Just over two years after announcing the impending launch of Yeezy Gap, a 10-year deal between the American mall brand and musician-slash-fashion figure, the Gap x Kanye West collaboration is starting to take shape. The heavily-hyped pairing has gotten off to something of a slow start, as “in its first 18 months,” Yeezy Gap “yielded just two products” – a puffy coat and a hoodie – “both sold only online,” the New York Times reported this week. Fast forward to May 2022, and French fashion brand Balenciaga entered into the equation and “a full Yeezy Gap collection was finally released,” a portion of which hit stores across the U.S. – and the web via the Yeezy Gap and Balenciaga sites, as well as via third party retail platforms like Farfetch and MyTheresa – this past weekend, “with more promised later in the year.”  

Since the first announcement of Yeezy Gap back in June 2020, the venture has undergone “product development, testing and learning” from an apparel and textile perspective; seen changes in high-level management for the project (Gap installed former Vampire’s Wife CEO Leonardo Lawson to a strategy role in 2021; he was promoted to head of Yeezy Gap in March), as well as design (original design director Mowalola Ogunlesi left after the end of her one-year contract, and the endeavor now boasts a 20-person “innovation studio”); and welcomed the involvement of Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia, who says that he stepped in to help “give [Kanye] the starting point” for the project. (Gvasalia told the Times that the Balenciaga element of the partnership “is now over.”)

All the while, behind the scenes of the protracted timeline of the Yeezy Gap’s largest launch to date, the collaborative endeavor has also been building out its branding – and not without a setback or two along the way. 

Yeezy Gap brand

The mashup of Gap’s signature navy blue hue with Yeezy’s “YZY” mark was first teased in 2020 when the Yeezy Gap was announced, and formalized a year later when West’s Mascotte Holdings, Inc. and GAP (Apparel) LLC filed three joint applications for registration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for the blue-hued logo for use on clothing; “handbags, backpacks, all purposes carrying bags, [and] luggage,” among other similar goods; and “retail and online store services in the field of clothing, footwear, headwear, accessories, bags.” Two months later, they filed an application for the same mark – for use in connection with “retail and online store services” – with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (“EUIPO”). 

The parties’ logo – which can be found on the individual garments in the latest launch (and the puffer and hoodie that dropped last year) and on the Yeezy Gap website – was registered by the EUIPO on July 13. However, potential registrations for the mark with the USPTO have been a bit less straightforward, and in fact, the applications were suspended by the U.S. trademark body in June due to a conflict with another party’s previously-filed application for registration for a stylized Y.Z.Y. logo for use on “fragrances and hair care preparations.”

As TFL previously reported, Mascotte and Gap’s jointly filed the U.S. applications for registration for “the letters YZY in white inside of a blue square with rounded edges” were met with pushback for the USPTO, which pointed to the application that Miami-based perfume and beauty supply wholesaler Y.Z.Y., Inc. filed in June 2018. “If the mark in [Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s] application registers, the USPTO may refuse registration of [Mascotte and Gap’s] mark … because of a likelihood of confusion with the registered mark,” USPTO examining attorney Rebecca Caysido stated in Office actions in December 2021 in response to Mascotte and Gap’s applications. 

Yeezy Gap Brand
Mascotte’s “YZY” mark (left) & Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s stylized mark (right)

Caysido reiterated this point in a second round of letters to Mascotte and Gap on June 30, in which she suspended the applications until Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s mark is either registered or the company abandons its application. 

Caysido also pointed to the potential for a likelihood of confusion among consumers between the Yeezy Gap logo and an existing registration for a YZY word mark held by Mascotte. This refusal could be overcome, she stated in the letter, by way of “a written statement explaining the nature of the legal relationship between” Mascotte and Gap, along with “a detailed written explanation and documentary evidence showing the parties’ ‘unity of control’ over the nature and quality of the goods and/or services in connection with which the trademarks … are used” given that “neither party owns all or substantially all of the other party.” (This answers a question I posed last year about whether companies like Yeezy and Gap, which do not share a parent company, will face additional issues when it comes to their co-branded assets given that they are two different entities, and thus, two separate sources even if the collaborative wears arguably come from a new, single source.)

