Note: This was written for Sneaker News’ print project ages ago. I can’t quite recall whether it ended up in issue #2 in a truncated form or never ran at all. Browsing through it, I realised that my attitude has changed, but I couldn’t be bothered to make major amends this evening. Expect typos.
There are too many collaborations on the market. This isn’t just embittered old-timer talk, because positives currently outweigh negatives. There’s never been so much choice, information and opportunity when it comes to shoes and their connecting cultures. Entrepreneurs, casual fans and diehard collectors are all catered for right now. The fact you can’t get what you want is simply down to a bottleneck of people — many of which would spit the term hypebeast out on social networks as if it leapt from a sewer to grope their mother — all wanting the same ten things. There’s great product out there, but nobody’s throwing enough fire Emojis enough to ignite it.
Post-Flyknit, there’s a wait for a new technology that’s decidedly anti-retro, but accessible enough to get those likes and offer the potential of eBay investment. This is not 1997 again. Brands don’t have the power to enigmatically unleash cryptic print ads and turn something loose on the courts. For one thing, there’s leaks like never before — once it was just MP3s or movie work prints. To own PROPERTY OF NIKE was bragging rights. Now, an iPhone shot of a shoe sample alone is actively sought out as a route to follows.
Collaborations are ephemeral now — moments in time getting an IG blast and a moment in the spotlight that rolls from the front page by dinnertime, with a handful at a boutique door, before they’re gone from shelves and flooding eBay at optimistic prices. They should be brilliant and memorable, yet we’re seeing reissues of old collaborations. Not just the retro of the shoe, but the retro of a collaboration. Change the height and tweak the colours all you like, but a recycled idea is nothing to celebrate. If anything, it’s an indicator that something has reached its natural end, by devouring its own tail. But the constant queues every Thursday, Friday and Saturday say otherwise. So think of this as a gentle warning to brands who aren’t adjusting their strategies accordingly, that something ultimately has to give.
Historically it’s tough to call the original collaboration — was the union of Chuck Taylor and the Converse All Star in 1923 a collab or just the daddy of the athlete signature shoe (even though his role was more consultancy and marketing based)? Vans’s Disneyland exclusives and Knott’s Camp Snoopy editions, or the DC comics Batman Chucks of the early 1980s have been remade in recent years and sold as collaborations. New Balance’s dual-branded editions of the 1600 for the defunct Just For Feet chain and 1700 for London’s Harrods are rarely discussed when it comes to exploring this topic too. Run-D.M.C. and adidas (seriously overlooked), plus Elton John, Rod Stewart, and rock’s late 1970s and early 1980s royalty getting Nike SMUs broke ground. What about the TV specials? The Seinfeld GTS, Nike Friends shoe and the Nike “Binford” for Home Improvement crew members would be blog fodder if they dropped nowadays. But now? Everything’s a collaboration.
There’s no hard and fast rules on what a collaboration should be, but it’s hard not to feel that the opportunity is wasted time and time again. Many fans spend their time declaring what they’d do if they were tasked with remaking an old standard, but there are irksome parameters that collaborators are generally fenced into – the model is enforced, materials are kept to a limit and occasionally, even a colour palette to pick from is supplied, making it a glorified NIKEiD or miadidas equivalent.
The collaborator has an objective not to look like anything done before. Not a GR and certainly not another collaboration. Making a project that riffs on a shoe from a rival brand is a total disrespect too — nearly every brand with a legacy has its own untold or forgotten tales in the archive. Digging deeper rather than copying is common sense, but it seems like a lost art form these days.
The sheer volume is fogging the good stuff. Self-declared nicknames are a new norm. colours can’t just be colours. They have to have monikers and themes. Flowers, leaves and snacks are inspiring shoes — at its best, a theme has a logic, connecting with the birth year of the shoe, the subcultures that adopted the model or an element of its original purpose. It needs to be smart if you’re going to talk it up. Just throwing the label of the beverage by the MacBook during an last-minute Illustrator session as the story is lazy. Collaborators have a duty to do their homework — all red because Kanye did it or light blue because Ronnie did it might shift, but it leaves no legacy. Too similar? Go create something different. If it’s too bland, why bother?
