As collaborations become the heart of fashion’s existence today, how do we keep the industry fresh and impactful while moving forward?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

As collaborations become the heart of fashion’s existence today, how do we keep the industry fresh and impactful while moving forward?

From top left: Hermès under Martin Margiela was all about practicality. Virgil Abloh and Kanye West share a collaborator-mentor relationship. Adrian Kozakiewicz’s obsession with bugs resulted in their appearance on Gucci’s bags. Balenciaga’s Crocs broke the Internet. Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent at an after-party. Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim’s remake of Oscar de la Renta is one to look out for 


And it certainly seems like it. The mega retrospective, “Margiela: The Hermès Years”, originally shown last year at MoMu, Antwerp, has been brought to a larger stage this year at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. It signals a major interest in what was once considered an unlikely alliance: Martin Margiela, whose deconstructed aesthetic was deemed to be at odds with that of the noble French luxury powerhouse, was handed the mantle by Jean-Louis Dumas, then Creative Director of Hermès. The former eventually went on to establish a code of timelessness at Hermès that continues to reverberate throughout fashion today. 

And then there’s also the partnership between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, fashion’s most inimitable and enigmatic union. With 2018 marking the 10th anniversary of Saint Laurent’s death and the one-year mark of Bergé’s passing, we are reminded that the fruit of their labour not only included the birth of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in 1966, it also marked the momentous shift when fashion became the domain of the greater public when the late designer became the first couturier to open a ready-to- wear boutique so that he could dress everyone. “I had had enough of making dresses for jaded billionaires,” he famously said. Those words provided an inkling of how partnerships and collaborations are vital in shaping fashion, whether in the past, present or future. 

But how exactly? The past was very different because there were far fewer key players—be it designers, publications, or channels of distribution. Magazines were still one of the few, if not only, gatekeepers of fashion. Everything had a higher novelty value and it was easier for designers to disrupt and establish the status quo, not discounting the unlimited challenges they had to face to pave the way for this generation. 

Fast forward to the new millennium, and we now live in an age where hype is everything. It is also an era of collaborations. And there are countless of them: Undercover’s Jun Takahashi continues to do Nike collections under Gyakusou; Alife, Balenciaga and Christopher Kane have all created renditions of Crocs (all ugly and therefore, chic); and of course, Virgil Abloh under Off-White has designed clear Rimowa luggage, Moncler outerwear and a furniture collection for IKEA targeted at millennials. While collabs are supposed to keep fashion fresh, the sheer number of brand mash-ups vying for the consumer’s attention and wallet have made such releases ubiquitous.  

Brands with strong audiences may tap the expertise of others in order to achieve sophisticated construction or overcome various technical difficulties of garment-making. 

My Reading Room


Why do brands do it? Besides tapping into audiences that brands previously have no direct connection with, there are monetary benefits to be reaped, of course. In a news report by the Financial Times, LVMH attributed its 23 percent profit increase boost to Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Jeff Koons and the wildly successful Supreme line in 2017. Besides boasting impressive sales figures, these collaborations alone have redefined what luxury is, blurring the lines between traditional concepts of high fashion and streetwear. In Louis Vuitton’s case especially, the appointment of Abloh (the 38-year-old American designer who currently enjoys clout unlike any other, and considers Kanye West his mentor) as the Creative Director of its menswear universe seemed to signal its acknowledgement of streetwear’s influence; and the purchasing power of a younger, more digitally-savvy customer base who have no qualms showing off their latest purchase on Instagram. Abloh’s predecessor, Kim Jones, who now heads Dior Homme, has continued his riff on streetwear by hiring Ambush’s Yoon Ahn as the brand’s jewellery designer. Jones also worked with artist KAWS and 1017 ALYX 9SM’s Matthew Williams to create accessories for his debut collection for the House. 

Thankfully, money and fitting-in aren’t the only reasons for seemingly separate fashion entities to join forces. For those of us looking for meaning beyond finances, there’s hope. Collaborations are often still about clothes — or the product—rather than simply means to cash in on hype. But what is the fundamental difference between those who create alone from those who create together? Past designer duos such as Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri made women dream with their fantastical visions of femininity when both were at the helm at Valentino. Oscar de la Renta’s Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim are not only shaking up New York’s fashion scene as new guards of the House, but are also bringing their fresh eye to red-carpet style. 