The story over Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s application – and in turn, Mascotte and Gap’s own YZY filings – does not end there, though, as there is a separate battle underway between Y.Z.Y., Inc. and Mascotte. As it turns out, on the heels of Y.Z.Y., Inc. landing in the receiving end of Office actions of its own, in which the USPTO asserted that its stylized Y.Z.Y. mark is confusingly similar to a “YZY” word mark that was registered to Mascotte in 2017 for use on footwear (no. 5227726). Faced with such pushback, Y.Z.Y., Inc. initiated a cancellation proceeding before the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in August 2019 in an attempt to have Mascotte’s YZY registration invalidation on the basis that its use of Y.Z.Y. dates back to “at least as early as August 2011,” and thus, predates Kanye’s use of the mark. 

That back-and-forth before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has been on hold since 2020 in light of “pending settlement negotiations” between the parties. 

With the foregoing in mind, the outcome of Gap and Mascotte’s trademark applications23 may now hinge, to some extent at least, on the registrability of Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s mark. Any outcome on this front is, of course, distinct from the rights that Mascotte and Gap have already amassed in the YZY logo and “Yeezy Gap” word mark in the U.S. simply by using – and widely advertising – those marks (and the Yeezy Gap brand more broadly) in connection with garments and retail services. And with Gap’s ambitions of turning the Yeezy Gap brand into a $1 billion-plus venture (and a much-needed one, as the company is in the midst of financial woes), it seems unlikely that it will allow a relatively minor trademark scuffle to stand in the way.

The mashup of Gap’s signature navy blue hue with Yeezy LLC’s “YZY” mark that was rolled out in April ahead of the debut of the two brands’ heavily-hyped Yeezy Gap collection is facing pushback from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). On the heels of Kanye West and Gap each filing trademark applications for registration for the mark, which consists of “the letters YZY in white inside of a blue square with rounded edges,” the USPTO has issued preliminary refusals, pointing to a previously issued registration for YZY for use on similar goods/services, as well as a pending trademark application for registration for an unaffiliated YZY mark that could stand in the way of Yeezy Gap registrations. 

In separate but nearly identical Office actions this month, USPTO examining attorney Rebecca Caysido took issue with the Yeezy Gap logo marks, which Gap and Kanye West’s intellectual property holding company Mascotte Holdings filed on an intent-to-use basis for clothing, bags, and “retail and online store services in the field of clothing, footwear, headwear, accessories, [and] bags” in April. According to Caysido, the stylized YZY marks are too similar to an already-existing registration for YZY for use on footwear (no. 5227726) to move ahead in the registration process, as the Trademark Act bars registration of an applied-for mark that is “so similar to a registered mark that it is likely consumers would be confused, mistaken, or deceived as to the commercial source of the goods of the parties.” 

Potential good news here for Kanye and Gap is that the conflict between their new stylized YZY marks and the “confusingly similar” YZY mark that is standing in the way of new registrations may be short lived, as the existing registration that Caysido mentions was issued to Mascotte. Counsel for Yeezy may be able to argue that consumers will not be confused about the source of the goods bearing West’s YZY mark and those with a Yeezy Gap mark, as Yeezy Gap goods are, in fact, associated with/tied to Kanye’s Yeezy brand.

It is not immediately clear how Yeezy and/or Gap would fare in making such an argument. After all, the goods bearing the stylized Yeezy Gap mark are affiliated with Yeezy, which one half of the collaborative union. However, the goods are also affiliated with Gap, potentially giving rise to an issue when it comes to the notion of a “single” source.