Now we have to have a concept. The brands want to know what inspired a shoe. Why can’t an object shift on its own aesthetics? It’s understandable that almost every stone seems to have been overturned. The cup runneth dry creatively. Most of the greatest colourways ever may have been themed (the Air Trainer 1 for instance, based, according to Tinker, on a specific piece of gym equipment), but it highlighted new technologies. A Jordan riffed on MJ’s current team with an additional version inspired by his alma mater. At the dawn of the Retro+ era, if it was concept led, it was intelligent — a patriotic red, white and blue on a VI or the blue and gold of Emsley A. Laney High School on a V. Rarely a reach.
The difference between a special makeup and collaboration is blurring, and the resulting dilution has been harmful. Whether it’s a call for a special colourway or a purchase of every pair from the showroom, everything has become X’d out. Buying all those shoes then enforcing a nickname and pretend inspiration 72 hours before release is something the big boys have long been able to do. Back in the halcyon days of Foot Locker Limited Edition hangtags, JD and Foot Action exclusives, nobody ever considered them any kind of collaboration.
Since the early to mid 2000s heyday of the collaboration as a wearable collectible, paper gave way to pixels, with the blog era followed by the social media movement. There have never been so many specialist outlets, yet they all tell exactly the same thing. An audience rarely fed an opinion. No insight. Just the story in its most click-bait form. Through support of the underwhelming, mediocrity thrives. The most common superlative is, “Those are clean” — is that a codename for dull and ultra-conservative? If a shoe costs 100+ dollars, should quality be a selling point, or a given?
Let’s not pretend that the collaboration was ever anything other than a marketing exercise. Even in the supposed halcyon days, it wasn’t merely a cool guy connecting exchange of ideas—the end goal was infiltration of a crowd that was considered tough at the time, but seems to have become significantly less discriminating now, and eventual profit through that affiliation. But in a world where hype culture was more of a niche, infiltration through an advertisement feature (which, in 2015, would be pitched as a collaboration in itself) wasn’t an option. The genesis of some of the greatest projects was still more organic — friends taking jobs at brands, sales relationships and mutual respect.
There’s a belief that a brand with no heritage or prestige, or a product that never-was, can be ignited by collaborations. To some extent, attention is inevitable, but no amount of co-signs — even with an audience who weren’t alive for the original flop drop — can make a dead brand reanimate completely. Pay for play when it comes to basic collaborations can be the antithesis of mutual respect, like celebrities with shoe sponsorship whose eyes say Jordans when their feet carry another brand. Working with those who genuinely love the product brings an authenticity. If the collaborations cease to sell, or in the event of some sudden market shift, a brand needs a strategy that doesn’t require a second brand’s involvement. Collaborations have become a crutch rather than a compliment.
The best of the early hype collaborations brought talented brands and stores with vision to products they genuinely understood — Stüssy and Nike’s 2000 union for a Huarache brought two labels commonly worn together without their connection being made divert, while nods to the 1988 Escape line’s impact in the streets and the Huarache’s reputation in the UK were credibly executed by London-based chapter of the surf-meets-street pioneers. Nigo and adidas’s BAPE project from 2003 is perfect for that same reason, with its Germanic precision and Tokyo otaku-style attention to detail, down to the replication of the colour that OG toe rubber took over time. The BAPE-founder’s genuine appreciation for the shelltoe lived up to the project’s “The Respect is Mutual” tagline — a 2015, post-Nigo BAPE PUMA Disc makeover lacked the personal feel.
The venerable Yohji Yamamoto dropping adidas a line to get some shoes for a 2001 catwalk show resulted in a handful of special makeups, the Tenet model and the debut of the hugely influential Y-3 line the following year. HECTIC’s 2000 versions of the mysterious MT580 brought us an intriguing spin on the M585 that matched the often-overlooked Tokyo entity’s vision. 2001’s ‘Monotone’ pack from Nike used modern classics Hiroshi Fujiwara loved as well as the new looks he constantly co-signed in his influential magazine columns. ALIFE’s flawless 2002 adidas rollout used the Grand Slam, Top Ten and Attitude, with minimal and maximalism deployed appropriately in a knowing love letter to NYC’s collector culture.
