Remember when Alexa Chung (the English television presenter, model and contributing editor at British Vogue) fronted a 20-piece collection with American denim label Adriano Goldschmied? That was yet another example of an ever-ongoing trend in fashion: the celebrity clothing line, collections "designed" by industry insiders and/or famous faces, who are not, in fact, fashion designers at all. More recently, this has taken the form of Fenty x Puma, a collection “by” Rihanna, who just announced she is teaming up with famed footwear designer, Manolo Blahnik for a collaboration, and Beyonce’s collection with Topshop, entitled, Ivy Park.
There are countless other examples. Think: Kanye West for Adidas (although, he seems to have had a hand in designing the sneakers), Kate Bosworth for Topshop, Kate Hudson for Ann Taylor, Nicki Minaj for K-Mart, Beyonce for H&M, any number of Kardashian/Jenner-endorsed collections, etc. Don't think: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen or Victoria Beckham – as they have managed to gain industry acceptance for their offerings and their creative direction.
The extent of how much actual designing takes place in the majority of celebrity collections is extremely limited at best, but that issue is eclipsed by a more interesting question: What is driving consumers’ ongoing desire to shop celebrities clothing lines?
Before we answer that, let us note that despite somewhat confusing language put forth by many retailers that the celebs are actually "designing" clothing, 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 whatever non-design job they hold) authorizes the retailer to use his or her name and likeness in connection with the collection in exchange for a licensing fee. They also agree as part of the deal to endorse the collections, and oftentimes, this includes posing for photos in which they hold fabrics swatches or stand next to a sample rack to suggest that they have some involvement in the creation of collection. (Note: 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, but that is often the most involved one of these non-designer celebrities will get).
The Change in Landscape, The Shift in Influence
Realistically, the main reason Rihanna’s partnership with the Paris-based footwear brand and Beyonce’s Topshop collection, for instance, make any sense is because these two women are tastemakers with enormous followings (think: Rihanna has 57 million Twitter followers and 40 million Instagram followers. Beyonce boasts has 14.2 million Twitter followers and 65.8 million Instagram followers). And a huge number of these followers – most of whom are DIE HARD FANS – want to dress just like these megastars.
As a result, collaborations endorsed by the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce are a big draw for consumers, and thus, an asset for brands, like Manolo, which while very much an established brand, is one that could use a boost of youthfulness. Topshop, a British fast fashion giant, has simply made a habit – like other fast fashion giants – in teaming up with celebrities for collections of this type.
We consistently witness the selling power of celebrities in fashion. Consider Kanye West x adidas. West has undeniable selling power (case in point: the success of those those A.P.C. collections and Yeezys) and adidas has used that to boost its own standing in the market. While adidas, Puma, and A.P.C. are much further along developmentally (and thus, financially) than many brands in the marketplace, they are still subject to budgetary constraints. Attempting to reach the same audience – in terms of size – sans Rihanna or Kanye would require enormous expenditures. One campaign featuring Kanye or one tweet from Rihanna has a truly enormous impact and while such things do not come cheap, they ultimately get brands some serious bang for their buck. Quite frankly, they guarantee some serious profit reaping. As a result, the pairing of big name celebrities (aka non-designers) with in-house designers to produce a collection is a common thing – for brands that can afford it.
Barneys, for instance, 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 any good to achieve its goal. Consumers were arguably buying the Jay Z name, not a well-executed garment or accessory.) The New York-based retailer has since enlisted NBA star Russell Westbrook for an ongoing menswear collaboration.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Westbrook partnership, which is still underway since its debut in the fall of 2014, makes 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 several years ago. 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 make a lot of sense. With celebrities (actors, pop stars, sports figures, models, etc.) increasingly interacting with fans and sharing their lives online (via Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, personal websites, etc.) and having their lives captured by paparazzi, 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 one that is simply put forth by a distant and stuffy Paris-based design house.
What Does the Consumer Stand to Gain?
Design capabilities are not what retailers are looking for in such collaborations. A design degree has very obviously taken a backseat to real world influence, at least when it comes to the advertising and promotion of a collection. In addition to banking on celebrity appeal in terms of marketing, retailers stand to gain something else from enlisting these big name celebs to front their collections, 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 from which Target, with its array of designer collaborations, has benefitted. As such, the takeaways for both celebrities and retailers are 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? What is with the obsessive desire shop a collection “designed” by untrained, relatively inexperienced, non-fashion designers, such as Kanye, instead of someone who is, say, a "real" designer?
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 big, bad design houses or luxury conglomerates (which many millennials and Gen-Zers tend to dislike). 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.
It may be our desire to emulate such stars, paired with the general public's lack of interest in fashion aside from its status-providing properties, that is driving such buying behavior. In an article published on the heels of Kanye West's first 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 French 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. It is the result of our longstanding desire to use fashion as a status symbol (nothing new here). 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.