Designer and Retailer Collaborations

It seems that every time I check the fashion news, there’s another designer-retailer collaboration being announced. Prabal Gurung with Target, MMM with H&M and Narciso Rodriguez with Kohl’s are all fresh in my mind. Undoubtedly, this has been happening for years (an Arte documentary on fashion that I watched the other night had video footage of people getting trampled at a Karl Lagerfeld for H&M release…it was just like a post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas sales frenzy.)

collaborations are increasingly common between designers and retailers

So – if designer-retailer collaborations are so common, they must be good for everyone involved…right?

On the surface, yes. Retailers gain a lot of publicity from working with a high profile designer and likely move a whole lot of sales units during the release of the collections. For their part, designers likely earn a sizeable paycheck for contributing to the vision and design of the clothes and accessories and if they’re not yet a household name, the amount of exposure they gain with a collaboration is impressive.

But for designers, I would say that there are two main pitfalls to a collaboration that may outweigh the financially attractive offer coming from a mass-market retailer.

Branding

Designers and the financial backers of their labels have invested a lot of time and energy in establishing a branding strategy that speaks to their target market and drives revenue. By strongly associating the designer’s name with a low-to-mid level retailer, and losing some control over the marketing and communication regarding their collaboration, they risk diluting the value of the brand they’ve created.

As an example, the MMM brand is considered avant-garde, and the market they’ve attracted over the years isn’t mainstream.  His pieces are housed in museums and fashion archives.

H&M, on the other hand, is specifically targeting mainstream consumers with their low price points and pervasive presence within the marketplace.

Will the original MMM client (i.e. the ones purchasing the designer’s pieces currently) still be drawn to the brand when people around the world are wearing similar items? What happens to the caché? What happens to being avant-garde?

Recommendation

If a designer is seeking to expand their appeal and their market, I suggest that they pursue brand extensions without retailer involvement. It’s common for fashion houses to have multiple brands under their main umbrella brand in order to provide products at differing price points. Ralph Lauren is a good example of a designer having a variety of sub-brands operating with some form of oversight and a consistent image presented to the consumer. (Though, given the closure of the RugbyRL line…over-expansion must be considered a risk as well. Profitability can’t be compromised.)

Maintaining control over the content and communication of the new lines will help maintain a strong brand image and brand value, while still allowing them to tap into the revenue potential of consumers at the mid-low price points.

Quality

A second element of a collaboration that designers should be wary of is the different quality levels of their main line versus that in the mass-market retailers. It’s well understood that you will not be able to achieve the same class of fabric or workmanship on a $50 garment as you can for a $500 one – the financials simply don’t support it. However, if a brand has created their existing product offerings with high quality workmanship as a key feature, how much damage will a ‘fast-fashion’ product do to consumer perceptions and their image?

Beyond fabric choice and workmanship quality comes the issue of sustainable practices. Retailers like H&M and Forever21 have faced allegations of using low cost manufacturers that provide poor working conditions for their employees.  Does a designer want to have a label with their name on it sewn into the garments in factories with questionable practices?

Recommendation

I advise that before agreeing to work on a collection, that both parties explore their counterpart’s corporate responsibility charters and documentation to ensure that the other entity is operating under a set of values that is similar to their own. If there are questions or inconsistencies, bring in a third-party to audit the facilities.

High profile designers bring power to the table during these negotiations, and can leverage it during discussions in order to ensure adequate oversight on the standards that will be upheld during the development and manufacturing of their collection with the retailer. Perhaps performance guarantees in the contract? Donating a portion of proceeds to improving conditions in a developing nation? Stipulating that organic cotton be used? Creativity can take place around a conference table – not just in the design studio.

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What are your thoughts on the rise in designer-retailer collaborations? Do you see any red-flags that either side should be on the lookout for?

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