June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
For almost a decade, the Swedish mega-retailer H&M has collaborated with some of fashion’s biggest designers to offer their customers high fashion at commercial prices. The first line came out in 2002 with a collection by Karl Lagerfeld. Since then, the list has grown to include Commes des Garcon, Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf, and Lanvin, amongst others. Italian label Versace, known for its flamboyantly sexy aesthetic, is the latest designer to be tapped for collaboration. But this most recent choice is surprising, considering just a few years ago Versace’s queen bee Donatella explicitly rejected any possibility of doing a line with H&M in an interview with New York Magazine: “I work very hard to put Versace in the luxury section. I think to put the Versace line in H&M would confuse the brand.”
Donatella was expressing the sentiment – once common in high fashion – that luxury and commercial don’t mix. That doing a line for H&M, a store made famous by offering cheap yet trendy clothes, would devalue the brand in the eyes of its rich clientele.
But clearly Donatella has since changed her point of view. Yes, luxury can mix with commercial! And there are already a number of designers who have come to this conclusion. Chanel, for example, shocked the fashion world last year by choosing Blake Lively as its new spokeswoman. In the ’90s, fashion houses used supermodels like Claudia Schiffer or Linda Evangelista as their public face, not teen idols who play superhero love interests. Choosing Lively made it clear that Chanel was going mainstream.
As Chanel demonstrated with Lively, the most popular and probably most effective way for a luxury brand to put itself into the mainstream is by aligning themselves with celebrities. In 2009, Louis Vuitton took this method to another level when it released a line of shoes co-designed by Kanye West. This wasn’t a complete surprise, as Louis Vuitton had collaborated before with artists such as Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami. But no previous collaborator had nearly as much commercial appeal as Kanye, who had already had several number 1 singles and Grammys by that time. Also, Vuitton’s previous collaborators had been visual artists who used their craft to add artistic dimension to existing Vuitton goods. Kanye, on the other hand, was a rapper designing shoes in the dark.
Later that year, in what many consider a moment of delusion, French fashion house Ungaro used a similar tactic by tapping Lindsay Lohan as artistic advisor for their S/S 10 line. Technically, the head designer of the line was Estrella Archs, but the runway show made it clear that Archs was merely serving as Lindsay’s puppet. That season, the Ungaro runway was lined in hot pink, and the models strutted down the catwalk in dresses that looked like chewed-up sticks of bubblegum wrapped around their bodies. To some, they simply read as glorified hooker clothes.
But it seems that the products celebrities create for fashion labels often don’t matter – in truth, it’s only the association that labels care about. For example, although Ungaro’s Lohan collaboration resulted in a critically panned fashion show, the gesture put Ungaro’s name in the headlines in a way that even a stellar collection would not have. As a fashion house that had lost relevance over the years, this was an especially important jump start for the label.
Of all the ways a fashion brand can go mainstream, teaming up with H&M is one of the best. Both H&M and the brand benefit from increased media coverage and revenue, while fashion consumers gain access to the luxury brands they previously could only dream of. In doing a line with H&M, Donatella is just helping Versace stay in the game. We’re just happy she’s playing.