The second ground for preliminary refusal from the USPTO centers on a scuffle that has been underway between West’s Yeezy (via Mascotte Holdings) and an unrelated company that filed a trademark application for registration for a stylized version of its name – Y.Z.Y. – for use on “fragrances and hair care preparations.” In response to the application that Miami-based fragrance company Y.Z.Y., Inc. filed in June 2018, the USPTO pushed back, asserting that its trademark is too similar to an existing YZY mark that Mascotte had registered a year prior for use on footwear (no. 5227726), and would likely confuse consumers as a result. 

Following a couple of unsuccessful attempts to convince the USPTO that consumers are not likely to confused, including by arguing that West’s brand does not sell fragrance products, Y.Z.Y., Inc. initiated a new fight before the USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, where it is seeking to cancel West’s “YZY” registration. Those cancellation proceedings were put – and remain on – hold in August 2021, and will resume once the USPTO determines whether to register Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s trademark. 

The outcome of Gap and Mascotte’s trademark applications now hinges to some extent on the registrability of Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s trademark, with Caysido stating in the respective Office actions that because Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s application for registration predates the applications for the stylized Yeezy Gap mark, if Y.Z.Y., Inc.’s mark is registered, Gap and Mascotte’s mark “may be refused registration … because of a likelihood of confusion between the two marks.” As a result, after the USPTO receives Gap and Mascotte’s responses to the recently-issued Office action, Caysido assert that the USPTO may opt to put the registration process on hold “pending final disposition of the [Y.Z.Y., Inc.] application.” 

Yeezy Gap & the Rise of Co-Branding

Looking beyond the procedural elements at play, the Yeezy Gap mark, itself, and the larger rise of co-branded collaborations is worthy of attention. While fashion collaborations are not new by any means, what is proving to be somewhat novel is the willingness of brands to mashup their logos to develop new assets and create buzz that breaks through the noise of the market.

The commingling of trademarks (and in certain instances, copyrights, too) goes beyond Yeezy Gap, and has been seen in tie-ups between Coach and Champion, Sacai and APC, Kering-owned brands Gucci and Balenciaga, rivals-turned-collaborators Versace and Fendi, and longtime partners Tiffany & Co. and Patek Philippe, the latter of which debuted a limited edition watch this week with Tiffany’s name and famous blue inserted onto the source-identifying face of Patek’s Nautilus watch. (Such efforts for go back further, with Tiffany and Patek working together in a collaborative capacity for some 170 years, and Supreme and Louis Vuitton teaming up for a headline-making collab several years ago, and tweaking Vuitton’s Toile Monogram to include Supreme’s logo.)

This enduring trend is intriguing from a branding perspective, as high fashion and luxury brands have traditionally been hesitant to play with their trademarks too much (or at all). Rebrands – and presumably, co-brands – can be risky (although, as Rowan Forster argues here, trademarks are much more flexible than we tend to give them credit for) when companies have spent significant time and resources to establish strong branding and corresponding goodwill that resonates with consumers, and thus, is synonymous with their products, ethos, and business operations as a whole. Nonetheless, it seems that brands are proving increasingly willing to take a more fluid approach to their branding when it comes to collaborations, as they aim to inject a sense of novelty largely by way of the branding at play.

As TFL has previously noted, this willingness is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that branded collaborations have become relatively run of the mill and almost expected at this point, and thus, it takes more to excite branding-happy consumers. These more fluid uses of trademarks as part of heavily-hyped collaborative efforts between similarly-situated brands is still relatively unexpected, and allow companies to position themselves to benefit from a more viral effect than the traditional uses of their marks may achieve.

The trademark applications that brands are filing in connection with these jointly created marks, and the potential for co-ownership status are proving to be interested side effects.

On the heels of Gap and Mascotte respectively filing to register the blue-and-white YZY mark, and thereby, indicating joint ownership of the asset (but arguably also somewhat distinct ownership given the separate filings), Balenciaga and Gucci filed trademark applications for registration for one of their collaborative marks, with the companies separately being named in trademark applications for the “Hacker” collection pattern that was created by swapping in “BB” for Gucci’s well-known “GG” monogram. Meanwhile, German trademark firm Minerva Gmbh filed two trademark applications for registration for the “Fendace” word mark for use on apparel, leather goods, and eyewear, presumably on behalf of Fendi and Versace individually or a specific venture between them.

