“Who needs cashmere?” asked a cheeky Roy Halston after the 1983 launch of his J.C. Penney line, Halston III. Apparently, he did. A surprising move for the man whose brand was built on celebrity glamour and Studio 54 excess, Halston’s J.C. Penney collaboration marked an effort to bring an affordable taste of the good life (and good design) to the everyday American woman. But the venture proved to be an epic failure. Instead of expanding the Halston empire, the diffusion line led to its demise. Bergdorf Goodman dropped Halston almost immediately, and just a year later, the designer lost the rights to his company name. The mass-market collection gravely damaged his image, and the brand was virtually exiled from department store shelves and glossy editorials.
Fast-forward thirty years, and designers (and consumers) can’t get enough of high/low collaborations, that latest, of course, being Kenzo for H&M, which was announced yesterday morning.
How, in just three decades, did the high/low partnerships go from crippling misstep to profitable badge of honor? It’s complicated. And, as so many major fashion shifts do, it involves Karl Lagerfeld.
The contemporary wave of luxury-meets-mass parings began in 2003 when Isaac Mizrahi partnered with Target. Formerly a Bergdorf darling who dazzled the social set with his $20,000 made-to-order gowns and luxe ready-to-wear, the designer found himself in a slump during the late ’90s. Chanel, who financed Mizrahi’s label, withdrew funding in 1998 due to inconsistent sales. It seemed as though he’d never recover from the debilitating financial blow, but alas, Isaac Mizrahi for Target shocked his career back into action. Offering everything from $9.99 cotton tanks to $175 wedding gowns, the range raked in a reported $300 million per year during its half-decade run. Mizrahi may now be known as a quirky QVC character rather than the go-to designer for the Park Avenue set, but a quick Google search suggests that he’s worth $20 million. One might argue that he didn’t necessarily destroy his brand image, he just embraced a new one.
In 2004, however, H&M entered the high/low game, and the Swedish fast fashion retailer changed everything. The brand came up with a formula that seamlessly combined hype, luxury, desirability, status, and affordable clothes: Have the world’s loftiest, most in-demand designers create limited-edition capsules (small supply creates exponential demand!) that translate their coveted, four- or five-figure duds into something the everyday(ish) consumer can purchase. Not only does this strategy elevate H&M, but it also raises the designers’ profiles. It was met with skepticism from elite insiders, but it was brilliant. And it certainly helped that Karl Lagerfeld was H&M’s guinea pig. “I think that the idea of 'Karl Lagerfeld for H&M' is very interesting in terms of the history of fashion,” said Lagerfeld back in 2004. “It's modern. The days when designers could lose their jobs because it was linked to a collection for an inexpensive brand are over. H&M has made inexpensive desirable. Today this is fashion,” he continued, adding, “Design is very important and design is not a question of price only.” His capsule sold out within hours of its release.
Lagerfeld was a smart first choice for H&M because he is not only a fashion icon, but a pop culture sensation—a household name. His celebrity could (and still does) sell just about anything. In the years that followed, H&M tapped a handful of equally well-known designers and brands—Stella McCartney (2005), Roberto Cavalli (2007), Jimmy Choo (2009), and Versace (2011)—but it also forged partnerships with labels that had niche or cultish fashion followings, like Viktor & Rolf (2006), Comme des Garçons (2008), Lanvin (2010), Marni (2012), Isabel Marant (2013), and Maison Martin Margiela (2012).
Perhaps Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo, who is fiercely protective of her brand and proudly independent, explained the appeal of these collaborations best: “I thought it would be an exciting event to work with H&M in order to sell Comme des Garçons clothes in places where they have never been sold and to appeal to people who may not yet understand Comme des Garçons. Marrying the commercial expertise of H&M with Comme des Garçons creation was a fascinating challenge,” she said. It’s worth noting that in 2009, not long after her H&M romp, Kawakubo bowed her first Comme des Garçons Black pop-ups, which, inspired by the recession, is a CDG diffusion brand of sorts, offering Comme clothes at significantly lower price points.