Beyond contributing to the discourse or inserting an interesting point-of-view to the fashion conversation (Margiela’s tenure at Hermès, for example, has taught us that when minds connect, the collision gives birth to something magical), such projects can happen for a more practical reason. Brands with strong audiences may tap the expertise of others in order to achieve sophisticated construction or overcome various technical difficulties of garment- making. For its spring/summer 2017 collection, the Demna Gvasalia-led Vetements, for example, pursued 18 reputable labels (such as Canada Goose, Carhartt, Hanes, Juicy Couture and Levi’s) for its joint men’s and women’s collection, shown during Paris couture week. Speaking to media after the presentation, Gvasalia explained that these allowed them to tap on the production base of the more established brands to further its own narrative. 

Collaborations are often still about clothes—or the product—rather than simply means to cash in on hype. 

My Reading Room

From left: Art and fashion collide at Prada fall/winter 2016. Tom Ford and Carine Roitfeld. Graphic details at Valentino fall/ winter 2016. Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri

OPPOSITE (clockwise from left): Andy Warhol’s prints on-set at Calvin Klein 205W39NYC. Jeff Koons turned Louis Vuitton bags into works of art.  Matthew Williams’  utility buckle on a Dior Homme cap. Kim Jones and Yoon Ahn take their lap of honour. A giant KAWS statue at Dior Homme  


At the top of the game is designer Raf Simons, who’s frequently worked with Peter Saville, the graphic designer responsible for the iconic cover artwork for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album, the soundtrack of every angsty teenager. Simons has also worked closely with artist Sterling Ruby and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for both Dior and Calvin Klein, producing more affordable goods during his current tenure at the latter. Meanwhile, his collaborators, photographer Willy Vanderperre and stylist Olivier Rizzo, have been working with him since the founding of his label in 1995. 

This alone is a reminder of the importance of having a strong team to grow with—fashion takes an entire village. There’s also the phenomenon of super-stylists who have increasing importance in a brand’s vision and strategy. Melanie Ward’s work with photographer Corinne Day gave birth to grunge and she fortified Helmut Lang’s fashion direction; Carine Roitfeld and Tom Ford’s provocative, sexed up images when he was at Gucci electrified the ’90s; Lotta Volkova and her closest collaborator, Demna Gvasalia, have set the tone of what we see today with their subversive eyes and fashions. 

Of course, it’s super hard for good ideas to come by and for people to notice. Not only is market competition more gruelling than ever due to the sheer volume of brands available in the market, brands also have to contend with the infinite vastness of the Internet and how to leverage on noise generated by social media. They simply must fight to stand out by creating truly innovative or even outlandish ideas. 

There are two ways to do this: Either by beating technology at its own game, or working hand-in-hand with it to tackle important issues. A couple of years back, J.W. Anderson hooked up with Grindr, the gay dating app, to exclusively live stream its fall/winter 2016 menswear collection. With one million users, J.W. Anderson got visibility from those outside the usual fashion circle. The Adidas x Parley for the Oceans partnership, on the other hand, addresses fashion’s major sustainability issues and its environmental impact. By creating shoes made from plastics that are polluting the oceans, the product serves as a small-scale solution that simultaneously educates its consumers to demand businesses to change their nature of production. These two cross-industry cases also show us the importance of thinking outside the boxes of fashion. 


The rise of social media has resulted in platforms such as Instagram becoming a platform where talent is sourced and promoted. Harper’s BAZAAR cover stars Lucky Blue and Pyper America Smith are amongst a sizable league of savvy millennials who are parlaying their Instagram fame into careers across the realms of fashion, film and music. Increasingly, art and fashion collaborations have occurred online, too. Prada’s Design Director, Fabio Zambernardi, for example, tapped the self-taught artist Christophe Chemin through his Instagram account. His paintings wound up as prints on the highly covetable fall/winter 2016 collection through this collaborative process. Under the charge of Luke and Lucie Meier, Jil Sander also tapped Instagram photographers and sisters Tanya and Zhenya Posternak for one of its online campaigns; Gucci invited entomologist Adrian Kozakiewicz for one of its accessories projects… The list goes on. The social media platform has also created fashion’s guard dog duo, Diet Prada, who not only call out copycats, but have opened the conversation about what constitutes originality. 

The bottom line is: Fashion’s partnerships aren’t just about keeping things fresh. They are necessary to bring change for the better. To create a better fashion ecosystem, the industry must aim to be even more inclusive, innovative and critical. And collaborations are vital to that.