The joint filing/ownership approach of these new assets by the likes of Gap and Yeezy, as well as Gucci and Balenciaga is intriguing, especially because joint ownership has been argued to “compromise the trademark’s fundamental source-identifying nature.” I wonder if companies like Yeezy and Gap, for instance – as distinct from Gucci and Balenciaga, which share a parent company (and thus, would potentially be viewed favorably under the tenets of the Wella A.G. case) – will face additional issues down the road given that they are, in fact, two different entities, and thus, two separate sources even if the collaborative wears arguably come from a new, single source.

As we asserted earlier this year on the heels of the Gucci x Balenciaga co-branding venture, now appears to be an opportune time for companies to assess the breadth of the assets in their portfolio and try to monetize their brands in ways that go beyond their current uses. This is clearly taking the form of co-branded collabs. In this same vein, companies are bringing their branding into a new realm entirely by way of the metaverse and various gaming-centric scenarios, where many brands have not been present in the past.

Both avenues are readily bringing licensing deals – or maybe more likely for control-happy luxury goods names, joint ventures – that make use of the assets of companies’ core brands in connection with new products/services and/or new geographic markets, or otherwise unexpected partnerships between brands, into the fold. And as we have predicted, these efforts are expected to continue (at least until consumers begin to exhibit co-branding and/or gaming fatigue) as companies emerge from lengthy COVID lockdowns and sales slumps, and aim to remain relevant in light of shifting consumer expectations and priorities. 

On the heels of dropping the first offering from a larger collaboration that is set to span a decade, Wells Fargo is predicting that Yeezy Gap could generate almost $1 billion in sales for the mall retailer in 2022. In a note this week, Wells Fargo analyst Ike Boruchow put forth findings from a survey of 1,000 consumers, in furtherance of which Wells Fargo and data firm Guidepoint found that of the 530 current Gap shoppers surveyed, 64 percent said that they plan to purchase items from the heavily-hyped collaboration, with the average surveyed shopper saying that they are likely to shell out nearly $180 in the first year of the collection’s debut. 

Of the 470 non-Gap shoppers that were surveyed, all of whom were familiar with Kanye West, 23 percent said that they will likely buy from the collection and spend an average of $126 in the first year. “Within the group of people who do not currently shop at Gap but plan to buy Yeezy products,” Wells Fargo found that “75 percent said they expect they will purchase other Gap products while shopping,” per CNBC, which suggests that “the tie-up has the power to drive new customers to Gap.” This bodes well for the ailing retailer, particularly given that, in all reality, items from the Yeezy collection may not be entirely accessible, due, in large part to the sell-out-fast nature of such collaborations, and especially ones tied to the likes of Mr. West. 

The Yeezy Gap collection, itself – which currently consists exclusively of a $200 blue recycled nylon puffer jacket that dropped in June – “could drive up to $990 million in sales for Gap in fiscal 2022, and boost earnings by roughly 50 cents per share,” according to Boruchow, who “was the first analyst to turn bullish on Gap stock after the Covid-19 pandemic hit,” per Barron’s, “upgrading it in June 2020, just days before the Yeezy announcement.” That nearly-$1 billion sales figure is notably higher than one floated by UBS in March, which stated that Gap expects its Yeezy line of “modern, elevated basics” to exceed “$150 million in sales in its first full year in 2022.”

According to Bloomberg, “Gap envisions it becoming a billion-dollar revenue brand within eight years, with an upside case of sales exceeding $1 billion as soon as 2023.” 

