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Year in Review: How Fashion Raised the Bar on Collaborations

The year 2020 saw statement-making collaborations like the E.L.V. Denim and Swarovski partnership that combined 100 percent upcycled denim and upcycled crystals, and the 114-piece Missguided and Sean John collection that later sparked a legal entanglement. With the bar raised higher than ever in 2021, brands faced increased pressure to partner up and produce slower but smarter, leading to unique collections that generated hype and deeply resonated with current and new customers.

By partnering with longtime competitors as well as companies outside of fashion, brands were able to wow consumers—not just by creating interesting products, but also with strategic business moves that could change the way the industry approaches partnerships in the future.

The Balenciaga x Gucci “hacking project” was a standout this year. In April, the Kering sister brands made waves when Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele showed a collection rife with Balenciaga influences. In June, Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia, who now goes by Demna, offered his own take on the Gucci brand, debuting creations like handbags featuring a double-B logo in place of Gucci’s iconic double-G emblem. That month, global fashion shopping platform Lyst documented over 5,000 daily searches for the collaboration.

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Following the high-end pairing, Versace and Fendi partnered up for their own attention-grabbing collaboration in which they swapped fashion houses for a special presentation at September’s Milan Fashion Week. The result was “Fendace,” created by Kim Jones, Fendi’s women’s wear artistic director, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Fendi’s men’s wear designer, and Donatella Versace of Versace. Fendi by Versace showcased a rebellious, youthful influence, best demonstrated by a reimagined Fendi logo with crystal-encrusted details throughout, while Versace by Fendi played with co-branding and centered on duality, incorporating the Fendi monogram with Versace’s signature Greek Key motif. Famous faces including Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Emily Ratajkowski and Irina Shayk suited up in pieces from the iconic collaboration.

Denim brands raised the bar on collaborations in 2021, creating unlikely partnerships with competitors and brands outside of fashion.
Fendace Aitor Rosás Suné/WWD

Fendi later went on to collaborate with Kim Kardashian West’s Skims shapewear brand, which proved to be a monumental success: Within one minute of launch, the collection cleared $1 million in sales. Jones said the idea for the collaboration came after watching many of the women on her team await the drop of a different Skims collection, signaling the brand’s tightening grip on fans. Kardashian later explained that the synergies between Skims’ fabric innovation and Fendi’s commitment to luxe designs helped seal the deal on teaming up.

Merging of the minds

The ability to merge both brands’ greatest strengths and welcome new customers makes collaborations so appealing—as was the case of the Yeezy x Gap collaboration, which catapulted both brands to the top of search results after their inaugural Blue Round Jacket was announced in early June. Lyst found that searches for both brands immediately jumped, with Yeezy up 320 percent and Gap climbing 325 percent year over year. The product garnered more than 50,000 searches for the collaboration in a span of 24 hours.

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Yeezy x Gap puffer Courtesy

According to Brigid Stevens, senior director of marketing, Lee North America, this kind of publicity is what collaboration dreams are made of.

“Collaborations allow us to explore and reimagine some of our iconic silhouettes and materials in fresh, exciting iterations as well as exploring new designs,” she told Rivet. “The purpose is to create buzz and introduce the brand to new consumers and markets while keeping our core audience engaged with the latest styles.”

Collaborations were pivotal to Lee’s success in 2021. Lee parent Kontoor Brands said its compelling collaborations were partly to credit for the brand’s $176 million in Q2 revenue for a 105 percent increase year over year.

At the start of 2021, Lee debuted men’s, women’s and children’s collections with H&M that it hailed as the “next generation” of sustainable denim, featuring post-consumer recycled cotton and organic cotton and non-leather back patches made from cork and jacron paper. Garments were made with water-saving dyeing processes and low-impact, third-party-verified washing methods, and included Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) data on the H&M website to show the water, C02 and energy impact of each denim garment. Stevens noted that the collaboration was the brand’s largest to-date, as the line was sold in more than 1,000 H&M stores across dozens of countries.

Denim brands raised the bar on collaborations in 2021, creating unlikely partnerships with competitors and brands outside of fashion.
Lee x H&M Courtesy

It continued its expansion with a partnership in June that involved streetwear brand The Hundreds, which has collaborated with brands such as Adidas, Disney, the NBA and more. The collection helped Lee achieve its premiumization goals and put a spotlight on workwear as seen through the streetwear brand’s unique lens, centering on chore jackets and work pants in mustard yellow and light-wash denim.

Stevens added that Lee’s storied legacy enhances its search for interesting partnerships.

“With our 130-year history, there are a lot of different avenues we can take,” she said. “In each case, we ensure there is a genuine connection to Lee. We’ve found that collaborating with likeminded brands leads to authentic collections that really resonate.”

Such is the case for Tommy Hilfiger, whose longstanding position in streetwear has lent well to forming unique partnerships—specifically those that help expand the brand into different demographics. In April, it partnered with Amsterdam-based street wear brand Patta on a collection centered on the Pan-African Flag to champion the diaspora movement, which promotes a sense of unity among Black communities around the world. The collection swapped out Tommy Hilfiger’s iconic white, red and blue color palette for the deep red, black, green and yellow of the Pan-African flag.

