Why Fashion-Athletic Collabs Will Still Win Despite the Coronavirus

For months, sneaker brands and luxury labels worked hard to excite consumers with buzzy collaborations and unexpected alliances. While such marriages weren’t new, the heat around them had intensified.

But then the coronavirus pandemic rippled across the globe, upending much of retail — from store closures to supply chain bottlenecks — and their once bankable collaborations.

Take, for instance, the highly anticipated partnership between Dior and Jordan Brand, which caused a stir among sneakerheads and fashion fans in December after images surfaced online. In March, the two brands decided to delay the international online draw it had planned that would give consumers the chance to buy a pair of the Dior x Air Jordan 1 High or give them access to the international pop-ups that were selling apparel and accessories from the collection.

“To ensure the safety of all, in accordance with recommendations by public authorities, and in order to reinforce the coordination of international measures, Dior has decided to postpone its international draw for the launch of the Air Dior capsule collection realized in collaboration with Jordan Brand,” read a Dior statement.

The Dior x Air Jordan 1 High Collaboration
The Dior x Air Jordan 1 High collaboration.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Nike

Also last month, New Balance announced it was delaying its anticipated collaboration with luxury men’s fashion house Casablanca on the 327 silhouette from its original April 4 release date to April 18. The rollout shifted to online-only, with top retailers worldwide stocking it including Kith in the U.S., End Clothing doors throughout Europe and Dover Street Market in Japan, among several others.

Although these delays came as the coronavirus crisis was ramping up, it remains to be seen how upcoming spring and summer releases will be handled. For example, Fila’s most recent high-end collaboration with Miami-based accessories company Miansai hit retail in December. However, the heritage athletic company told FN that it plans to deliver another for spring ’20 with a soon-to-be-revealed high-end fashion label.

While many brands and consumers may be waiting for the economy and retail to stabilize, experts said there will be continued demand for athletic and luxury label collaborations.

“[Luxury players] get an element of cool inserted into their brand, an edgy street style that is so marketable right now,” explained sneaker-obsessed TV personality Tamara Dhia. “On the flip side, the athletic brand gets elevated to a place where they become focal points as models walk down runways in the collaborated designs during fashion weeks. It’s a win-win. You are essentially broadening your consumer demographic.”

Although there are benefits for both companies, The NPD Group Inc. senior sports industry adviser Matt Powell said he believes fashion houses have more to gain than their athletic counterparts.

“The luxury market clearly understands the strength of this athleisure trend that we’re in and is trying to grab some of that heat as well,” Powell said. “By associating themselves with an athletic brand it gives them some credibility as an activewear maker.”

By teaming up with sneaker labels, fashion companies are tying themselves to the largest footwear category in the marketplace. For the year ending February 2020, according to NPD, athletic footwear made up 54% of the industry, while fashion footwear owned 37%.

Aside from the attention from new consumers, according to Powell, luxury labels also get first-hand lessons in modern sneaker construction.

“Luxury brands have all tried to make sneakers, and the product they’ve made has been heavy and stiff, not the modern sneaker that we think about today,” he said. “And frankly, the designs were pretty derivative from existing athletic styles, so this is another way for them to learn about what kind of product to make.”

Dhia, however, said she believes this isn’t a one-sided affair in favor of luxury companies.

“Let’s not forget that streetwear has been pulling inspiration from luxury brands for a while. Look at the Diamond [x Nike] ‘Tiffany’ Dunks or Don C’s Jordan 2 that was modeled from a Chanel bag,” Dhia said. “With streetwear now becoming so mainstream — hello Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton — high fashion brands jumping on the bandwagon makes sense.”

Here, leaders from the athletic and luxury worlds break down the dynamics of these partnerships.

Why They’ll Stay Hot

Tabitha Simmons (Designer): “With the rise of the athleisure trend, there is a strong consumer desire for new products, especially those that fuse sport and fashion that can be dressed up or down and easily incorporated into one’s wardrobe.”

Adam Petrick (Puma Global Director of Brand and Marketing): “The lines between fashion and athletic-streetwear brands have become blurry over the years and these collaborations over something fresh and exciting to our consumers. It’s always interesting to blend the creative vision and aesthetics of a fashion brand with our rich sport heritage and see the outcome.”

Joe Grondin (New Balance Collaborations Product Manager): “The exponential growth of social media and digital marketing is the main reason. No so long ago, the high-fashion space was confined to a much more niche audience [that was] older and wealthier. These brands are now represented by high-profile musicians, athletes and entertainers who are actively sharing product, runway shows [and] parties on social. This visibility lends itself nicely to sneakers, an item that already has a massive culture and following. A collaboration gives a younger kid with aspirations of luxury the ability to be a part of that scene and look like their favorite stars without breaking the bank.”

Kelly Fatouretchi (Asics Sportstyle Category Director): “This level of partnership allows brands to explore different avenues of creativity and on a different scale. It provides companies the opportunity to take risks and have their products viewed through a different lens.”

