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It's been a decade since Karl Lagerfeld collaborated with H&M on a lower-priced capsule collection, igniting what's now become familiar territory: a high-end designer partnering with a price-conscious retailer on a limited edition run of product. Collaborations have since become de rigueur, scheduled, expected, and—frankly—uninteresting (the first nail in the coffin seemed to come with Target and Neiman Marcus's multi-designer effort for holiday 2012, two years back).
So how did H&M and Wang drum up interest we haven't witnessed in years? Seven perfect months of hype—coupled with ambitious product—that ought to serve as a blueprint for fashion marketing, beginning with a surprise Coachella party and stoked over half a year by expertly orchestrated placements in magazines, on celebrities, and through social media. Let's examine.
"It was the right designer at the right time," says Sourcing Journal trend analyst Angela Velasquez of the success. "It wasn't just a less expensive homage to his archive: there were elements of his spring 2015 collection, like mesh and padded materials, plus it mirrored what's going on in the market and on the runways," she furthers. "There is excitement and demand for that active trend, and [this collab] had such a distinct look that people held out for that legging or that scuba top. They hit the nail on the head."
Beloved, American designer whose name is almost always strung with the words "downtown" and "cool" (often: "downtown cool"). After years of being grouped with the "young designer" pack, the 30 year old is his own, established force of fashion commerce to be reckoned with. Under three labels—Alexander Wang, T by Alexander Wang, and Balenciaga—he delivers men's and women's clothing, shoes, and accessories at dizzying frequency, and they almost always set the tone for the season, inspiring endless knockoffs (all those bags with studs on the bottom? That's Wang. The resurgence of "parental advisory" graphics? Wang again). Not only has he demonstrated a strong sense for fashion's appetite, he seems to have a knack for business, merchandising that trio of lines with just enough commercially profitable product to balance out showy runway pieces, which don't cause the register to ring with as much frequency as, say, a souped up modal t-shirt. He's the first American designer H&M has collaborated with.
Massive. Global. Swedish. They're credited with the first designer collaboration, that capsule with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004. While they used to serve up two collabs a year, they scaled back to one per year beginning 2013. Compared to other price-conscious retailers that deal in designer collaborations, H&M seems to give guest designers the most freedom to design their own, signature style, even if that means using fabrics and construction techniques that add cost (the ceiling seems to be around $350, and it's always balanced nicely with $35 tank tops and $13 accessories). Notes Aria Hughes, an editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN, "For their collaborations, H&M really pushes the price point which portrays a more 'premium' message to consumers." She's comparing this to Target, the other big dog in the collab game, saying, "The price point of Target's collaborations is comparable with other Target merchandise, which can create less of a distinction for the designer pieces."
The collection was comprised of sporty—that's another word Alexander Wang is often tied to—pieces, some made of performance materials, others just active-inspired (a snap front baseball shirt with leather details comes to mind). "Athleisure" has been in the ether for some time now: Chanel showed sneakers and kneepads in a recent couture collection; Athleta made their fashion week debut this past September. This collab, with its world-wide distribution, may have arrived at the precise moment the masses were ready to consider scuba material for mini dresses (hello, health goth). "The cut and the fit of the garments was so much better than you usually see from these collabs," says Velasquez. "There was a lot of stretch, which is an easy win. It was really smart to have a lot of leggings, stretch—things that fit everyone."
This is, by no means, the first collab to offer menswear, but the selection here was meaty: nine pieces of outerwear, slick activewear, a handful of backpacks with three digit price tags. Compare that to what Phillip Lim offered for guys in his fall 2013 collab with Target: a khaki trench, navy trousers, a few camo-printed pieces. Wang has male fans (rabid enough to inspire a reactionary lyric from Kanye on "New Slaves") and he gave them something to get excited over. And did they ever—we saw just as many (more?) male shoppers clamoring (hoarding) at the press shopping events in New York City.
While they owned the account @alexanderwangny, somehow the brand wasn't actually using Instagram (why, how) until the collaboration, an announcement that took place partly in a video on the account. A number of leaks and first peeks arrived through the medium. Wang's IG now enjoys over half a million followers (@hm clocks in at over four millions, for comparison's sake).
International fashion magazines
Outside of Instagram, much of the planned press around the collection was delivered through international editions of Vogue which, thankfully, hungry fashion fans quickly scanned and uploaded to forums like The Fashion Spot for our overseas viewing, obsessing, and speculating.
THE EPIC TIMELINE
April: the Announcement
April 13: It all begins at Coachella, with an unreal announcement party, disguised as two parties: guests were either invited to the H&M Loves Music event or the Alexander Wang Coachella bash, but upon arrival discovered the two were the same. Iggy Azalea performed, Major Lazer played, and Wang used the announcement as a platform to launch his brand's Instagram account. "There will be a new element of lifestyle offering that's a completely new way of approaching a collaboration," he told WWD at the time. The date is set: November 6th, a lifetime (seven months) away.
