On the eve of debuting his collection with H&M in a runway show in New York, complete with what is sure to be a social media model-heavy roster, we have to ask: What exactly is H&M trying to sell us – aside from cheaply-made Balmain-esque sequined mini-dresses? The current status of the designer x mass-market retailer situation is up in the air a bit. It seems the days of Missoni for Target-induced hysteria are gone (Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of Balmain, and Alexander Wang, who teamed up with H&M before him, have managed to cause a bit of excitement on social media surrounding their respective collections, but a trending hash tag does not ensure sell out status of the collection).
Of the designer collections, with the exception of Missoni (which sold out, caused Target's site to crash and then resulted in a shortage of inventory and massive shipping mess) and maybe Isabel Marant for H&M (key pieces from that collaboration sold out within minutes), most do not sell out. In fact, not only do the collections not sell out, they often end up heavily discounted after the fact. Yet, these partnerships of sorts have not ceased, suggesting that actual sales are not necessarily the only focal point.
The takeaways for both parties are pretty clear: Designers (many of which are in the emerging stage - although there are some obvious exceptions) benefit from massive amounts of publicity (think: Vogue ads, television commercials, big celebrity-filled parties, and signs plastered on the walls at Target and on the sides of buses). This far exceeds the advertising budget of your ordinary young brand (or even many high fashion brands), and so, a collab with a mass-market retailer is a way to get their brand name on the radar of a lot of people, more or less, for free. (We won't take the potential brand dilution into account, although that aspect suggests that such marketing isn't without its own potentially hazardous implications for a brand positioning itself as a luxury one). Moreover, big brands like H&M tend to pay large sums – up to $1 million, if the rumors are true – to a creative director to front a collaboration like this.
The mass-market brand has the benefit of gaining a massive number of media impressions and also baiting the consumer into their stores and onto their websites, and selling them an array of things other than the hyped clothing and accessories – which are often prices quite a ways above the spending limits for most of the brands’ usual shoppers. Target, specifically, has used the approach in furtherance of its goal to raise the average unit retail prices in its apparel business. Some of these consumers are certainly new to the fast fashion giant – whether it be H&M or Topshop, etc. – yet another win for the retailer.
So, what about the consumers? What can we glean from them in regards to why the vast majority of these collections don't sell? And does it even matter? Well, it's not actually as simple as pooling all consumers into one group and making a sweeping conclusion about their preferences and shopping habits. Or maybe it is. But it is probably best viewed a bit more specifically, putting the high fashion consumer into one camp and the average consumer into another. This is still a very simplistic view of the situation, but it is a bit more accurate than considering them all together.
High fashion shoppers have not been above a quick buy for a tiny fraction of the cost of a garment from the designer's main line. It was hardy a shock to see that Prabal Gurung for Target fluorescent floral print sweatshirt on popular personal style sites and on individuals walking to work in Soho, New York. (Yes, I'm assuming these people purchased their PG for Target looks and were not gifted them. One obvious exception being Zoe Saldana, for instance, a close friend of the designer, who was likely gifted hers from Prabal himself).
These one-off collaborations may provide some temptation for the otherwise fast fashion adverse. Leandra Medine, the high profile blogger behind The Man Repeller, commented on the Peter Pilotto for Target collection on her site, writing: "The silhouettes, for one thing, weren’t compromised. The peplums still pop, the pencil skirts are still tight, the uneven hems maintain their contrast and the draping remains artful. The prints look pretty great too … Frankly, I’m thrilled." The Pilotto collaboration (pictured below), which was also stocked on luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter, giving UK shoppers a chance to shop it, was the site's fastest selling collaboration.
So, it is not a stretch to say that a designer's regular customers may be shopping a bit. The stigma of mainstream collections, which basically destroyed Halston when he signed on to do a collection with JC Penney in the 1980's, is long gone. Designers even anticipate having their high-end fans add a piece or two to their online shopping carts. Jason Wu spoke to this notion in 2012 when he launched a collection with Target, telling Style.com: “It was about creating an entirely new collection that I think my regular customers will enjoy, too." The Guardian also addressed this, writing: These collections are "taken home by fashion editors, style insiders and those who are able and willing to pay over the odds for a cheaper item, finding its value in its exclusivity."
But what about those who aren't regular Margiela or Proenza Schouler or Balmain shoppers? These are the individuals that the collections and the “democratization of fashion” is meant for, no? This is who Karl Lagerfeld and his mass market counterpart, H&M, had in mind ten years ago when they debuted their collection, one of the first major collabs of this type, right?
Judging by the number of returned garments (which was so high for the Versace x H&M collection that the retailer prohibited returns for its subsequent Margiela collection) and those subsequently marked down, the general public does not really want these “designer” names for a steal. Furthermore, according to the Guardian, "It seems that the heavily hyped, lower-priced versions of high-end goods don't end up in the hands of the people who have to budget carefully when it comes to non-essential purchases." When it comes right down to it, these items, regardless of whether they result from the creative genius of Donatella Versace or Christophe Decarnin – Rousteing’s Balmain predecessor – (which they very likely don't), they are still fast fashion-quality garments, but at a bit of a higher price point (up to $650 for some Balmain x H&M garments), which may not be a feasible option for the truly average consumer.
So, it seems the purpose or the stated purpose of these collections, the democratization of fashion (whatever that even means at this point), is not all its made out to be - in more ways than one. We end up with a Balmain themed collection (these pieces are a far cry from any designer's main line and thus, aren't really a democratization of any "fashion" at all, a notion shared by Eugene Rabkin – the writer and founder of stylezeitgeist.com) for a mass market retailer that will be arguably dilute his brand name, and be bought or not bought by middle of the road consumers who will wear the garment a handful of times and then discard it. Thus, it seems that an analysis in terms of sales is not even an appropriate one to gauge such collections because that really is an afterthought.