As Kawakubo noted, high/low team-ups introduce cult brands to a broader audience. It’s unlikely that said audience will transition into full-fledged CDG or Margiela clients, but the exposure allows specialized brands to gain a broader fan base. Purchasing wares from H&M’s designer capsules (which are more expensive than the retailer’s standard fare), can be equated to buying a lipstick or a perfume—it allows shoppers to grab a taste of the fantasy that is associated with luxury fashion without paying luxury prices. And when it comes to brands that are lesser known to the masses, it’s easier for them to sell those moneymaking perfumes and accessories when more people know who they are. And whether the house is big or small, collaborating with a fast fashion retailer helps solve the rampant problem of the high street ripping off high collections the minute they walk down the runway. If your designs are going to be seen in a fast fashion retailer anyway, why not find a way to profit from it?
Aside from sales, H&M benefits because, every time a top-tier talent agrees to work with it, the company enjoys a boost in its credibility cool factor, thus putting H&M ahead of its competitors. And to amp up the must-have factor, H&M holds star-studded, heavily publicized launch events, making it seem as though celebrities and fashion insiders are lusting over these collections with gusto (and in many cases, they actually are).
Then came the wild children and their bands of supermodels—both Insta-famous and otherwise. Alexander Wang and Olivier Rousteing of Balmain bowed H&M capsules in 2014 and 2015 respectively. The latter spurred “Balmania,” during which Rousteing’s massive fan base, which he grew via his robust social media presence and his association with the Kardashian/Jenner/West clan, stormed H&M stores with dangerous fervor. The designer is now bigger than ever, and earlier this week, announced a collaboration with Nike.
Other big box and fast fashion retailers, like Target, Topshop, Kohl's, and more, have also partnered with luxury designers on capsule or ongoing collections, but none seem to inspire the manic press coverage and mob-like consumer response as H&M.
So what gives? What has changed since Halston sullied his brand with a high/low collaboration just three decades ago?
Fashion is no longer an elite little bubble. With the rise of bloggers, social media, online fashion sites, and reality fashion television, not to mention the increasingly symbiotic and public relationship between fashion and entertainment, fashion is becoming democratic—it has evolved into something that is accessible (and because it was previously forbidden fruit, intriguing) to the masses. Even if, as Thomas Tait poignantly stated in our “What The F#@% Fashion” series, it is an illusion of accessibility (sorry, shoppers—that dress Bella Instagramed at Cannes is more than most people’s rent). The average consumer wants to be part of this world, and she is being invited into it through the abovementioned channels, so it only makes sense that she’d be invited via clothes she can afford, too.
Years ago, I wrote a story about this very topic, and I was drawn to something critic Cathy Horyn said in an interview with the late Style.com. “You can’t lose sight of [the fact] there’s an opposite reaction, a basic law of physics, so if you put your name next to Target, then you are changing your values in some ways, and you have to accept that.” Indeed, there’s something to her assertion. And when it comes to luxury fashion, part of what makes it so covetable, so emotional, and such a fantasy is the fact that not everyone can have it. Surely, there are some brands that, in an effort to keep costs low and profits high, to compete with fast fashion retailers, and to keep up with this ridiculous fashion cycle we’ve created, have abandoned their founders’ values in favor of a subpar product. That’s troubling. But look at Kawakubo, who is producing some of her best work to-date; or Marni, whose artisanal collections never cease to amaze; or Margiela, which boasts the handwork of John Galliano. Sometimes, it’s okay to use the polyester or the plastic bead in favor of chiffon or crystal, especially if it affords fashion lovers the opportunity to step into the transformative worlds these designers create.
Anywho, Kenzo for H&M will debut with an explosion of fanfare, psychedelic hues, and jungle prints on November 3. In the meantime, click through the complete history of H&M’s designer collaborations, above.