(starring Jun Takahashi himself)
It is an unpopular opinion to hold these days but I do not think that designer fast fashion collaborations are a sustainable or workable reality. That is not to say that I do not think fashion designers and mass market stores/brands can not work together (Y-3 and Gyakusou come to mind), but rather that the myth surrounding the designer fast fashion collaboration is a fallacy dreamt up to sell product under the guise of something apparently more palatable than mass consumerism. It is sold to us as a way to democratize fashion, of making luxury affordable, and a way of introducing the public to a certain high fashion designer or house. In reality it is a way to boost publicity, and profits by proxy, for the fast fashion house, and a paycheck for the designer in question. Fast fashion stores do not actually enter designer collaborations for the profits, they are not that big an earner in and of themselves. What they offer instead is publicity and footfall. These fast fashion stores make their money from selling their own cheap basics, the designer collaborations are simply a marketing tool.
The glossy exclusive veneer entices people in, but what sells most are the normal cheap designer clones rather than the designer collaborations. It is quite an odd state of affairs that stores which make their money by offering quick and disposable runway copies and cheaply (and unfortunately often unethically) made basics can also cash in on the very designers they may have copied through the authentic channels provided by these collaborations. It is consumerism driven wild, all for the yearning of something exclusive paradoxically found in the most mass market of forums possible. I found this NYTimes article both amusing and disheartening in equal measures. Are people so obsessed with having more and more that fashion design has truly become an instantly disposable and worthless commodity? Yohji was indeed correct when he said that people have started to waste fashion and quite frankly I find it exasperating.
The claim most often given of fast fashion collaborations is the idea of democratizing fashion. Democratizing fashion sounds like a noble cause (democracy is after all apparently the mark of any society wishing to call itself civilized), but it is one that ultimately can not exist. People may certainly be well dressed as a result of a fast fashion collaboration if all the elements worked in harmony (although seeing how people can pile piece upon piece onto themselves because it is the hot new thing, regardless of how it actually looks, that is questionable), but they can not all be fashionable. Fashion must inherently apply to a small minority, for once it becomes a common occurrence, it is no longer fashion, rather a mass market trend. That being said I actually question the yearning to be fashionable or trendy, because I would much rather be well dressed.
But what these collaborations sell is not some collection of garments that can be widely applied as fashion for all. What these collaborations actually sell is an easily packaged and easily identifiable aesthetic. The designer can not rely on complex construction or luxurious materials, the price point does not allow it. So what they have to do is distil the essence of their house down into garments that can be cheaply made and cheaply sold. They also have to be easily marketable, because they after all meant to be sold to the mass market, so they must be interesting, but not too interesting. If they can not sell it makes the collaboration pointless, so they must necessarily be easy to sell. This obviously creates an incredibly specific and considered aesthetic - it must be cheap to produce, easily identifiable as being by the designer, and easy to sell. Hardly fashion democratized, more like cheap products made to be identifiably Lanvin, or Marni, or (as much as it pains me to remember) Comme des Garçons.
And so we reach the idea of affordable luxury, which is also something I find problematic. Firstly luxury must by definition be scarce and uncommon, for were it to become everyday it is no longer a luxury. Tap water is something the majority of us take for granted, but you go to a village where the closest well is an hour's walk away and tap water is truly a luxury. The use of the word affordable is curious, because price should not necessarily matter where luxury is concerned. Something that is uncommon but affordable can easily be counted a luxury. Say I follow a strict bodybuilder's diet, however I happen to love chocolate. On the rare day that I allow myself to eat chocolate therefore becomes a luxury, not because of its price, but because of the scarcity of the occurrence and the sense of indulgence. Note that it is also not scarcity alone that determines this event as luxury, but scarcity coupled with the sense of indulgence. One could argue that purchasing a piece from these collaborations is an indulgence and therefore becomes a luxury, however that does not really hold up when you think about it. It does not count as an indulgence any more than buying an equivalently priced garment from the fast fashion store itself. Not unless one counts scarcity, but scarcity alone does not make a luxury, it must then have that additional sense of fulfilling a desire or improving your feelings.
For these designer collaborations to be deemed luxury objects they must have some value beyond price and the indulgence of purchasing a garment alone (otherwise then purchasing any garment would fall into this category, rather than a designer collaboration item specifically). There must be some feature of design, some feature of construction, some feature of materials, some idea or creative point, that makes these clothes special and unusual to the point that they count as luxury rather than simply just another garment from said fast fashion store. Label alone, the idea of a designer's name being attached to the garment, is a paltry reason for it to be deemed luxury. However unfortunately that seems to be the approach that most take to these collaborations. Names and logos sell, it is no secret. Karl Lagerfeld said that the logo is the most important element for the fashion house, because anyone can recognize a logo, and thus it allows ease of advertising and saleability. It is the reason why were Chanel to collaborate with H&M tomorrow the collection is guaranteed to sell out without anyone even having seen the garments, let alone having tried them on in person.
