Have Sneaker Collaborations Lost Their Luster?

Jeff Staple changed the sneaker collaboration landscape forever in 2005 with his Nike SB Dunk Low “Pigeon,” a tribute to New York City done in an atypical way of that was limited to 150 pairs. The collab was in such high demand that riots ensued, which made the front page of the New York Post.

Twelve years later, Nike tapped Off-White founder Virgil Abloh to create “The Ten,” a collection of 10 classic and new silhouettes bearing the Swoosh branding that were reimagined by the designer. The range is widely regarded as the greatest collaboration ever.

While the collaborations game has certainly evolved, the formula to create a hit hasn’t changed.

“What made them special is that they were special. ‘Did you hear New Balance is going to work with this weird outdoor designer?’ That was special,” explained David Raysse, veteran designer and founder of Brandblack. “What was also cool about a collaboration was they gave a brand that’s known for one thing a unique perspective that they maybe didn’t see. Nike didn’t notice that kids were skating in their basketball shoes. It took Supreme to tell them that.”

Today, however, the idea of special can get lost, and collaborations have become ubiquitous.

“There’s like a billion of them out there. I see more collaborations on my social media feed than inline product,” Raysse said.

Retail mogul James Whitner is no stranger to collaborations. In recent years, his A Ma Maniére and Social Status banners have partnered with the likes of Jordan Brand and Nike, respectively, releasing nostalgia-fueled projects that have both amplified Black women and the greater Black community.

But he, too, believes today’s sneaker marketplace is “over collaborated.”

“If you’re going to do the project, it has to have some meaning. When we communicate with our kid in the marketplace, we like to be mindful to not just be throwing thing after thing at them,” Whitner explained. “But we’re at a place where the word collaboration is so frequently used that it’s lost some of its bite. There are some collaborations that are just a collaboration for the sake of collaboration, and it means nothing.”

The Impact of Collaborations When They Work

Extra Butter Saucony Shadow 5000 EBFTP
Extra Butter x Saucony Shadow 5000 “EBFTP.”
CREDIT: Courtesy of Extra Butter.

When executed well, collaborations serve a purpose that benefits all parties — and consumers.

“Sneaker collaborations give our brand an opportunity to tell a story. The story generally provides our consumer an insight to our point of view, what we care about or what excites us in terms of product or our brand partner,” explained Ankur Amin, CEO of TGS, the parent to Extra Butter and several other retail banners.

He continued, “The consumer benefits as they get a product that’s better thought through than an in-line offering and executed with a greater sense of detail and storytelling. The product has a sense of ‘special,’ and loyal supporters of both brands feel rewarded.”

They also offer emerging brands the opportunity to attract new consumers.

Hoka, for instance, is just north of a decade old and far younger than its athletic industry counterparts. Because of this, collaborations arguably serve a greater purpose to the brand than they do for its competitors.

“For us, they are are about building awareness, surprising, delighting. The piece that is the most exciting is when somebody comes across it can bring a smile, it’s going to create some intrigue, maybe it’s going to get them to search out the brand and ultimately become an aficionado,” explained Steve Doolan, Hoka VP of global commercial strategy.

Hoka’s partnerships have all began with an organic connection. With Engineered Garments, for example, Doolan said a connection was made with founder Daiki Suzuki, who is a marathoner and laces up Hoka for races. The relationship with Opening Ceremony is similar, Doolan explained, because its founder Carol Lim routinely runs to her New York City office in Hoka Cliftons.

Oversaturation Is a Problem — but It’s Not the Only One

Industry insiders agree that the sneaker collaboration space is suffering from oversaturation.

“I have Google alerts set up for all brands and retailers in the athletic space so I can stay on top of the news. A new collaboration is introduced about every 10 seconds. When there are that many out there, it’s just noise. It has nothing to do with driving sales,” explained Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc.

Powell went as far as to call most of today’s collaborations “dishonest.”

“There are far too many collaborations, and there are far too many meaningless ones. The original idea of collaborations was a celebrity saying, ‘I love this brand’ or ‘This is the first shoe my mom bought from me.’ It was honest and emotional and authentic. Today, it’s who is going to pay me,” Powell said.

What’s more, he believes the heightened focus on collaborations has resulted in other areas of the business to suffer.

“They’re taking valuable creative resources away from the broader market where we really need help,” Powell said. “For every collaboration we do it means time, money, resources, people are being used to chase tiny numbers, and the larger part of the business is suffering.”

This is not lost on Vans global brand president Kevin Bailey, who has stated publicly that the brand will sharpen its focus on product strategy since regaining control of the brand in March.

“While building cultural ties and fostering strong creative partnerships remains important, we don’t believe that co-creation should come at the expense of losing focus on pushing our own creativity and design boundaries as a brand,” Bailey said. “Having a thoughtful balance between the two will be critical to our success in the coming years.”

Aside from oversaturation, Staple believes most brands aren’t actually committed to collaborations, even though they are releasing them into the marketplace.

“From a consumer standpoint, it might look like every brand is invested in collaboration and energy product — but that’s not the case,” Staple said. “Even if a brand does a collaboration, that doesn’t mean it is invested in an energy plan. The reason why Nike does it so well is because they have dedicated people who are fully vested in the success of energy collaboration product. Other brands, they’re taking a dip their pinky toe in the water approach. There’s no allocated manufacturing, no allocated sampling, no PLM (product lifecycle management), no salesperson dedicated to it, no marketing person, no social media person, no channel that they even have that could talk about it.”

