celebrities’ clothing lines?
Let us forget the somewhat confusing language put forth by many retailers that suggests that the celebs are actually "designing" clothing. Those in the fashion and/or legal fields know that the vast majority of these collections are little more than glorified licensing deals in which a celebrity or model or "it" girl or rapper or sports figure authorizes the retailer to use his or her name and likeness in connection with its collection in exchange for a licensing fee. There are obviously variations of this very common deal and with those variations come increased levels of participation by said celebrity, such as participation by way of curation.
Our interest, instead, stems from the domination of mainstream fashion by the obsession with celebrity and our collective desire shop a collection “designed” by untrained, relatively inexperienced, non-fashion designers, such as Kanye, instead of someone who is, say, a "real" designer.
Considering the sheer number of weird, borderline nonsensical collaborations that we have seen in the past (the first one that comes to mind is Alexander Wang x Beats by Dre), the Alexa Chung x Adriano Goldschmied, for instance, hardly comes as a shock. She has, after all, said she wants to "become a full-time designer." But more realistically, the main reason she teamed up with AG is certainly that she is a tastemaker with an enormous following (think: 1.44 million Twitter followers and 1.4 million Instagram followers), many of whom want to dress just like her. This is a draw for consumers, and thus, an asset for AG. The same can be said for Kanye West x adidas. West has selling power. Case in point: the success of those those A.P.C. collections and the Nike Air Yeezys.
The result is the chance for a retailer to make A LOT of money by tapping into the power of celebrity. As a result, the pairing of big name celebrities (aka non-designers) with in-house designers to produce a collection is a common thing. Barneys started relying rather heavily on this tactic when it rolled out a collection with Jay Z (and Lady Gaga before that). The New York-based retailer enlisted the help of Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, The Elder Stateman, Balmain, and a bunch of other brands to work on a collection with the rapper, which our menswear writer subsequently dubbed "a 30-piece battle royale of shitty taste." (In Barneys' defense, the collection didn't actually have to be great to achieve its goal. Consumers were arguably buying Jay Z, not a well-executed garment or accessory.) The New York-based retailer has since enlisted NBA star Russell Westbrook for a menswear collaboration.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Westbrook partnership made a fair amount of sense as a way for Barneys to reach a new audience, as fashionable sports fans need clothes, too. That is a driving force behind many collaborations: reaching potential new consumers. You may recall that Band of Outsiders' Scott Sternberg teamed up with Starbucks for a collaboration last year. Sternberg says that the collab offered him a “huge platform to expose the brand,” and one “that’s much different from a high-end department store or a high-end boutique that sells our clothes, and this is an attainable product that is giving people an opportunity to sort of experience Band of Outsiders every day.”
Additionally, given the rise of social media, collaborations like these technically make a lot of sense. With celebrities (actors, sports figures, models, etc.) increasingly interacting with fans and sharing their lives online (via Twitter, Instagram, personal websites, etc.), the general public has an elevated sense of familiarity with them. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that consumers would be drawn to a brand or a collection with which they feel more connected than say, a distant and stuffy Paris-based design house. (This sentiment, however, does little to explain the Jay Z x Barneys collection, as the average individual certainly was not shopping the $1,000 t-shirts associated with the collection).
Back to Westbrook. The NBA star is actually a pretty good representation of the current state of celebrity collaboration. He told Women's Wear Daily: “I’m kind of like a designer. My personal style changes every season.” He continues: "I shop all the time. I’m in Oklahoma City most of the time and when I go on the road I shop. It also get online and find Web sites I like and brands people may not know.”
From this we can glean that Westbrook (and likely most of the other big names that "design" collections) likes fashion. I respect that because I, too, like fashion. Having said that, I am pretty sure you either are a legitimate designer or you're not. I am also fairly sure that shopping and having personal style does not make you one. I was personally under the impression that attending design school, interning at design houses, studying, and working to create collections every season, or some variation of these elements, makes you a designer. Sitting front row at a bunch of fashion shows, wearing designer garments, hanging out with designers, looking at fashion-related websites, and/or simply have a deep liking and/or appreciation of fashion does not make you a designer.
But again, that is not what retailers are looking for. A design degree has very obviously taken a backseat to real world influence, at least when it comes to the mass market. In addition to banking on celebrity appeal in terms of marking, retailers stand to gain something else from enlisting these big name celebs to front their collabs, and that is directly tied to the old bait and switch argument. If retailers can lure shoppers into their stores or onto their websites for these "special" collaborations, they have a better chance of selling them something from that collection or even more likely, selling them something else, which is a key element in many designer x mass market retailer collaborations. This is something that Target, with its array of designer collaborations, has benefitted from. As such, the takeaways for both celebrities and retailers is relatively clear. But what does the consumer stand to gain? That is the real question.
What is driving anyone's desire to shop celebrities’ clothing lines? As I suggested above, it likely may be that we identify more with these constant media figures; we feel like we know them more than most designers, who are more or less shielded by a big, bad design house brand or luxury conglomerate. We want to live like them, dress like them, and while the vast majority of people simply cannot do that, buying into a design collaboration may be the closest thing.
According to our friends over at i-D, it may be our desire to emulate such stars, paired with the general public's lack of interest in innovative fashion, that is driving such buying behavior. In an article published on the heels of Kanye West's New York Fashion Week presentation for Adidas, i-D's Greg French wrote:
It's not Prada or nada for the mass consumer of fashion. Instead, they choose to buy into something that they can't be, and those celebrity-endorsed products give them the power to do just that. Who cares about a new hemline or silhouette if you can look like Kanye West? Realistically, many will of course favour the latter.
And he is right. The overwhelming desire to buy into celebrity clothing lines, many of which are mass market collabs, may very well be a result of our society's preference for wearing many different inexpensive garments as opposed to a few well-made, thoughtfully designed garments. While some of these marketing/shopping decisions were undeniably made for us by retailers, the resulting demand and sales are undeniably made by us.
* This article is derived from one that was initially published in June 2014.