In 2002, the idea of uniting the Air Jordan III’s print and the Dunk for a Supreme special seemed like a unique hybrid of seminal styles. atmos’s 2003 Air Max 1 and 95 makeups, with their viotech accents, never needed some preposterous narrative behind them to make them appealing. Reebok’s unreleased Chanel catwalk project made sense because of the avant-garde beauty of the Pump Fury, with its stripped down functionalism and longstanding connection to the fashion crowd. Before Nike SB was launched, the decision to bring a vast corporation to a tiny, credible line like Alphanumeric for a specially padded Dunk Lo tapped into Alyasha Owerka-Moore and the crew’s respect for the Dunk and Jordan I’s skate legacy. ASICS’s work with Long Beach’s Proper in 2003 seemed to come from nowhere, but working with a pioneering performance silhouette like the GT-II and bringing ripstop nylon, speckles and military colours to the shoe—a norm now—set a standard. London’s CT had to push hard to get a set of UK-made 576s made for a summer 2004 release, having to explain exactly what the benefits of a sneaker website linking with a brand like New Balance would be. Things done changed.
Everything that made the aforementioned shoes memorable has been left from the newer programs. Therein lies the problem—collaborations are simply part of the model. They’re the harbinger of any rerelease and they swarm onto the shelves to mark even the most tenuous anniversary. adidas’s superb 2005 Consortium Superstar boutique releases created a much-cloned formula. Even adidas had to cut back on the sheer volume— having run through the entire alphabet for a ZX project, before some less memorable campaigns and a successful rebooted strategy in recent years. 20 shoes to mark 20 years will always yield some runts and some inadvertent identikit colourways. But for some heritage divisions, is there a business beyond the collaborative onslaught? Does anyone buy their output without the co-sign?
Who is pushing things in the current market? The painstaking shop fits that Concepts, with its experiential trap house ASICS Gel-Lyte V lunacy, and Kith have been generating goes far beyond the call of duty. Patta launching Italian-made Diadora runners that connect to the brand’s heritage, Euro football nostalgia and Amsterdam’s legacy of hustler money running shoe obscurities brings a credibility to a product that could have been misunderstood without that approach. Supreme bring the pinpoint precision to their marketing strategies, and lead with first dibs on some reintroductions. A decade on, Vans’ Syndicate line still evades the corporate cleansing that other collaborations might stumble with, and unites with some genuinely subversive characters. Bodega’s Elite ongoing project with Saucony captured the spirit of two Massachusetts-based entities.
Nike wisely stepped back from a strategy they helped pioneer with a scattering of grander, NikeLab-promoted collections like the UNDERCOVER Gyakusou line with Jun Takahashi that taps into his love of running and innovation, and a female counterpart in the shape of a Sacai partnership. It’s grander than just a couple of shoes and it’s globally coordinated too. Nike’s ACRONYM affiliation runs deeper than a couple of traded Illustrator files too — it’s evident that a decision has been made to go for less, but make the few they make more memorable.
adidas’s work with Kanye West doesn’t fall into the monotone predictability, and is genuinely ambitious, complete with a completely new tooling and last (plus a substantial collection of apparel), rather than a carry-over sole unit. On the subject of music crossovers, Pharrell’s Supercolor collection transcends the aforementioned monotone monotony by going wild with the Pantone book to create a collection that’s incredibly effective as a whole. Perhaps the recent mi ZX Flux photo print initiative and Nike’s decision to premier performance models on NIKEiD simultaneously with their release points to a more democratic world, where the consumer is a collaborator, as opposed to the prohibitive custom options of old.
What are the alternatives? Make less releases, but let them breathe. Work to prevent leaks, promote them properly — tell the stories, but don’t give people a pointless preview three months early, so they can be assailed by hundreds and hundreds of other shoes before it ever releases. Catering to every boutique you’ve tossed a top-tier account to is risky, because just being a retailer doesn’t make you a good designer. Brands have a duty to tell the partner if their design sucks, because their reputation and value is on the line too. Clean isn’t good enough. We need ambitious labours of love — the safe zone has made product bland. A lot of people would kill for the opportunity to create something (some people would be willing to kill just to own certain shoes, but that’s another article entirely). Brands and partners have a duty to push things forward.
Via Being Hunted, just because those 2001-2003 blog entries look so damned quaint in 2016.