He continued, “It’s easy to call an artist, give them a check and then put your brand name x artist and think you’re in — but you’re not in, you’re just dabbling.”

The Luxury Outlier

Maison Margiela x Reebok
The heeled Maison Margiela x Reebok Instapump Fury collab.
CREDIT: Couresy of Reebok

Despite the overcrowded sneaker collaboration landscape, high-fashion labels have managed to carve out their own lane.

In recent years, top athletic footwear players have generated headlines for entering into partnerships with the high-fashion elite. For instance, Jordan Brand’s collaboration with Dior in 2020 was among the year’s most discussed shoes, regardless of category, and the longstanding partnership between Nike and Sacai continuously produces hits.

This proliferation of high-fashion partnerships with athletic sneaker companies has been nothing short of polarizing. Raysse, who has collaborated with the likes of Willy Chavarria and Maison Kitsune through his Brandblack imprint, is enamored by it all.

“That whole Gucci and Adidas thing is fire. I love all of it. There’s something punk rock about taking a $75 sneaker and saying ‘Yeah, it’s $800 because it’s Gucci,’” Raysse said. “The other one was ridiculously fire was Gucci and The North Face.”

He continued, “The fact that you have to drop eight bills on a pair of $75 shoes is the absolute Gilded Age crescendo peak expression of collaborations.”

Reebok has also delivered its fair share of luxury collaborations, having worked with the likes of Victoria Beckham and Pyer Moss. However, global director of product management Rich DiLando, who oversees street culture and energy collaborations, identified Maison Margiela as perhaps its best expression of a luxury partnership.

“When there is a reason for there to be a collaboration, that’s when it resonates with the sneakerhead community and consumers of the luxury brand as well, if they weren’t sneakerheads before. When the storytelling is authentic to both parties, it gives consumers a reason to care,” DiLando said.

DiLando believes by adding Margiela’s famed tabi toe to classic sneakers including the Instapump Fury and Classic Leather, and employing luxurious materials to the silhouettes, consumers understood why the two joined forces.

However, if the consumer cannot immediately grasp why the partnership exists, you’ve failed.

“If you cannot explain it in a minute, then it’s not the right partnership,” said Heiko Desens, global creative director at Puma. “There are too many where people don’t know what the is partnership about.”

A Different Approach

Moncler x Hoka One One Mafate Speed 2
Moncler x Hoka One One Mafate Speed 2.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Hoka One One

With collaborations dominating the marketplace, brands are fine-tuning their strategies.

Hoka, for instance, has no plans to flood the market with them. Doolan said the brand will continue to limit the amount of collaborations that it does, which is two or three per season, or five to six per year.

Vans, too, is in favor of a less is more approach.

“We will be more focused on why we come together in collaborative efforts to enable in the best way possible a relationship that is truly symbiotic. In short, two entities coming together to get to a place we both couldn’t get to alone and to learn from each other on how we can be better,” explained Ian Ginoza, the Vans VP and advisor creative director role of the Pinnacle Special Business Unit.

While Vans will focus on the number of collaborations, Puma’s plan involves an emphasis on the duration of its partnerships.

“One thing we identified that we have done in the last five to six years is short snapshots, short moments with brands. We want to go back to more long-term partnerships,” Desens said. “A lot of young consumers I speak with say, ‘We would love if you stayed with this partnership a little longer and not just one or two seasons.’”

He continued, “Specifically over the last year, [the landscape became] too crowded for the short-term partnership. It’s a lot of movement, a lot of news and the consumer can’t follow it that much anymore. The marketplace gets really crowded, and then naturally, the consumer says, ‘Hang on a second, slow down a bit.’”

What the Future Holds

'Rick and Morty' x Puma MB.01
Puma MB.01 x “Rick and Morty” collaboration.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Puma

Industry insiders are split on how important collaborations will be, and the frequency of the releases, looking ahead.

For Powell, a drop-off in the number of collaborations in the marketplace should be expected. “People are figuring it out that these just are not working, people are beginning to understand that — and I would say the consumer is ahead of the industry,” he said.

DiLando disagrees.

“Utilizing the creative talent that exists in this world will help bring compelling stories to life for different communities, those who might not be looking for inline Club Cs or Classic Leathers. Using that creativity will help attract new consumers to the brand. That’s exciting because there’s so many stories to tell,” he said.

Desens offered perspective on how the collaborative product itself may shift to the performance side of the business, an area that is not yet oversaturated.

“The streetwear part, there’s a lot of there, but with the conversations we’re having with current and future partners, we see an interest in topics like motor sports, running, basketball — more the athletic or performance part of it,” he said. “Right now, we don’t see much of this out there.”

And Desens may be on to something. Few brands have ventured into the performance collaboration space, although it isn’t uncharted waters. Saucony, for instance, teamed up with Davin Gentry of Diet Starts Monday in May to create an elevated version of its Endorphin Pro road running shoe. And Stone Island delivered its highly coveted take on the New Balance RC Elite performance running shoe in October 2021.

Staple offered a more detailed year-by-year potential outlook.

“One year, they’ll keep going upward, you’re going to see more. Three years, you’re going to start to see a plateau, a leveling out. A lot of brands will tire themselves out. Their dipping of the toe in the energy collaboration pool will not pan out, so they’re going to exit the casino, if you will. And then five years, you’re going to see the players who stayed in continue to release amazing product attached to amazing storytelling because they’ll have an internal team that’s a well-oiled machine at executing collaborations,” Staple said.

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