Quite often when lecturing to fashion students you get asked about specific aspects of the industry and it is not rare to find yourself discussing inspirations, plagiarism, appropriation and, well, collaboration. Many students actually display a strong interest in collaborations, going from developing an idea, a shoot or a fanzine with friends studying another subject, to working with a famous company or a big brand.
While you tend to encourage them in adventuring in such terrains, you also remind them that, in case they end up collaborating with a big company, they will have to read the small print on the contract and pay attention at copyright protection. You rarely tell them to check if the company they want to collaborate with or who expressed a strong will to work with them has already got another similar project going on with somebody else. But this is actually something you should definitely do, considering two collections recently showcased during the menswear runways in Paris.
Last Friday, inspired by the current fad for sports and streetwear, Junya Watanabe launched in his collection a series of collaborations, one of them with The North Face.
The collection opened with a model carrying a black duffel bag by The North Face and wearing a checked jacket with a yellow nylon patch prominently bearing the utility brand's logo.
The designer then proceeded to disassemble the bag and re-collage it together in his outerwear, creating contrasts of fabrics and materials in his workwear, fisherman's coats and varsity jackets.
Further streetwear elements included hoodies with padded sleeves, wide-legged pants, trousers with messages in white bold letters, and high-tech shoes, dynamic pieces Watanabe may have seen on skaters (for the A/W 17 season he was inspired by a recent trip to San Francisco).
For this collection Watanabe also collaborated with Levi’s, Carhartt, Pendleton, Vans, Barbour, Kangol, duffle coat manufacturer Gloverall and Japanese label Van Jacket.
Now, it is perfectly understandable for a designer to collaborate with highly credible cult street brands that may reach out to a young generation of consumers (on the back of a varsity jacket there was written "For the Young and the Young at Heart"...), but then again Vêtements collaborated with several brands for its Spring/Summer 2017 men and women's wear collections and one of such brands was Carhartt.
Watanabe surely didn't need the latter (nor any of the other brands) to elevate his garments to cult, since he seems to be perfectly able to rework the tailoring tropes and transform a tweed double-breasted jacket in a quirky hybrid piece by adding quilted, padded or leather sleeves.
Yet there was something even more surprising linked with this collection. For a strange parallelism of destiny, last Saturday morning, around the same time Watanabe's runway on the previous day, Chitose Abe launched her latest Sacai collection.
One of the main point of the designer was showcasing her "Cut Up" (this was also the title of her collection) technique, something she hinted at in the soundtrack that featured William S. Burroughs' recordings recounting his modus operandi to produce collaged texts.
Abe wasn't as random as Burroughs, though, but seemed very sensible in her combinations of textiles, materials and colours. She therefore sent out on her runway pieces that had been recombined with her favourite details pulled from other garments: a herringbone tweed coat incorporated for example the hood of a mountaineering jacket; a shearling jacket collar was integrated in a cotton raincoat; a denim workwear jacket was embellished with an embroidered collar and a military coat was merged with shaggy fur.
Quite a few garments - from trousers to a faux-fur coat - were also characterized by a blown up pixelated camouflage print that will be successful with Minecraft fans.
The exercises in hybrid-wear continued in her women's Pre-Fall collection that included dresses with an elegant motif in green and gold pleats, worn with a brown loose turtleneck underneath. The runway also featured a few garments from a capsule collaboration with The North Face, such as oversized parkas and a new version of the MA-1 bomber jacket.
This Sacai collaboration is part of The North Face Urban Exploration, a project that aims at combining the brand's utility wear with more cutting edge designers.
As a whole also the pieces on Sacai's runway seemed interesting and they recombined the urban and the utilitarian with the stylish and elegant (see the herringbone jackets/parkas with velvet around their collars, the contrast tape linings highlighting other outerwear pieces or the embroidered button fastenings at the neck). Style-wise they were also layered in a visually pleasing way with a yellow silk dress matched with a green and navy anorak from The North Face and a long and solemn teal dress sported with sandals, knee-high yellow socks and a green puffer jacket.
In a way Abe managed to tone down the more aggressive aspects of streetwear with a soft colour palette comprising pinks and yellows. So, yes, in much the same way as Burroughs achieved a new literary order in his works, so did Abe in her Sacai garments.
Yet at the bottom of two different and rather strong collections there was a collaboration with the same brand and you seriously wonder why they chose to do so in same season, burning two respectable names with a good reputation in one go.
In the case of Watanabe the collaboration worked best when he destroyed a North Face bag and recomposed/repurposed it, turning its handles into straps ideal to wear a jacket as a rucksack when it's too warm; in the case of Abe, well, she excelled in her "cut up", but the techniques employed by both the designers may have been applied to any kind of bag and to any kind of parka/coat/jacket. Indeed The North Face collaboration did not add or detract anything to their talent.
So what shall we tell students about such collaborations? Sure, go on and chase them, but, please, check if somebody else is doing the same in the same season, to avoid confusing consumers. Besides, if you have a very innovative or cool idea for a garment or accessory, just patent it and go for it. Remember, if your design is genuinely strong, you don't need it to be labelled as a cool" collab" between you and a cult brand to be a hit.