Through innovative partnerships, cutting-edge fashion designers are blurring the lines between fashion and sport, creating an entirely new market segment.
LONDON – The names Hussein Chalayan and Yohji Yamamoto immediately conjure up images of sophisticated, cerebral fashion appealing to stylish intellectuals and design connoisseurs. You would be more likely to encounter a typical Chalayan or Yamamoto client in an art gallery or cultural event than at the local gym. Moreover, while Yamamoto and Chalayan have won widespread critical acclaim, neither has an allure that could be considered even remotely mainstream.
Still, both designers have established very fruitful relationships with two of the world’s leading sportswear brands – Chalayan with Puma and Yamamoto with Adidas.
The marketplace is currently awash with all manners of design collaborations and opportunistic co-branding deals. At times, these projects are the result of licensing agreements crafted to capitalise on a designer’s name with minimal personal input from the very designer.
The proliferation of cheap celebrity-fronted product lines hasn’t helped matters either. While they may be lucrative for the brands involved, many consumers are increasingly cynical about such projects. Many of the products born of these collaborations come with a premium price tag attached that seems to reflect the product’s hype rather than its value.
Which begs the question: when a leading sports brand such as Puma or Adidas aligns itself with an avant-garde designer, are we dealing with yet another marketing gimmick or is there more to it?
In some cases, there is.
Hussein Chalayan, known primarily for ‘conceptual’ or ‘experimental’ fashion, would not at first glance appear to be the most obvious candidate for a job as Creative Director of Puma, a role he took on in 2008. The Central Saint Martins graduate and two-time recipient of the British Fashion Council’s prestigious ‘British Designer of the Year’ award is recognised for his innovative use of materials and his ability to incorporate technology into the functionality of the garment. Indeed, few designers have gone as far in experimenting with new materials and technology as Chalayan.
Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz and the label’s Creative Director, Hussein Chalayan
To the uninitiated, however, his designs can seem eccentric. Some of his past collections have featured a table that converts into a dress, a dress made entirely of large, clear acrylic bubbles and, most spectacularly, a series of self-transforming dresses that morphed in both shape and style all on their own. Each dress came outfitted with an intricate, specially-designed computer system which opened and closed zippers, gathered fabric and raised hemlines, thereby reconfiguring the same dress into five different incarnations.
Given that sports brands compete against one another on the basis of performance, technology, as well as design, more than mere aesthetics are required to propel the brand forward. Viewed from this angle, Chalayan’s appointment makes a certain amount of sense. His innovative thinking and enthusiastic embrace of cutting-edge technology throughout his career are well-suited to his position at Puma. As Creative Director, Chalayan is now responsible for all creative direction for Puma Sport Fashion collections and every product category including footwear, apparel and accessories. His impact on the brand thus has the potential to be quite significant indeed.
For its part, Adidas has taken a slightly different approach to fashion design collaborations. The German branded sportswear giant has no intention of appointing an in-house creative director at the moment, preferring instead to collaborate with fashion designers on distinct product lines. In addition to the collection designed by Stella McCartney, Adidas also produces Y-3, a line of lifestyle apparel launched in 2002 that is the fruit of its collaboration with avant-garde Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto.
As with Hussein Chalayan, Yamamoto is not exactly a self-evident choice for a sports brand, acclaimed as he is for oversized, amorphous silhouettes in black. While better known and more commercially successful than Chalayan, thanks in part to previous collaborations with Hermès and Mandarina Duck, in fashion terms Yamamoto remains an acquired taste. To some degree, this owes to the fact that Yamamoto’s genius is in the discreet details of his garments’ construction – details that are apparent only to the wearer.
He is also recognised within the fashion industry for his uncompromising commitment to craftsmanship. According to Hermann Deininger, Adidas’ Chief Marketing Officer (Sport Style Division), it is precisely Yamamoto’s commitment to craftsmanship and innovation that attracted Adidas in the first place.
The relationship between Adidas and Yamamoto started simply enough with a footwear collection in 2001, ‘Adidas for Yohji Yamamoto’. The resulting synergy was present from the outset and eventually grew into the Y-3 apparel line, which is now distributed in more than 500 doors around the world, including its flagship store in Tokyo and the Adidas Brand Centre in Paris.
Y-3 S/S 2009 Collection
But the objective was greater than to turn out stylish sports apparel. In the words of Deininger: “We were interested in a unique direction and wanted to explore and experiment with Yohji’s personal focus to create something that never existed before and would affect the future of the industry.” The result is a collection that stands on its own, independent of the brand names involved with a look falling somewhere between Yamamoto’s personal style of high-fashion and Adidas’ sporty aesthetic.
Ideally, this is how it works. A successful collaboration will allow both parties to bring their respective strengths to the design table to execute a better product than either of the brands could ever achieve individually. This, however, is easier said than done. Like all collaborative relationships, it is one thing to be drawn to a designer’s aesthetic vision or taste for innovation, but quite another to make the collaboration actually work in practice.
No two designers approach the creative process in the same way and no two brands operate alike. Throw into the fray cultural differences, tight production schedules and geographical distance and the potential for a collaborative project of this magnitude to go awry is probably better than average. Yet, if Adidas and Yamamoto are any indication, they can indeed succeed.
According to Deininger, at first, the responsibilities for the Y-3 collection were divided such that the design aspects for the apparel were assigned to Yamamoto and his team while the technical details including the sourcing of materials, the manufacturing and distribution of the line fell to Adidas.
But, over time, their respective contributions have become less discrete, with Yamamoto and his team poring over products alongside Adidas. Today, both teams’ involvement runs right through the project, down to the minutiae of design details – from the particular stitch used in a garment’s construction to the lining of a shoe and the placement of the logo. As a result, it’s not immediately obvious where the contribution of Yamamoto ends and that of Adidas begins.
Deininger says of the resulting product line: “Y-3 is unique in the market and not comparable to any other design cooperation or brand. Y-3 has created its own niche."
The relative longevity of the Y-3 apparel line also points to the benefits of allowing enough time for collaborative projects to mature. All too frequently, the fate of typical licensing deals hinge almost exclusively on immediate commercial success, leaving little time for creative synergies to form and gel meaningfully.
Deininger at Adidas says the collaboration with Yamamoto has changed and deepened over its seven years. Testament to this, the technical contribution of Adidas’s design team and Yamamoto’s aesthetic are inseparable, effectively blurring the lines between fashion and sportswear. This is no easy feat considering the cultural and geographical barriers involved. It requires, for instance, that Adidas’ team travel back and forth between Germany and Japan to accommodate Yamamoto’s already busy schedule.
Reviews for the Fall/Winter 2009 collection have been almost uniformly positive and the line has continued to expand over the years, including the recent addition of children’s apparel.
One of the most compelling aspects of Puma’s appointment of Chalayan and Adidas’ ongoing collaboration with Yamamoto is the genuine dedication to innovation. The commitment to moving their respective brands beyond the usual boundaries of sportswear is clear and the fact that neither has taken the ‘quick-fix’ licensing option that has become a staple of the fashion industry lends an authenticity to their efforts.
Not that there are any guarantees, of course. Innovation is especially tricky and products that break the mould aren’t always rewarded with immediate commercial success. Even well-intentioned, well-executed collaborations between high fashion and sportswear may fail to ignite consumer interest. But given the current economic climate, all brands would do well to ensure that collaborative projects offer value beyond the hype.
Consumers increasingly need a valid incentive to justify their purchases these days. Give them a good reason to spend and they will.
Helene Le Blanc, London Correspondent