The “Halo” Effect

Potentially even more interesting than the sales that Gap will generate directly from Yeezy Gap-branded offerings is the revenue it will bring in from other Gap wares as a result of boosted consumer interest and attention driven by the musician-slash-designer’s collaboration. After all, it is worth noting that the sales figures cited by both Wells Fargo and UBS do not account for additional, non-collaboration sales that Gap will make due to the “halo” effect of having Yeezy on board, something that adidas has experienced since the three-striped company announced in 2013 that West would enter into a long-running deal. 

Adidas x Yeezy and Yeezy Gap do not necessarily make for an easy apples-to-apples comparison for a number of reasons, including that adidas’ Yeezy-specific success has stemmed from footwear and Gap’s will center almost exclusively on apparel, and as Quartz noted last year, even Kanye’s Yeezy apparel brand has not seen the same level of smashing success that adidas’ Yeezy collab has. What is a relevant takeaway, regardless, is that adidas has benefitted from having West on its roster – both in terms of the sales of its largely-limited and often quick-selling Yeezy footwear, as well as its arsenal of non-Yeezy footwear and apparel offerings.

As adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted said in an interview back in 2018, “In the bigger context of us being a $25 billion company,” the Yeezy collection is “a small part.” However, Rorsted stated that even with that in mind, “There is no doubt the Yeezy brand has [had] a fundamental impact on our overall brand position,” and an impact in creating demand among sneaker-buyers, whether those sneakers were Yeezy ones or other adidas models. (West’s deal with adidas is slated to run through 2026.)

This effect has played out in other areas of the market, as well. Target, for instance, has fared well as a result of sales that have flowed from its recurring designer collaboration collections, which the big-box retailer rolled out in 2006 by way of its Go International venture and a debut tie-up with designer Luella Bartley. Consisting of limited-edition wares priced higher than Target’s traditional apparel offerings, the collaborative collections – which continue some 15 years later – are not known for driving significant volumes and revenue for the Minneapolis, Minnesota-headquartered chain. Instead, as the Washington Post aptly put it a few years ago, the “real win” is to get people into Target stores.

By way of the buzzy collabs, Target “has been successful in creating buzz,” the Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai asserted, stating that “once shoppers are in the retailer’s stores, or on its website, they are likely to make additional” – or potentially, alternative – “purchases.”

For this same logic to apply to Gap, it assumes, of course, that the retailer has other products that consumers will want to buy after they are lured in by Yeezy Gap, and this is likely to require some work. Adidas, for instance, did not merely bring Kanye on board without making broader changes. It “made great gains with its Boost line of sneaker technology (widely praised for their comfort), along with Flux and NMDs,” Yahoo Finance’s Daniel Roberts stated in connection with the German sportswear titan’s success. “It has also refreshed its most classic shoes, the Superstars and Stan Smiths, which fall under its Originals division.”

An influx of interest thanks, in part, to viral TikTok videos and the resurgence of nostalgic trends, including Gap’s iconic logo-ed sweatshirts and its 90s-era High Rise Cheeky Straight Jeans, and a reemergence from COVID lockdowns has prompted confidence on the part of the company’s executives. “We’re quite optimistic,” Chief Executive Sonia Syngal told the WSJ this spring.

Nonetheless, given its lackluster existence in recent years, Gap will almost certainly have to go back to the drawing board to get the most out of its tie-up with West. And it appears to be doing that. Ms. Syngal “has laid out a plan to revive the long-struggling company by closing hundreds of Gap and Banana Republic stores, cutting the number of items it sells, and pushing executives to take more creative risks with the flagship brand,” according to the WSJ. At the same time, Syngal stated that no small part of the company’s success going forward will depend on “regaining creative relevancy,” which is where Kanye comes in.

Gap is banking on the magic that West has been able to work in the retail space in order to benefit its brand. Beyond bringing intangible value to Gap, the Yeezy collection is expected to sell in sizable volumes (particularly compared to early adidas Yeezy releases) and at full price. As such, CNBC states that “analysts expect the Yeezy merchandise to have a margin rate of about 50 percent, which is high for apparel, given that most of it should be sold at full price.” 

