Can you remember the first time you were given a chance to finally stand face-to-face (and taller, I might add) with apparel from the expensive-ass, high fashion brands that once seemed so fancy you were afraid to even eye them while they flourished (or is it languished?) in the windows at Barneys — and what’s more, actually afford it?
For me, it was right around the time news broke that H&M would be collaborating with Karl Lagerfeld. Or Stella McCartney. I forget which one came first. Though I knew little about the latter (I was still riding the coattails of middle school), I did know the collaboration was reason enough to beg my mom to let me skip class and allow me to take the subway to 59th street where I could — and would — get on line for a chance to buy the Stella-approved polyester from the Swedish clothes whisperers. So I did.
But when I finally got in and managed to ransack the place in pursuit of just one meager blouse, the anticipation proved much more exciting than the actual garment. Though I found the blouse, I no longer wanted it. So here was this 15-year-old girl with $60 burning a hole through her pocket, holding a shirt (it was white, long, oversize and featured a paltry sash belt) stamped with the McCartney label and therefore emanating only the most exclusive sense of zeal, and I wasn’t interested. What happened?
As future collaborations for H&M and beyond (Target, Uniqlo, Kohl’s, Macy’s, even Anthropologie) would proliferate alongside pedigreed names like Missoni, Matthew Williamson, Versace, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, Thakoon, Giambattista Valli, Peter Som, Phillip Lim… I wasn’t quite sure why some worked (I couldn’t have ambushed Margiela or Lanvin for H&M quicker) and some didn’t (Derek Lam and Narciso Rodriguez are two of my absolute favorite designers, and yet when reinterpreted with Kohl’s at an accessible price point, niente).
But when news dropped yesterday that the most recent brand to sign on to Target’s robust-and-growing roster of designer collaborations was Peter Pilotto, a lightbulb switched on. The partnership was announced at the designers’ Spring/Summer 2014 show in London just before Pilotto and Christopher De Vos’ comprehensive series of 32 dresses would walk the runway in a gradation in line with the now pervasive, bright, kaleidoscopic prints emblematic of the brand. In fact, I am certain that if I didn’t tell you the above images were from yesterday’s show, you’d probably know it on your own.
It’s the prints. That’s got to be it. When a designer like the preferred Derek Lam or Narciso Rodriguez or Francisco Costa agrees to take what is already exceptionally approachable – albeit highly expensive – and pare down the years of minimalist appeal and maximalist, elite fabrication, what are we left with? Some chinos? A pair of slacks?
A plain white blouse.
It must have occurred to me without actually occurring to me while gripping that Stella McCartney for H&M shirt nine years ago, that without featuring at least, oh, I don’t know, one fruit print or a series of polka dots or a large geometric plaid, what’s the use in buying the Stella McCartney version of H&M when I can probably just buy the H&M version? Half the beauty in indulging in Stella McCartney or the anterior Lam, Rodriguez and so forth is knowing that even though you may get complimented for your incredibly well tailored jacket, only fashion’s pundits will really know who it’s by.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. When Jil Sander was designing for Uniqlo, it seemed that for a moment we could have it all: the clothes and food money.
But where big box collaborations really prosper is through partnering with brands who have already pinned down a very distinct course of style. There’s a reason some simple white button-downs cost hundreds of dollars. It’s in the fabric, the cut, the craftsmanship – areas where manufacturers can’t afford to be as stringent with larger buys at a lower price point.
There’s far more flexibility when the focus is a known design element or print, like Missoni for Target. That way, when you’re selling the clothes, you’re not really selling clothes — you’re selling a remarkably accepted concept. The name Peter Pilotto instantly calls to mind exactly what a Pilotto print looks like. And if Target can translate print to paper, or rather to fabric, that’s bait for a paramount diffusion line. Just count us out for the simple separates.
Images via Vogue.com from yesterday’s runway show.