The brand also has a penchant for developing collaborations that tap into consumers’ thirst for nostalgia. In June, it launched the “A Blast From The Past” collection in partnership with ViacomCBS Consumer Products. The range included a series of micro-capsules featuring T-shirts, sweats and hoodies with iconic characters and from ’90s and ’00s cartoons such as “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “Garfield,” “Ren & Stimpy” and more.

Generational appeal

Nostalgia was also a driving force for the JNCO x Goldfish collaboration, which sent millennial consumers on a trip down memory lane. The September drop focused on JNCO, the Los Angeles-based skate brand defined by its iconic ’90s style jeans with ultra-wide silhouettes and deep back pockets, and Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish brand to promote the snack’s new Jalapeño Popper flavor. The two-piece, limited-edition collection included a wide-leg black jean and a black T-shirt with co-branded elements throughout.

Lucky Brand echoed this strategy later that month, as another popular Y2K denim brand partnering with a food and beverage player for nostalgic purposes. The denim label collaborated with Mexican tequila brand Código 1530 on a limited-edition collection of men’s and women’s crewnecks, hoodies and accessories featuring vintage graphics in a muted palette of faded neutrals and earthy tones. The range also featured Lucky Brand’s signature 223 straight jean for men in two different washes inspired by Código’s barrel-aged spirits.

“Our customers always come to us for dynamic new content and collaborations with brands that capture our original, authentic and irreverent spirit,” Jimmy Carter, vice president of merchandising for Lucky Brand, told Rivet. “Our collaboration with Código 1530 is a great addition to our stable of partnerships and we’re thrilled to share the product with our respective audiences.”

Y2K denim brands continue to use collaborations to fuel their 2021 resurgence. True Religion, one of the most popular premium denim brands of the ’00s, partnered with streetwear titan Supreme on a line of early ’00s-inspired gear, spanning baggy denim cargo jeans and jean jackets, to hooded sweatshirts and beanies. The collection helped align the denim brand with Supreme, which recently joined VF Corp for $2.1 billion and has amassed a cult-like following around the world.

True Religion collaborated with Supreme on a line of early ‘00s-inspired baggy jeans, denim jackets, hoodies and hats.
Supreme x True Religion Courtesy

Just two months later, True Religion worked with rapper 2 Chainz on a limited-edition collection of T.R.U. REALigion branded denim jackets, hoodies, short-sleeve tees, long-sleeve tees, and accessories including hats and bandanas. The range marks the 10th anniversary of the rapper’s mixtape, T.R.U. REALigion, which included album artwork featuring 2 Chainz dressed head-to-toe in the brand’s signature denim.

This year also saw the last collaborations of the late Louis Vuitton menswear artistic director Virgil Abloh, a creative visionary who often saw collaborations as a necessary means to birthing a high-quality piece of art. One of the most recent collaborations was through his partnership with Nike, in which he reimagined the brand’s most iconic basketball sneaker, the Air Force 1, which debuted in 1982. In June, the designer debuted a 21-shoe range of differently styled sneakers at Louis Vuitton’s men’s summer 2022 collection last week in Paris. Styles featured luxe leathers and other premium materials, as well as distinguished details like offset tags on tongues and small tags that modify the Nike Swoosh.

Shift to digital

For other brands such as Levi’s, collaborations are a way to achieve internal goals centered on digital engagement. The brand often offers exclusive access to exciting collaborations via its app, encouraging more downloads and engagement on the platform. The heritage denim brand dropped a number of collaborations—from New Balance sneakers to Grateful Dead co-branded collections—only available on the app and in select online and offline destinations.

Denim brands raised the bar on collaborations in 2021, creating unlikely partnerships with competitors and brands outside of fashion.
Levi’s x New Balance Courtesy

The shift to digital has also inspired industry-disrupting collaborations like the partnership between Balenciaga and video game franchise Fortnite, which offered exclusive in-game digital fashion garments, as well as a physical line of merch. According to Lyst, within 24 hours after the release of the physical capsule collection, searches for “Balenciaga x Fortnite” spiked 72 percent, while demand for Balenciaga increased 49 percent.

The obsession with technology also inspired electronics company Samsung to team with Australian-based denim label Dr Denim on a pair of high-rise relaxed fit jeans featuring a front square pocket that fits the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3, the latest iteration of Samsung’s foldable smartphone. Styles include the “Dash” for men and the “Nora” for women. The denim brand is keeping the drop small, producing only 450 pairs and drawing hype with a limited-edition status. Retailing for $1,100 (1,499 Australian dollars)—which includes the purchase of the newly debuted phone—the jeans demonstrate the power of collaborations.

“Dr. Denim is all about denim and good times. What that means to us is that we get creative, we have a good time and we don’t let ourselves be constrained by boxed-in thinking,” Kristoffer Moberg, sales director at Dr. Denim, told Rivet. “Will our next collaboration be digital-focused? Perhaps, perhaps not. We do these things selectively when it makes total sense to us.”