And Gap needs these boosts. “The Gap brand will see a return of customers,” Neil Saunders, an analyst at GlobalData Retail, stated in March on the heels of the company’s Q1 earnings call. “But without some form of reinvention, it will revert to previous struggles which saw it lose shoppers, market share, and sales.” A tie-up with West is part of its strategy to remedy that.  

Coach revealed its first collaboration with stalwart sportswear brand Champion this month, and while the limited-edition collaboration features some standout leather bags and leather jogging pants, as well as shearling jackets and throwback Coach bucket hats, the key touchpoint based on the media response thus far is not necessarily the offerings, themselves, but the branding that appears on them: a mashup of Coach’s storypatch with Champion’s iconic “C” logo in some iterations, and a combination of the two companies’ respective “C” symbols in others. 

Speaking about the tie-up, which was revealed last week, Coach’s creative director Stuart Vevers revealed that one of the best parts was playing with the two companies’ “iconography,” including their respective logos. As it turns out, the collection not only marks the first time that the two American brands have teamed up, but it is also the first time that Champion has officially re-worked its logo. “We have never allowed this before,” Ned Munroe, chief global design officer at Hanesbrands, Champion’s parent, told WWD of the company’s modified logo. (The upturned but otherwise intact version of its “C” logo that appeared on sweatshirts in connection with Champion’s collaboration with Paris-based fashion brand Vetements for S/S 2016 seemingly does not count.) 

In some ways, such event-induced rebrandings (and/or practicality-inspired ones) have become pretty common occurrences within the fashion industry. It is not unheard of for a company to tweak its branding upon the changing of the guard, for instance. Maybe most famously, when Hedi Slimane joined Yves Saint Laurent in 2012, he rebranded, dropping the “Yves” from the ready-to-wear collection’s branding and doing away – to some extent – with the formerly stylized “Yves Saint Laurent” word mark (and Cassandre’s 1961 intertwining “YSL” logo) in favor of a streamlined sans serif “Saint Laurent.” Many brands have since followed suit, swapping out more intricate – and less multi-medium friendly – fonts for simpler ones, and thus, the phenomenon of “blanding” was born. 

Against that background, it is all-but-surprising to see the introduction of new branding assets – or better yet, modified branding assets (instances of going back to the drawing board altogether are relatively rare) – when a new team takes charge. A changed font here, a dropped accent there (Slimane again), a new monogram here (Riccardo Tisci and Peter Saville’s introduction of the “TB” monogram in 2018 comes to mind), a restyling there (i.e., Virgil Abloh’s very Virgil Abloh take on the “LV” logo), etc. are nearly par for the course, and serve to formalize the change at hand in an aesthetic way, while also boosting buzz – and ideally, bottom lines – at the same time since logo-emblazoned goods are high-volume-movers for luxury brands.

Interestingly, this has not necessarily proven true in connection with more than a decade of regular brand collaborations – whether it be fast fashion, high fashion tie-ups or partnerships between the likes of sportswear giants and fashion names, which have traditionally seen companies label such collab offerings as products of [Brand 1] x [Brand 2], with the individual brands maintaining their usual logo and/or stylized word mark. Yet, something of a change appears to be afoot. By way of a few recent collaborations, brands are seemingly becoming a bit more willing to play with their branding to indicate a tie-up than they have been in the past. The mash up of the Coach and Champion “C” logos, and the reworked Coach patch are, of course, examples of this, but there are others. 

Gap, for instance – which faced quite a bit of flak when it unsuccessfully attempted to rebrand back in 2010 – revealed its ultimately-axed Telfar collaboration via a new logo that combined the burgeoning New York-based fashion brand’s “T” trademark with Gap’s signature blue hue and Spire font. Doubling down, the mall brand subsequently teased its impending collaboration with Kanye West’s Yeezy with a unique logo – a mix of the “YZY” mark and again, Gap’s navy-blue color mark. That collection is slated the drop this year. 

