1 August 2011

Creativity Costs


The Manifesto
Fall/Winter 2010

Rei Kawakubo said earlier this year that her collaboration with the ubiquitous fast fashion chain, H&M, was not something she would think of doing again.  She admitted that 'there wasn’t very much in common' between Comme des Garçons and H&M.  Indeed she actually argued that because of fast fashion 'the value of creation is diminishing'.  So what did the collaboration achieve?  In my opinion it rather unfortunately highlighted the way in which both consumerism and materialism seem to characterize the fashion system today.  Masses elbowed their way through the stores to grab anything and everything they could with that prestigious Comme des Garçons name on the label, only for it to appear on eBay that very night for an inflated price.  Garments were not assessed on an individual basis, rather the label seemed to be all that mattered, and it flew off the rails.  Yet it was not an isolated incident - we saw the same with Lanvin, and we will no doubt see the same again with Versace.

We are sold the idea of fast fashion collaborations under a number of guises, usually that well-versed favourite - getting high fashion at an affordable price.  In a society where the designer is hailed as autonomous creative genius, and the fashion house is seen as setting style, it makes for an odd alliance.  However fast fashion itself has become one of the main players in our fashion system.  The average consumer is dictated style, arguably by the mediators (which would encompass that rather vague lot known as the 'fashion media'), but actually more often than not, by the fast fashion stores themselves.   Both inform the consumer of what trends they need to follow that season.  The fear of being out of fashion drives them to purchase some garment they are not sure they even like in order to feel part of the now.

With the fast fashion collaboration an odd contradiction is born, one that is suitably forgotten once the collaboration has passed.  Where consumers were happy buying fast fashion, and indeed the very stores where the collaborations occur were catering to that desire, it suddenly becomes an open secret that fast fashion is just that - disposable fast fashion.  Designer collaborations are sold as high fashion at affordable prices, but unfortunately it is the idea of exclusivity and status value that often drives the majority of those sales (and re-sales).  Somewhere along the line, the actual clothing produced seems to be forgotten (I think it is important to note that this often applies across the board, whether it be a designer collaboration or an actual high fashion piece).

What should sell is aesthetics, fit, construction and quality (amongst others), regardless of name or label.  The myth of the designer collaboration is that all these are inherent to the clothing produced by the fast fashion house simply by virtue of the name on the label.  Usually you get exactly what you would expect - fast fashion quality at slightly higher than usual fast fashion prices.  That is not to say that all the pieces produced are worthless, but rather they are hyped beyond what they actually are.  Personally speaking, I could not care less about H&M and their collaborations.  It is the hype that sells, not the clothing.

So what of the Undercover collaboration?  Of course it should be noted that H&M and Uniqlo are two different companies with two different approaches, but they are understandably cut of the same cloth.  One can look towards the Jil Sander collaboration with Uniqlo, which was based more upon the designer than a fashion house.  For some reason people tend to overlook the fact that Jil Sander no longer has anything to do with Jil Sander, just as Helmut Lang has nothing to do with Helmut Lang (on which note, Make It Hard had better be one heck of an artistic masterpiece, because I can think of a number of die hards who would pay top dollar for those now shredded archives).  Jil insisted on being able to use the same fabric houses she used when still designing for her eponymous label, and in that respect it was vastly different from your average collaboration - she wanted aesthetics and quality to be the selling point rather than her name.

However the alliance was increasingly marred by inconsistencies.  Disregarding the fact that the collaboration ends this year, judging from the past two seasons, it naturally had to end because the partnership was simply not producing what Jil had wanted it to.  The sizing changed every season, the prices increased without that increase being reflected in quality, and the shortcomings of working through a fast fashion company was becoming ever clearer.  Footfall into the store increased initially, but soon the average consumer was more interested in the cheaper options, with the majority of the collection going into sale and then clearance the next season (including the suiting, which was actually of fantastic for the price).  Designer collaborations are after all not the major earner, a company uses them for the footfall, but relies on their own cheap basics to pull in the profit.

