Brand Hacking

The Future of Successful Fashion Collaborations Will Be Purpose-Driven and Digitized

Key Takeaways

  1. Instead of calling it a collaboration, Gucci framed their new "ARIA" centennial anniversary collection as part of creative director Alessandro Michele’s “hack lab.”
  2. This tool for adaptation is called co-branding or ingredient branding, and is currently happening in conjunction with a shift of consumer expectations towards brands from a purely performance based formation of brand equity to a purpose driven brand equity build-up.
  3. While luxury fashion is known for competition, the requirement to be invested in new technologies will force integration in the fashion industry for a new era.

Last month, Gucci's new "ARIA" centennial anniversary collection was revealed through a fashion film. The collection was a surprise collaboration with Italian fashion powerhouse Balenciaga, also under the Kering luxury goods umbrella. The show integrated the both houses, featuring co-branded blazers and Balenciaga-emblazoned hourglass bags.

Instead of calling it a collaboration, Gucci framed the show as part of creative director Alessandro Michele’s “hack lab,” where he pulls together references from different times to create contemporary cultural statements. Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia is also known for bizarre references and collaborations, once collaborating with 11 brands in one show.

While unexpected fashion collabs have always made a splash—think Supreme collaborating with Louis Vuitton back in 2017 or the secret spring 2020 collaboration between designers Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix—the collection marked a new era of interconnectedness between fashion houses. The rejection of the term “collaboration” also doesn’t negate this impact.

Gucci "ARIA" FW2021

The move towards larger collaborations, says Tomas Vucurevic, owner and managing director of Braind, will only be accelerated in a post-pandemic world. “We predicted that in the digitized world, companies will be increasingly less capable of developing and marketing all the required key technologies themselves,” he released in a statement. “They will be forced to look for external innovation in order to open-up new markets and to increase agility and resilience.” 

This tool for adaptation is called co-branding or ingredient branding, says Vucurevic, and is currently happening in conjunction with a shift of consumer expectations towards brands from a purely performance based formation of brand equity to a purpose driven brand equity build-up. This is in line with the next generation’s approach towards brand values, with a new study showing that Gen Z makes more shopping decisions based on sustainable retail practices than even Millennials.

With that in mind, the future success of growing brand collaboration relies on not just the reputation of the brands but the purpose behind the collaboration. Gucci's hack lab fits into this category by celebrating a major anniversary. So too does the recent collaboration between sportswear giant Adidas and ocean conservation organization Parley. Creating sneakers made with intercepted plastic waste, collaboration becomes a tool for larger brands like Adidas to appeal to the growing sustainable market, with another study indicating a 71% rise in the popularity of searches for sustainable goods over the past five years, with continuing growth during the pandemic.

Telfar x UGG. Photography by Roe Ethridge

Without a clear narrative, it’s possible for brands to still inspire customers through the unexpected. This rings true for Gucci but more so for this year’s UGG and Telfar collaboration. Two beloved and currently trending brands, the success in this collaboration rested on both their relevance and the surprise product (after all, a slipper-inspired bag isn’t something you see everyday). Kanye West’s partnership with Adidas is another good example in footwear. The “Yeezy Effect” brought in $2 billion more in sales for Adidas in 2015.

Another strength in the power of collaborations is when luxury fashion houses can make their designs more accessible, such as the Versace for H&M collection in 2014. Without this purpose or storytelling focus, however, fashion collaborations can produce more unwanted (and sometimes outright ugly) products. This was the case last year with Nike’s Ferrari-Inspired Air Jordan 14 Retros.

In an increasingly digitized world, collaboration not isolation will become more necessary than ever for a brand to survive. This is already happening in the digital fashion space, where brands are already scrambling to join NFT marketplaces. While luxury fashion is known for competition, the requirement to be invested in new technologies will force integration in the fashion industry for a new era. This is also relevant for fashion shows, as the pandemic brought fashion month mostly online and fashion films like Gucci's became the industry standard.

Brand and designer collaborations have existed for as long as the commercial fashion industry has. They also appeal to the same inherent awe we experience through unexpected links (think of our favourite shows crossing over on Disney channel). This, however, does not mean every collab has a purpose, something that is only becoming more important to the new generation of customers. Brand partnerships without meaning will be overtaken by those between brands with strong values, the element of surprise, a mission for accessibility, or the future-thinking focus on digitization. Call it a hack or a collab Gucci and Balenciaga’s latest statement is just the beginning of this new collaborative era.