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Why Are There So Many New Denim Collaborations?

If it seems like there’s a different denim collaboration dropping every day, it’s because brands are increasingly becoming aware of their value.

From lighthearted pop-culture references like American Eagle’s holiday collection with Disney, to poignant partnerships like Levi’s and Tremaine Emory’s collaboration that explores the connection between cotton and slavery, brands can effectively inspire consumers to spend with their heart. According to experts, this energy is typically only attained with the introduction of something—or someone—new.

“Vital collaborations have injected energy into all levels of the market since way before the pandemic,” said Michelle Branch, founder and creative director of consulting company Markt & Twigs Inc. “But like so many things we’ve witnessed over the last year, collaborations were kicked into high gear as we discovered their real benefits.”

Leave it to a year-long globally sanctioned isolation to reveal the importance of collaboration in any regard. Now more than ever, people are attuned to the benefits of working together. Smaller drops—specifically those that don’t coincide with the increasingly archaic fashion calendar—have also become more appealing in a pandemic society. Typically launched in the form of a small, limited-edition capsule collection, collaborations can offer newness without sacrificing sustainability.

But the real benefits of a collaboration are dependent on the type of partnership. When executed appropriately, they can help brands tap into different demographics and explore entirely different categories with minimal risk.

Denim on denim

In September, Levi’s and San Francisco-based designer Heron Preston teamed to launch “Mistakes are OK,” a series of denim jackets and jeans with intentional errors that paid homage to a mistake that shaped Preston’s life. Though Preston was born in 1983, a clerical error caused his birth certificate to read 1873, which also happens to be the same year blue jeans were invented.

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The collection, which retailed higher than Levi’s average price points, featured denim with exposed and asymmetrical pocketing, an upside-down coin pocket, mismatched hardware, raw seams, exposed linings and off-register resin prints.

Denim experts weigh in on the benefits of collaborations, including reaching new demographics and creating more valuable products.
Levi’s x Heron Preston Courtesy

According to Christine Rucci, founder and creative director of Godmother NYC Inc., partnerships that involve large brands and smaller brands or designers can allow for an edgier, more creative product.

“Most big brands are margin-driven, and the creative designs are often dropped from the line in favor of collaborations,” she said, noting that it’s partially because smaller brands often take risks and use social media to promote, whereas large brands use more costly advertising campaigns.

Amy Leverton, founder of independent trend consulting business Denim Dudes, had a different explanation for what drives large denim brands to work with smaller denim experts.

“Large brands right now, despite their market share, actually need smaller brands in order to move forward,” she said. “Younger, fledgling brands are more likely to have sustainability, flexibility and agility built into their model, whereas legacy brands have to unlearn a lot of their systems. Aligning with others can encourage learning and unlearning.”

And two denim brands don’t necessarily need to create a denim product to be successful. Launched during the peak of the pandemic, AceGoldGreen was the brainchild of denim veteran Adriano Goldschmied and Ace Rivington founder Beau Lawrence. Together, they used industry best practices to create the simplest of items: a T-shirt.

The fully recyclable and biodegradable Type One Tee is made from a blend of 45 percent hemp and 55 percent Tencel, which the denim gurus describe as some of the most sustainable options currently on the market.

New territory

Just as two denim heads got together to create a T-shirt, other collaborations are formed as a way to expand into non-denim product categories. Earlier this year, heritage denim brand Wrangler entered into the home goods space with a limited-edition collection with Pottery Barn Teen.

The collection spanned tapestries, lounge sectionals and bean bag chairs, to quilts, duvet covers, storage bins and rugs. The line was punctuated with what Steve Armus, Wrangler’s vice president, global partnerships and licensing, calls “cowboy cool sophistication.”

Denim experts weigh in on the benefits of collaborations, including reaching new demographics and creating more valuable products.
Wrangler x Pottery Barn Teen Courtesy

“The goal of our collaborations is to create a collection that reaches new audiences by bringing out the best in both us and our partner’s brand,” he said. “[Our partnership with Pottery Barn Teen] is a different collaboration that allows the brand to enter into the home space with a ‘cowboy cool sophistication’ that is getting positive reactions across the board from consumers. By working with category leaders in their space, we are able to listen to each other and our respective expertise to ensure we’re creating an on-trend, on-brand product.”

These are likely the driving forces behind other industry-crossing collaborations such as Levi’s x Target, Denham x Nike partnerships and a slew of others.

“I think 2021 and beyond is very much about doing what you do best, sticking to your strengths and understanding your limitations,” said Leverton. “[For example,] a lot of denim brands have collaborated with Nike over recent seasons. Not only does Nike know how to make a great sneaker, it also has its own historic and iconic models to tap. Why try and break into a market that’s not in your DNA when you can partner with a leader and tap both brands’ strengths, expertise and storytelling?”

Pop culture

Other brands sometimes prefer to get celebrities to help tell their story. And in the celebrity-dominated society that is American culture, brands can often identify a clear benefit of partnering with a star. In recent years, Tommy Hilfiger dropped a collection with five-time Formula One World Champion and global brand ambassador Lewis Hamilton, and Joe’s Jeans partnered with Erin and Sara Foster, stars of VH1’s scripted comedy show “Barely Famous.” Both instances helped the brands tap into a wider demographic and generate buzz in the process.

But, as Branch warned, there are many risks involved when partnering with an individual.

“While it can bring shine and attention to a brand, partnering with individuals can be a bit trickier,” she said. “Individuals come with their own set of human flaws, and if there’s a shift in public perception it can impact the collaboration. Today, they’re brilliant; tomorrow, they’re cancelled.”

As a result, she identified a shift away from celebrity collaborations and instead has seen more partnerships between brands and people making an impact in their communities. Levi’s, for example, recently tapped a series of 15 artists, actors and influencers to star in dedicated videos highlighting their “paths to greatness” in its “Beauty of Becoming” campaign.

Denim experts weigh in on the benefits of collaborations, including reaching new demographics and creating more valuable products.
Levi’s Beauty of Becoming campaign Courtesy

But even better, according to Rucci, is having a celebrity that naturally endorses your product. In Frame’s case, it’s multiple celebrities—specifically, Hollywood A-listers—and it often uses that fact in its marketing. Frame has launched a number of popups in recent years, all featuring a photo gallery of its most famous fans.

Pop-culture references also make for great collaborations, specifically during a time when nostalgia and escapism dominate. Levi’s has a long history of tapping into these consumer sentiments, with partnerships spanning the “Star Wars,” “Peanuts” and most recently, “Pokemon” franchises.

Heritage denim brand Wrangler found itself in the middle of two pop-culture moments, which it was quick to act on. Rapper Lil Nas X mentioned the brand in his 2019 hit “Old Town Road,” followed by Adult Swim’s Emmy award-winning series “Rick and Morty” referencing Wrangler in its season finale.

According to Armus, speed to market was crucial in both instances.

“While many of our collaborations are extensively planned, the brand has learned to be ready to react where we can execute and make a splash,” he said. “Rick and Morty is a great example of seizing the moment, as we were written into the season finale and did not know it until it was aired. Within a few short weeks, we were ready to go with a great product and marketing campaign with the help of the Adult Swim team. Those unexpected moments make for real magic when goals align.”