For a unisex capsule collection that pairs Chitose Abe’s Sacai and Jean Touitou’s APC, the parties meshed their names together to create a stylized “SA.P.C.Ai” mark that is emblazoned on t-shirts, totes bags, and hoodies, etc.

Still yet, the recently-revealed Gap logos come a few years after Louis Vuitton partnered with buzzy streetwear brand Supreme. In furtherance of that limited run of goods, the Paris-based brand took the rare step of inserting Supreme’s red-and-white box logo into its more than 100-year-old Toile Monogram pattern, and splashing it across apparel, accessories, and … skate decks. 

These instances, among others, are striking because to a large extent, brands have been hesitant to mess with their logos too much (or at all really) in these specific types of scenarios. Rebrands can, after all, be risky business, particularly for companies that have established strong branding that resonates with consumers, and thus, has become synonymous with their products, ethos, and business operations as a whole.

In the luxury sphere, companies spend decades – even centuries, in some cases – carefully crafting themselves into brands that can demand thousands of dollars per handbag and even more, in many cases, for garments, and have consumers pay those prices because the brands, themselves, are so intrinsically synonymous with luxury and other reputation-specific elements that are communicated to consumers by way of their branding. As a result, a company’s branding amounts to an asset with value that is based largely on consistent use and consumer recognition, making it enticing for brands to stick to the status quo, especially when another brand and its proprietary branding is also in the mix.

Nonetheless, it seems that just as brands are proving increasingly willing to adjust and/or alter certain source-identifying elements to coincide with the beginning of a new creative director’s tenure, for example, such a fluid approach is slowly coming to collaborations, as brands aim to inject a sense of novelty by way of the branding at play. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that branded collaborations are relatively run of the mill and expected at this point. For a point of reference, it has been 17 years since Swedish fast fashion titan H&M garnered consumers’ attention when it introduced a headline-making collaboration with late Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld, and a lot has been done in the collaboration space since then.

In order to effectively cut through the noise of the market and drive demand at the outset and thereafter via resale among arguably collab-fatigued consumers, brands need to go a step further. By bolstering the limited edition wares that come from such collaborative tie-ups with distinctive new branding (waters that are still surprisingly unchartered), brands can establish an additional level of excitement, and bring some of the “added value” that consumers look for, thereby, not only driving engagement, but ideally, boosting sales.

(It is worth noting that distinctive branding is almost certainly to be a draw among the prized pool of young Chinese luxury consumers, who actively aim to “buy luxury goods that enable them to distinguish themselves from their peers,” according to Xiaoqing Chen, a Lecturer in Management at the University of Aberdeen, and Carol Zhang, an Assistant Professor in Tourism Marketing and Management at the University of Nottingham. The two academics note that “in addition the premium shopping experience,” the Chinese millennial consumers that they spoke to “repeatedly talked about the importance of having unique items” in connection with their practice of shopping for luxury goods internationally.)

At the same time, these new branding elements enable companies to collectively create one more (or several more) marketable assets to add to their portfolios of valuable intellectual property. It will be interesting to see if this budding embrace of slightly more fluid branding (as opposed to the stench embrace of existing assets only) catches on further. 

After collaborating with Converse on a collection of uniquely-designed sneakers, which appeared in his Spring/Summer 2019 collection alongside handkerchief-point dresses, floor-grazing-fringe adorned jackets and skirts, and various takes on his signature puff-sleeved tops, Jonathan Anderson claims that the Nike-owned footwear giant has continued to make the All Star-inspired sneakers he created almost two years after they first debuted on his runway. However, unlike the original designs, which are currently listed as “sold out” on Converse’s site, the chunky rubber soles of the recent offerings are devoid of his brand’s name. 