When did the name or logo become more important than the garment? There are certainly designers whose work I love, but I would never buy something with their name attached purely because it has their name attached, there has to be something more. Fashion is for me ultimately about the product - if the garment does not make me feel anything I will not buy it, regardless of the label or price. Things are only ever worth what you are willing to pay for them, but these days people are willing to buy blind based on name alone and I find that an unfortunate state of affairs. And yet it would seem that it is exactly that process that these fast fashion collaborations rely on in order to sell - people see the name and so they buy into it regardless of the product. The name speaks of exclusivity and luxury, even if the product itself does not. It is why I would not be surprised that were Chanel to sell branded toilet paper, it would sell like crazy.
But can designer collaborations work? Oddly enough I would argue that they can and that they have in certain instances, but it requires one to understand the limits and reality of the partnership. Forget the myth of the collaboration and focus on what is actually possible and the outlook is more promising. A one-off collaboration is something I am entirely opposed to for they are purely about the money rather than some attempt to change the way fashion is consumed or considered. However a partnership that seeks to create something new rather than relying on name alone is something I approve of. I enjoy Y-3, a collaboration over a decade old between Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas, as I do Gyakusou, a collaboration between Jun Takahashi of Undercover and Nike. Both are different from the fast fashion collaboration because they do not seek to sell on name or price alone, they sell based on design. The garment and the design are important, and that is where I believe the focus should always be when considering what to buy.
Y-3 is a fashion brand in its own right, with bi-annual collections that show at fashion week and in that search to create a defined label out from under the wing of both Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas (however much it relies on, and belongs to, both) is where it succeeds. Of course it also helps that the end products are also interesting and well designed. Gyakusou on the other hand is a far more focused endeavour, being born from Takahashi's love of running - it is well designed running clothing. It is not, strictly speaking, fashion, rather it is design. Clothing made to fulfil a very specific function and in that function it is beautiful. Gyakusou garments and shoes are perfectly stylish whilst running, however they would feel and look odd in an everyday outfit because of the fact that they are so clearly designed at every point expressly for the purposes of running. I would argue that its success as a collaboration lies in this very specific focus and aim, unlike the vague proclamations in which fast fashion collaborations are usually dressed and sold to us in.
But what of designer collaborations with high street brands? In this instance I think the closest to succeeding are those of Uniqlo, however even then they are fraught with problems of their own. The most successful designer collaboration in my mind was that of Jil Sander and Uniqlo in the form of +J. Where the collaboration succeeded is that Jil approached it with a very specific aim, to create everyday high quality basics. This was not flash in the pan fashion, but rather something more substantial. Its strength lay in the fabric choices and construction because Jil was determined to use the best fabrics possible for the price. Indeed she actually went to the same suppliers from where she used to get fabrics for her own line (when she still designed there). However in the long run it proved unsustainable - prices rose and the relationship soured. Uniqlo is based on low prices and high turnover, but the collaboration had placed an emphasis on quality before price, and it was eventually hard to reconcile the differences.
So we turn to the most recent collaboration, that of Undercover and Uniqlo - UU. Takahashi approached the collaboration with a very specific mindset - this was not to be affordable luxury, or cheap Undercover. He has been very certain in saying that the collaboration is aimed to be affordable everyday basics for the whole family, and indeed one notes the inclusion of childrenswear. But has this first season been successful? I would argue that it has been in some cases, but not in others. Where the childrenswear is concerned I feel the collaboration has been successful. It offers affordable and cute clothing for children that is interesting but not overly designed. However when it comes to the menswear I am not so optimistic. I tried to come to the collection open-minded, however having seen it in person it was a disappointment, especially after the quality that Jil achieved for around the same price point (albeit slightly more expensive). That Jun intended for it to be very affordable is evident - the fabrics felt cheap, the construction was not great, and overall I felt it a rather lacklustre collection. However considering it alongside Uniqlo clothing in general and it is slightly better. Think of it not as Undercover x Uniqlo, but Uniqlo clothing designed by Jun and it just about works. These are cheap and affordable clothes that are mostly more interesting than what Uniqlo usually has to offer.
I decided to post an actual Undercover collection above just to remind that Jun can certainly design everyday clothing, so provided he can work within the limitations of the collaboration I hope the next season of UU is better. Whether I actually buy anything from it depends entirely on the garments.