The Art and Artifice of Collaboration

In 2021, collaborations, it’s safe to say, are all kinds of big. They’re big news. They’re big business. And, of course, they’re big money – both when it comes to sales and when it comes to the budgets thrown in behind them.

While collaborations themselves aren’t new – as a concept, they’ve been growing in popularity and in scope for some time now – the first half of this year has seen those joint endeavours shift up a gear, further eroding the already razor-thin membrane between streetwear and high fashion, and in some cases even the previously sacrosanct walls between fashion houses themselves. 

It’s easy to see why brands look to collaborations, of course: the old adage, “two heads are better than one,” also clearly holds true in terms of bringing together two distinct brand infrastructures. Two fanbases, two creative departments, two well-oiled marketing machines working together toward one common goal. It’s a no-brainer, really. 

But, to brush aside the cynicism for a moment, there’s also more to it than that. Those shared resources provide more than just better, more efficient sales channels. They also provide unprecedented creative opportunities – a chance to push the boundaries of what’s possible, with room to try new things and test ideas that just might not have made the cut for a main collection.

And, of course, this is why fans get excited for collaborations, too. Or, at least a big part of the reason. It’s no different to music or film or TV in that way; the prospect of seeing or hearing your big-name favourites together – either performing on a single song or sharing a single screen – will always create a bigger buzz than a solo performance might have done. It’s no coincidence that Marvel movies, with their all-star casts of marquee names and budgets built to match – dominate headlines and box offices in the way they do. These, after all, are collaborations on another level entirely. 

But still, 2021 has seen some big name partnerships of its own. Louis Vuitton and Nike, Prada and adidas, Dior and Travis Scott, Loewe and Studio Ghibli, Gap and YEEZY – even Gucci and Balenciaga. And that’s barely skimming the surface. 

There are external factors at play, too. Ones which, much as we might like to, are impossible to ignore. Coronavirus has had its grubby little fingers in everything and fashion is no different: stripped back or non-existent fashion weeks, a focus on direct-to-consumer online shopping, and a stricken chain of production have all pushed the industry into thinking of new ways to generate hype and to ways in which to repackage necessarily limited release numbers. 

With collaborations, brands found all of that in one single concept. A neat solution to a very complex problem. 

And so, with that in mind, we explore some of the biggest, best and most noteworthy collaborations of 2021 so far: a list of the who’s who and the what’s what. 

GAP X YEEZY

This collaboration was always going to be controversial. If not for the content of the capsule itself, then at least for the fact that it only seemed to happen after the American retail giant scuppered another potential collaboration. One with the much younger, much less mainstream designer: Telfar Clemens.

Still: the clothes. We’ve not seen much of them so far, admittedly. But what we have seen has been more than enough to cause elation amongst fans and raise eyebrows amongst critics. Par for the course for where Kanye is concerned. Despite being a collaboration with one of the United States’ most well-known brands, the now-infamous recycled nylon bomber jacket – which first appeared in a bright blue colorway, has now released in black, and was worn in a bright red hue by Kanye at his DONDA listening party in Atlanta – is somehow more YEEZY than anything YEEZY has produced on its own.

As far as collaborations go, it has its merits: the sustainability aspect certainly deserves a nod – as does the innovation in design, which clearly points to the idea of chances which Kanye might have thought twice about were it not for the backing of GAP. Its more accessible price-point, too – with the jackets coming in around $200 USD – makes the prospect of owning YEEZY feel attainable to a much wider audience. 

For both brands, too, it’s about as close to a risk-free endeavour as you can get: between YEEZY’s built-in consumer base and GAP’s infrastructure, there’s really only winners here. Especially if you enjoy dressing like something Katy Perry might sing about.

PRADA X ADIDAS

Part of an ongoing collaboration that felt like it had been in the works for an eternity – but one which finally came to fruition in 2019 with the release of a super-limited edition of co-branded Superstar sneakers and bowling bags – the latest development in the Prada x adidas story is not so much a twist as is a continuation of the narrative arc. 

Releasing the newest iteration of their joint sneaker silhouette, the A+P Luna Rossi 21 – now available in “Mgh Solid Grey/Matte Silver/Red” and “Core Black/Red” – the Italian house and German sportswear giant reaffirmed what they do best and how well they do it together. Sustainability-minded – with its PRIMEGREEN upper, fashioned from multiple recycled materials – and performance-focused, with its “hydrophobic” E-TPU outer shell, the sneaker is as much a technical achievement as it is an aesthetic one. Slick, future-facing, technically accomplished and more than just a little pleasing to the eye, the Luna Rossa has the best of both worlds and a sense of something entirely different. 

LOUIS VUITTON X NIKE and LOUIS VUITTON X NBA

This is a two-for-one – call it a gift – because Louis Vuitton has been busier than ever under artistic director Virgil Abloh. While these are two distinct collaborations, they’re mentioned together here as they’re both emblematic of the same thing: of Abloh’s disdain for the gatekeeper-ism of high fashion and of its perceived attitude toward popular culture, Black culture and sports culture. 

Abloh, in his position of power, wants to blur, bend, break, and ultimately to decimate the boundaries between those worlds. And the NBA capsule – described as being motivated by the exchange between French craftsmanship and American sport – is the clearest statement yet to that effect. 

In creating a collection that maintains the essential spirit of Louis Vuitton, its flourishes – its fineness – and melding it seamlessly with an American sporting institution, the artistic director doesn’t so much revel in the cultural distinction as he does reveal it to be a falsehood. 

The same is true, if to a lesser extent, of the LV x Nike AF-1 collaboration which made its way to the Paris runway back in June. Pairing Nike’s with high fashion isn’t exactly a new idea – and neither is the notion of a fashion house collaborating with the sportswear giant – but this particular sneaker was something of a triumph for Abloh. 

Not just a combination of LV and Nike, but also incorporating touches of his own brand – OFF-WHITE – into the mix, this was a knowing nod to the merging of streetwear and high fashion. A reminder that one does not necessarily deserve to sit above the other. Or, at least, that its position isn’t guaranteed. 

GUCCI X BALENCIAGA 

Here’s where things get really interesting. The prospect of two of the world’s biggest fashion houses coming together on a collection is a tantalizing one: especially when we’re talking about labels helmed by the likes of Alessandro Michele and Demna Gvasalia – designers who already dedicate so much of their time to pushing the boundaries of creative possibilities and,  particularly in terms of the latter, good taste. 

Stylishly co-branded tailoring, accessories, and even an updated version of the love-it-or-hate-it Triple-S sneaker – freshly adorned with “GUCCI,” rather than “BALENCIAGA” – are always going to turn heads. Undoubtedly, each piece is a smart piece of work. But what’s fascinating here isn’t the finished product; it’s the door that Michele and Gvasalia have left open behind them. 

One might cynically point out that Gucci and Balenciaga are only so open to collaboration – only able to, as they put it, “hack” one another’s designs – because they’re both part of the Kering Group. And, while that’s true, you still have to consider what that means elsewhere: not only are Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, and Bottega Veneta among the long list of brand’s who belong to that same group, but there’s no reason that the same creative logic can’t be applied to others. FENDI and Dior, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, Kenzo and Loewe – all of these names fall under one single LVMH-branded umbrella, too. 

And so, yes, while it’s easy to say that this collaboration only happened because corporate interests allowed for and facilitated it – but the means here more than justify the ends. What’s more, who knows what those ends are. From here, the view is looking pretty unobstructed.