Mike Parker (Reebok Senior Director of Fashion): “It’s been hot for quite some time, but now it’s more visible and reaching a broader audience. This consumer has always had an appetite for elevated product that comes from the best of both worlds. For a long time, it has been described that consumers wear sneakers for fashion purposes and not for the court or fi eld. Now, fashion houses and athletic brands are bringing that insight to life.”

Mark Eggert (Fila SVP Footwear Design and Advanced Concepts): “The line between luxury and sportswear continues to merge, so the increase in these collaborations allow both high fashion and athletic brands an opportunity for exposure in new markets.”

Shangguan Zhe (Sankuanz Founder): “Most athletic brands have gradually shifted their emphasis from professional sports to a casual shoes and clothing brand with sports genes. If we regard some athletic brand as casual clothing brands, the universality of this collaboration makes sense. In addition to specialized technology for sportswear, athletic brands need more creative concepts and marketing promotion topics to expand to new markets. Diversified integration is also one of the characteristics of this era.”

A look from the Puma x Balmain collection created by Cara Delevingne
A look from the Puma x Balmain collection created by Cara Delevingne
CREDIT: Balmain

What They Uniquely Offer

TS: “Through my collaboration with Puma, I was able to apply my signature feminine and fl oral design aesthetic to some of Puma’s classic, best-selling sneaker styles and in turn, o er customers something new and unexpected.”

JG: “A fashion-forward brand can put a new product on a pedestal or elevate a classic product simply through the context of their runway show or marketing campaign. Due to the attention these brands get from media outlets and influencers, a product can be validated instantly.”

KF: “It helps reach a different consumer base that might otherwise not be aware of some of the products your company produces.”

MP: “Fashion and athleticwear collabs provide a unique opportunity because both industries have bled into each other, particularly in recent years. We’ve seen that high fashion point of view really penetrate athleticwear, and utilitarian aspects of athleticwear — materials, structure, wearability — on runways around the world. Each collaboration is an opportunity to incite a new perspective, to push the limits of the two industries, and a affect ongoing change in the market.”

ME: “Not only have we seen excellent products emerge as a result of the cross-pollination, but we’ve also seen consumers engage and interact with brands they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.”

SZ: “The norm of strictly wearing clothing that matches the occasion has become vague. Sportswear has become accepted in formal occasions [and] fashion is an industry that allows blurring the boundaries between dress codes. For example, when did it become popular to match formal suiting with sneakers? When did T-shirts, jeans and sneakers become common attire in business? Fashion and sports brand collabs are adapting to the ever-changing dressing standards, meeting consumers’ demand for new styles.”

What’s Working

TS: “Fashion-athletic collaborations are opportunities for designers to create fun and fresh silhouettes that serve as more fashion-forward options for working out and beyond.”

AP: “Working with fashion brands is helping us reach an audience we believe can help expand our business. By partnering, we can o er both rich heritage and authenticity in the market, we are able to infuse sport into fashion. [If you] look at the tunnel walk in for the NBA, athletes are treating that like a runway. This is the place these types of collabs are being noticed. For Puma, it’s the perfect blend of sport and culture and we want to be a part of that conversation.”

JG: “The best fashion-focused collabs with athletic companies are projects that allow the partner to lead on creative and to provide a new aesthetic for the brand or create a new lens for the product to shine through.”

KF: “Collaborations between brands that feel natural and genuinely connected are what resonate most in today’s world of collaboration saturation. Unexpected partnerships can also build hype, yet consumers are highly educated and can easily sniff out mediocre product and inauthentic partnerships. Product comes to life at its best through a strong influencer’s vision and marketing storytelling that grabs the consumers’ attention.”

MP: “The collabs that bring two different brands together and create something totally new that incorporates both brands DNA organically. The fashion and athletic industries used to be very siloed, but the lines have become blurred. What is working now is authentic brand connection in selecting collaboration partners and sincere product development. There are not as many collab opportunities that are completely unexpected anymore.”

ME: “Consumers are smart and tend to engage more with authentic and genuine brand partnerships. Product that remains true to both collaboration partners and explores the areas in which they overlap see a lot of success.”

Maison Margiela x Reebok
A look at the Maison Margiela x Reebok collab with the flat sole.
CREDIT: Reebok

What’s Not Working

AP: “It can be a saturated space so it’s important to select partners that authentically connect with our brand, that can actually partner to create something innovative in design. We want to leverage the culture around sport so anything we feel fits in that space is where we like to start.”

JG: “Pairing product a with brand isn’t always going to make a splash, especially with more of these projects happening. If it looks forced it is not going to resonate with the audience.”

MP: “The collabs that don’t move the product to a new place, but instead just puts their logo on the product. [And] collabs that don’t have an authentic story or connection for being or coming together. Not only the product but the story is equally as important.”

SZ: “Most of the collaboration products we’ve seen so far, although they have been great commercial products, we’ve yet to see products of true historical significance.”

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