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Are Fashion Collaborations Nothing but Hype Generators?

By Bianca Husodo

Felicia Yap

Collaborations in fashion are hardly a 21st-century phenomenon. According to history, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí were the first to introduce the concept of collaboration in the realms of fashion. The partnership between the iconoclasts — one an Italian couturier, the other a surrealist artist — dated back to the 1930s all the way to the ’40s, producing a whirlpool of cross-media masterpieces.

Most notable was the feted Lobster dress. At The Dalí Museum’s ‘Dalí & Schiaparelli’ exhibition in 2017, the dress was paired with its source of inspiration, the Surrealist artist’s ‘Lobster Telephone’. This visual pairing is a nod to the nuanced symbolism underneath it all: Dalí perceived the lobster as an archetype of sexuality. In all ingenious aptness, the dress was designed for Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor — a real-world object of desire (as the story went: King Edward VIII renounced the throne for her betrothal) dressed in the white, sleeveless A-line gown with a giant scarlet lobster painted downwards across her crotch area.

Fast forward to the new millennium, their sense of irony and art-meets-fashion alliance have burgeoned into an influx. If back then collaborations were few and far between, only happening when great minds of different mediums vibe and willingly come together for one-of-a-kind pieces that were not intended for mass consumption, today, that’s rarely the case.

The current wave of oversaturation can perhaps be traced back to the success of 2003’s Target and Isaac Mizrahi, which was followed hot on its heels by 2004’s H&M and Karl Lagerfeld. The primary objective of these early collaborations was less about sales and more about the crafting of long-term buzz. Sure enough, the shocking novelty of fashion’s upper echelons meeting high street chains in the middle to churn limited-edition “cheap and chic” capsule collections initiated consumer engagement beyond what was expected. Driven by exclusivity — limited time, limited quantity — these collaborations procured the fear of missing out on what was posited as cultural artefacts; an ephemeral moment where the high and low come together.

For a while, the formula seemed to work well. People were responding in throngs, be it in footfall or social media statistics. But along with the reckless speed of the fashion industry, and its thirst for lucrative appeal, in burst the names of designers, mammoth luxury companies, streetwear vanguards joined within hashtags with an “x” as its divider or rather, uniter. In the last decade, collaboration has become such a hype-fuelling buzzword, anyone can sense the giddy perking-up of luxury magnates’ ears at the aphrodisiac vision of clocking in site crashes and temporal shopper camps around their store.

I, a former sheep-minded consumerist (who suffers occasional relapses), was one of those happy campers. Once a clueless fashion student bedazzled by the idea of purchasing my first designer piece at a fraction of its average price, I sat overnight around the external corner of an H&M building with hundreds of other early birds to score some street cred-banking Alexander Wang x H&M goods. “So who’s this Wang dude again?” I overheard from the line of a queue which formed behind. Still, that didn’t deter the pure frenzy of being one of thousands who could run across the shop floor to grab an athleisure-inflected sweatshirt with the word “WANG” emblazoned across it. 

In 2017 alone, Virgil Abloh, the industry’s most prolific of collaborators, whipped out nine collaborations. And this year, the polymath has even branched out to furniture in partnership with Swedish behemoth Ikea, finally providing Off-White shrine-builders with quotation-marked homeware to furnish their houses with, although it can be said that his chair looked shockingly similar to Paul McCobb’s iconic ’50s design, save for the adding of a vestigial doorstop. 

Then, of course, there was the much-talked-about clear Rimowa luggage Abloh came up with: a see-through vessel for all our private belongings to be packed, and showcased for all to see. As the sold-out luggage’s press release stated, it’s a “brazen, yet playful response to today’s obsessive talk of privacy culture of surveillance and anonymity, the transparent design keenly hones in on the now and the next.” 

The variables guarding the “x” have diversified. Think: couture-rooted house Balenciaga x porous rubber slipper-maker Crocs; bootlegger Dapper Dan x one of the brands he used to bootleg Gucci; or the recently announced Comme des Garçons gathering, rallying its high echelon peers the likes of Burberry and Gucci together for a holiday capsule mash-up. The list goes on. Everyone does everyone. But to what end? The bombarding of “x”s has gotten some of us glazed over.

Though it is an understandable obsession. Collabs are about the unlikely pairing of two — or sometimes more — widely recognised personas; it’s the melding of their ideas, design values and philosophies. While very few uphold the complexity of design into consideration — Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby’s Fall/Winter ’14 magnum opus comes to mind — it’s safe to say that the large majority of today’s collaborations, more often than not, entail the instant slapping of look-at-me logos and the simplifying of designs. Once the shock value is stripped, what’s left is sheer consumerism.

Meanwhile, Schiaparelli and Dalí are rolling in agony in their graves, tortured to see what their legacy has doomed to become. Perhaps it’s time to free our FOMO-shackled selves and return to the roots of what fashion collaborations are all about. Authenticity still tramples hype.