Recently, during one of my routine sweeps of the internet for stuff I want to buy, that I stumbled upon these:
They are, as you might suspect, a pair of shoes made by Nike. But they are special Nike shoes: ones made for LeBron James, in collaboration with the menswear designer John Elliott. In the parlance of the menswear internet, this shoe would be designated the “Nike x LeBron x John Elliott.” As in, Nike’s ongoing collaboration with LeBron James has itself collaborated with John Elliott.
This is one collaboration too many.
Nike x LeBron x John Elliott is far from the only cubed collaboration to touch down in our commerce world. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen Disney collaborate with Converse in collaboration with the streetwear retailer Kith; the retailer Opening Ceremony collaborated with a collaboration between Timberland and the workwear company Dickies, and Urban Outfitters collaborate with the downtown-chic Chinatown Market to do a line of SpongeBob Squarepants t-shirts. I can only assume that the future will yield even more multi-brand collaborations, which surely will be designated not by little x’s but instead complex mathematical formulas representing the varying degrees of proximity between each brand.
The point of a fashion “collaboration” is that one brand lets another brand (or multiple brands) do some stuff in their name. This can be as simple as a company licensing someone else’s logo to put on clothes, or a sneaker company creating a shoe for a specific athlete or celebrity, or a sneaker company pretending that a specific athlete or celebrity has designed a shoe for them. These sorts of collaborations have been happening forever, but they used to just be called “endorsements” or “paying someone to use a logo.”
In recent years, the notion of “collaboration” has widened to the point of abstraction. A collaboration can mean that a celebrity partnered with a brand to make something that is not quite official merchandise but will still provide them with a stream of revenue, that a fancy brand wants to “remix” clothes by a less-fancy brand and sell them at a marked-up price, or it can mean that a high-fashion designer wants to work with a mass-market clothing company to sell a cheaper-than-usual sweater or whatever while the mass-market clothing company wants to inject an air of class into their otherwise pedestrial clothes. This is how we can have collaborations between Adidas and Reebok, the Wu-Tang Clan and the bootmaker Clarks, and Puma and Sonic the Hedgehog. (As the product description for that last one goes: “Gaming industry legend Sonic the Hedgehog partners with PUMA in a new collaboration that’s faster than ever.”)
From what I can tell, triple collaborations date back to at least 2004, when Nike teamed up with the artist Futura and the music group UNKLE for these shoes. Meanwhile, the streetwear brand Supreme has been particularly notorious for indulging in collaborations, slapping their unmistakable box logo on everything from Spalding basketballs to Stern pinball machines to the Hennessy-branded hockey jerseys that Mobb Deep wore in their music video for “Shook Ones Part II.” Lately, though, the brand may have been outpaced by Japanese fastish-fashion retailer Uniqlo, which currently has collaborations with the home goods company Marimekko, the British clothing label JW Anderson, the French designer Inès de La Fressange, Dragon Ball Z, Star Wars, Disney, and Keith Haring’s estate.
Outside of the realm of couture and labels producing high-dollar ready-to-wear goods, there are very few brands in fashion whose products are truly bespoke. Someone is always sourcing from someone else, and very few points on that supply chain are celebrated or even acknowledged. (No one ever says, “Oh, that factory collaborated with Steve Madden and Dr. Scholls; they make good stuff!”) There is a version of these collaborations that might lay bare the labor that is hidden within a price tag at a store, but collaborations are mainly a way to create artificial scarcity — a union of brands that will bring a finite amount of goods to market. In other words, it’s a way for companies to jack up the price of their clothes.
Collaborations also speak to a hope that uniting two brands will yield an even greater potential consumer base for a product. For most of the 2010’s, my favorite musician in the entire universe was the rapper Future, and I have spent more money than I’d care to admit buying his collaborations with brands such as 10.Deep, Cease & Desist, and the designer D. Bruze.
But in practice, this attempt to leverage fanbases can have the opposite effect. For example, these Nike x Travis Scott Air Jordans, pictured above, are very nice-looking. If I had $175 burning a hole in my pocket (and they weren’t already sold out), I might be tempted to buy them, except for the fact that Travis Scott, a rapper who I actively dislike, was involved with their creation. Travis Scott makes music for people who are young, and I am old. Wearing his Air Jordans would make me look like a fool. I suspect that for a lot of people, the latter case is more common than the former — we buy the clothes we buy because we like them, not because there’s an extra name on the label, and the presence of that extra name may very well turn us off. Collaborations: bad.
Then again, as I was finishing writing this, I got distracted when I saw that Uniqlo was having a Black Friday sale and had knocked the price on a Uniqlo x JW Anderson jacket down from $150 to $100. After deliberating for a few minutes, I decided to buy it. So what do I know?