On the heels of the debut of the Kenzo x H&M collection last week, complete with an over-the-top runway extravangaza in New York and a social media frenzy of sorts - albeit one that was far less pronounced than the fury that surrounded the Balmain x H&M collaboration that preceded it, it makes sense to ask: What exactly is H&M trying to sell us – aside from cheaply-made Kenzo-esque printed dresses?
While the designer and mass-market retailer collaboration is rooted in stores that predate Target and H&M, these two market giants hold the title of kings of the fast fashion designer collaboration. They are the biggest names to mass produce designer lines after big-time designers started tapping into different markets than their usual high end luxury buyers.
Years ago design houses began offering diffusion lines, more modestly priced collections than their signature lines. Yves St. Laurent launched Rive Gauche in 1966, Prada established Miu Miu in 1993 (since spinning it off into more of a separate sister brand), Dolce & Gabbana founded D&G in 1994 (which folded in April 2011), and Marc Jacobs launched Marc by Marc Jacobs in 2001 (and subsequently shuttered the collection). However, these “bridge” lines did not completely fill the void that consumers were demanding: Mass distribution of high fashion. Alas, the designer-mass retailer collaboration was born.
In November 2004, H&M offered an exclusive collection with Chanel and Fendi creative director, Karl Lagerfeld. The line consisted of thirty pieces, which sold out within an hour at H&M’s New York, Los Angeles, and other large city stores. The Swedish fast fashion gains followed up with collections from Lanvin's Alber Elbaz, Marni, Stella McCartney, Comme des Garçons, and Versace, among others.
Target followed H&M’s lead, aiming to gain market share of teen spending with its own designer collaborations. The superstore introduced Go International, a collaboration line with emerging designers in December 2005, with Fiorucci for Target, followed by collections with Behnaz Sarafpour in November 2006, Proenza Schouler in February 2007, Richard Chai in August 2008, and Thakoon Panichgul December 2008, amongst others. There was, of course, its smash-hit collection with Italian design house, Missoni, and most recently, the brand announced that Victoria Beckham will be delivering a collab, slated to drop in spring 2017.
Other retailers have proffered the designer collaboration, but H&M and Target are the industry leaders, most likely due to their sheer size in the marketplace but also due to the top-name designers that they consistently offer at low(ish) prices.
THE DESIGNER/MASS-MARKET COLLAB: TEN YEARS LATER
Following a 10-or-so-year run of nearly constant collaborations from many a fast fashion retailer, the 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. Sure, 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 hashtag does not ensure sell out status of a collection.
Of the designer collections, with the exception of Missoni (which sold out, caused Target's site to crash and then resulted in a widespread shortage of inventory and a 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 very 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) that these massive companies can provide. 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 will not take the potential risk of brand dilution into account, although that aspect suggests that such marketing is not 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 of this nature.
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 priced quite significantly above the spending limits for most of the fast fashion 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.
WHAT ABOUT CONSUMERS?
So, what about the consumers? What can we glean from them in regards to why the vast majority of these collections do not sell and when they do, it is largely thanks to re-sellers that have identified the lucrative eBay market for such garments and accessories? 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 pointed 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, 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 are not 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 over 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. Note: for the H&M x Kenzo collab, the return policy gave shoppers are 3-day window. According to a statement from H&M:
“H&M reserves the right to amend our returns policy to three days, not including faulty items that can still be exchanged/refunded within 28 days. This does not affect our customers’ statutory rights and we ensure these guidelines are clearly communicated on sales receipts and throughout our stores."
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, are not 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.