July: Know This Logo
July 7: The very, very first look at product from the collaboration hits at 9am sharp, perfectly timed to follow the long July 4th weekend. It's a high-contrast shot of an AW-branded boxing glove keychain, released via H&M's Twitter account.
Later that same day, both Wang and H&M take to Instagram to share close-ups (from different angles) of what winds up being the yoga mat (called it). That same, chunky AW is embossed on repeat in the material, establishing the collab's heavy use of logo-ing early on.
September: First Looks, Editorials, Ads—Rihanna!
Clockwise from left: British GQ, British Vogue, Vogue Netherlands
September 5: It's Friday, it's early fashion week, and a bomb is dropped: the first proper look at the collab. It's a dark, sporty editorial in British GQ, showing off the collab's menswear. A scan British Vogue surfaces shortly thereafter, an initial glimpse at women's apparel. Their piece—which offers the first look at pricing, albeit in GBP—focuses heavily on Wang himself, who tells the mag, "Even though I don't do any sports or go to the gym, I live in gym clothes."
September 7: Days later, Rihanna is strategically spotted (and subsequently Instagrammed by Wang's camp) in matching logo-ed leggings and a long sleeve crop top, coordinating pieces that hadn't yet been seen. "Rihanna is a perfect fit for this collection," an H&M rep told us. "We sent her a few pieces while she was on tour and we were so happy she chose to be one of the first to wear the collection."
September 25: The ad campaign images are released, fronted by Wang's "ultimate dream team" including models Joan Smalls, Raquel Zimmermann, Isabeli Fontana, and Natasha Poly; soccer player Andy Carroll; and kickboxer Rivaldino dos Santos. Circulation in magazines and dailies reportedly begins in Poland.
September 26: American Elle runs an editorial mostly of Hanne Gaby Odiele, but including one shot of the blonde model alongside Mr. Wang himself. Prices—in dollars!—are named. Designer/collab profiles similar to the one printed in British Vogue surface in the Australian and German October issues of Vogue, along with more pricing info.
October: Events and Videos
October 14: Again, news delivered via @alexanderwangny on Instagram: A vending machine has been installed in the H&M flagship on Fifth Avenue and 48th Street in New York City. "Visit & you could receive a ticket to the #NewYork launch event on 10/16."
That evening, the two throw a bonkers "global launch event", which can be described, simply, as "trampoline," "break dancers," "fashion show," "Missy Elliot," and "popcorn." It's livestreamed on a dedicated microsite and videos are real-time posted over Instagram. Invitees are able to pre-shop the collection, an affair nothing short of frenzied, and fans finally get their hands on the lookbook in full, quickly followed by a piece-by-piece breakdown, including pricing.
November 5th: One more press shopping party, again in New York and again frenzied, this time at the H&M flagship on Fifth Avenue. We grabbed what we could and made a haul video in advance of the next day's public launch.
November 6th Hath Arrived!
It's been an astonishing seven months of build up, and it worked. In New York City, shoppers lined up at 7pm for the 8am opening, while some San Franciscans clocked 21 hours waiting, with folks camping outside of H&M as early as 11am the morning prior.
Hm.com sees frantic visits as well. As early as 5:50am, there was overload on the site in advance of the 10am drop. At 10:01am EST, hm.com is still down, but there is a small selection on alexanderwang.com—and it's gone by 10:24am. H&M's site is up at 10:34am and glitchy as heck. After many attempts, we're able to get as far as checkout around 11:00 before getting kicked off. Customer service phone lines are tied up, merch is wiped out, and eBay begins to fill with pieces from the collab at inflated prices. After all the build up, we expected no less.
A Chance For Collabs?
Experts see a chance for designer collaborations to press on—if they're done right. "Consumers will always be enticed by getting a piece of a designer for less, and by the newness in-store and online," says Hughes. "My mother has no idea who Peter Som is, but she was intrigued when she saw his collection at Kohl's." Velasquez is equally hopeful, with some stipulations: "By zeroing in on the right designers and the right styles, there is still a chance for these collabs to thrive," she says, adding, "Some of the other retailers need to let designers get their point of view apart. Target, Kohl's—they're a little too watered down; they don't capture the designer's signatures and what they're known for." She argues, "there's a customer for those fashion-forward styles. Everyone wants to look like the runway, but not a hodgepodge version."
If the first piece of the puzzle is vision—and trust—fit comes in a close second. "Fit is the main reason you start seeing items from these collabs on the clearance rack," explains Velasquez. "From Altuzarra x Target, it's the complicated items you see on the clearance racks: the blazers, the dresses."
And the finishing touch? Drama (and dollars). "The promotion of it really stood out," said Hughes. "Both Wang and H&M invested heavily in the marketing campaign leading up to the launch." Velsquez adds, "Considering it was just some sports bra tops and leggings, [the promotion] was very theatrical."
"We cannot comment on sales but we are very happy with the response from our customers," an H&M rep told Racked. While they wouldn't dive into specifics on future projects, it sounds like designer collabs will remain in their repertoire: "We are very focused on strengthening the DNA of our brand: high fashion that is affordable and the democratization of fashion." Now all they have to do is top Wang.