With the announcement that Jun Takahashi was to be collaborating with Uniqlo for next year, I immediately thought of the Manifesto and all that Jun had said before.  Speaking of designer collaborations Jun previously stated that
...their collaborations are productive only in terms of business. If you ask me whether or not I’m interested in such kind of collaboration, my answer would have to be “no.”
Indeed when asked about why he found the fashion system so abhorrent he replied,
The misguided upper-class mentality, the mass media that place ultimate importance on money, the mass media that excessively seek the latest trends and all the incredibly fast changes in the industry. I want to introduce my own creations at my own pace. I’m fed up with the magazines that are effectively catalogs and that place so much emphasis on money that you cannot obtain exposure through them unless you invest a large amount of money.
So what happened?

As with any business deal, all you have to do is look at the money.  Undercover has been struggling as of late (it can happen to even the best, look at Yohji's bankruptcy) and this collaboration will no doubt have provided Jun with a much needed cash boost.  That money allows a sense of freedom and security, however temporary it may be.  Fashion tends to romanticize the creative process, but creativity costs.  You have to design clothing that sells, as Gareth Pugh has been learning the past few seasons, and readily admits in interviews.  The money side is just as important as the designing side (indeed it is one of the major weaknesses of London as a fashion capital).  Undercover have been losing money and this is one way of stopping the loss and allowing Jun some freedom to really create at Undercover once the collaboration is over.

As much as Jun decried everything to do with fast fashion collaborations and the workings of the fashion system, sometimes you have make concessions to retain your freedom elsewhere.  It is rather unfortunate that with the system today (and that of the past to be honest), an artist who never once has to sell out his ideals to some extent during his career will probably die poor.  His fans may not care too greatly for the collaboration, but it will undoubtedly increase sales at Uniqlo, and Jun already has his money, so who cares?  The generation that grew up buying Undercover in its heyday are also the same generation who grew up in Japan with Uniqlo's reputation as a cheap and poor quality clothing store.  Your average European consumer will not be acquainted with Undercover or what they stand for, nor will such a collaboration realistically turn anyone onto mainline Undercover.

Fashion collaborations are not an intermediary step between fast fashion and the high fashion label, even though they are purported to be.  They are usually a compromise focused on money and publicity.  A cynical view perhaps, but given the collaborations to date, it is a conclusion I reach in the hope that future collaborations challenge that view.  Indeed I hope that this project encompasses the strengths of the Jil Sander collaboration, and that it has more in common with the Gyakusou project than your average designer collaboration. 

I hate the idea of fast fashion, and I detest the hype surrounding these collaborations.  Fashion ought to be judged on its individual merits, not just the name on its label.  I want clothing that I love and that holds some deeper meaning than simply catering to a momentary trend or drive for profits.



  1. Thoughtful and well-written. These collaborations are what the designers choose to make out of them. Some are better than others, and can still turn out gems. I just dislike the way some consumers wipe out racks only to re-sell for a premium on ebay, and the riot and overnight camping that happens on opening day. Though we can’t blame clothing for only these (releases of new i-products, movies…) Either way, it seems designers can never say never. I look forward to Missoni/Target and Versace/H&M, but if it’s poor quality or nothing that suits me, I’m just fine to walk away.

  2. Unfortunately, things just get faster and faster in this world. Great post!

  3. Bravo! Very thoughtful post Syed.

    I particularly loved that you touched on the strength a certain label has on a piece of clothing. I truly wonder how many people would buy the same garments and accessories that Prada comes up with, if it didn't have the Prada label?

    I must admit I am incredibly interested to see what Jun comes up with in this collaboration. I do believe that Uniqlo is the best of the fast fashion companies because they do have a certain emphasis on quality that the likes of Zara and H&M do not have.

    I also appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the +J collections. I think you're spot on but it really has been quite remarkable what Jil + Uniqlo have achieved with it. The quality for the price point is unbeatable. Some of my favourite shirts come from +J and every little detail blows me away.

    As of late I have been finding Jun's collections to be kind of disappointingly commercial. I understand from conversations I've had with friends that used to buy him, they don't understand what he's about anymore. It's no wonder a designers business starts going down hill when he starts trying to be something he isn't.

    "I want clothing that I love and that holds some deeper meaning than simply catering to a momentary trend or drive for profits." - My thoughts exactly. Sometimes I forget that the majority of people don't think like we do and that trends are important to many. It's unfortunate that so many put their identities into brands and keeping up with trends.

    I guess we will both be waiting to see the results of this, I hope this perhaps moves things forward.