In an Instagram post this week, Anderson alleges that in furtherance of his collaboration with the footwear brand, he “developed a new shoe style” – the Run Star Hike. The shoe was something of an instant hit “because of its unique design,” Converse asserted in the lawsuit that it filed against Steve Madden in late May, in which it accused the fast fashion footwear brand of copying key elements of the shoe for its own lookalike pairs, and instead of backing down when Converse accused it of design patent infringement, Madden actually introduced an array of new models based on the same design.  

Mr. Anderson is not a plaintiff in that suit (and in fact, is not listed as an inventor on the relevant design patents), as in all likelihood, he signed away his legal rights in the design of the shoe as part of his deal with Converse, as is common practice in connection with such collaborative deals. Converse’s ownership over the sneaker design – and thus, its exclusive right to decide how that design is later used – is also probably why Anderson has taken to Instagram to air his grievances (namely, “What is sad is when a massive company removes you form a collaboration when it starts to work. Instead of helping a small brand … out in these difficult times”), as opposed to doing so in court. 

While Converse very well might be on the right side of the law in replicating the sneaker design without the J.W. Anderson branding on it, and thereby, removing the designer and his relatively young brand from any (potential) future revenue splitting and/or large-scale marketing that would come with an extended run of the original collection or a revamp, the issue is not necessarily just a legal one. It is one that goes to the enduring relationship between big brands and their collaborators. 

Anderson’s Instagram post comes a matter of days after it was revealed that another major retail entity – Gap – had moved on from another young(ish) creative – designer Telfar Clemens – in something of a less than PR-friendly way. In that instance, Gap decided to indefinitely put a stop to the collaboration it had planned and promoted with Mr. Clemens’ brand, seemingly in favor of its recently-announced partnership with Kanye West’s Yeezy.

Faced with growing consumer backlash and media attention, reps for Gap vowed to pay Clemens for the design work that he had done in furtherance of the collab that never actually came into fruition, and in doing so, Gap appears to have avoided legal action. But again, the takeaway is almost certainly not merely of a legal nature; it is one that speaks to the imbalance of power between multi-national players and relatively much smaller creatives and their brands, as well as the potential methods by which established industry entities will go to in order to continue to boost their revenues while also cutting costs. 

Gap presumably benefitted from being able to tout an impending deal with Telfar – who the New York Times described recently as “a Black designer upending old ideas about gender, identity and community” – and his cult following until it opted to pull the plug when a bigger name came along. At the same time, Converse was able to enlist Anderson for his designs and the marketability of his name in certain segments of the market, in much the same way that it did with John Varvatos and his original creations for the company, before ultimately moving to de-brand the collabs and by removing the revenue-sharing and/or licensing aspect, and thereby, cutting those costs associated with the product(s). 

During his tie-up with Converse back in the early 2000s, Varvatos put his unique spin on the brand’s footwear by ripping out the laces, and doing them up, in at least some cases, in a heavy leather. Varvatos’ name has since disappeared from Converse shoe styles, but his staples have remained. 

In some sense, this is little more than good business, at least from a bottom-line, cost-cutting perspective: team up with a collaborator, pay them for their design services, as well as for their ability to market a collection to eager consumers, and then ultimately, phase them out once the contract term is up, and add their designs – which the brands now own – back into the roster. 

But is this course of action of essentially removing the creatives from the picture – whether it be Gap simply giving Telfar the boot or Converse opting to ultimately turn the designs of its creative collaborators, who tend to be some of fashion brands’ biggest assets, into house-brand staples – really the most effective way forward for brands? The cost savings are certainly clear but so, too, is the potential for reputational damage. Just ask any Telfar fan. 

A rep for Converse told TFL, “The Converse Run Star Hike, concepted by our product and design team and born out of the idea of combining two existing silhouettes, the classic Chuck 70 upper with the Run Star outsole, was first introduced via a collaboration with JW Anderson. The Converse Run Star Hike intends to explore new dimensions of proportion, stance and comfort as we continue to reimagine our classics.  Jonathan has been a great advocate for the shoe and other silhouettes.  We have immense respect for him as a designer and we are proud of what was accomplished during our three-year collaboration.”