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Miller High Life x Stock Mfg. Co.

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Why Are Beer Brands Doing Fashion Collabs?

A strange relationship is brewing. Beer companies, from craft to mass, are increasingly partnering with fashion brands. Heineken is in the sixth year of its Heineken100 program, which creates limited-edition product like duffle bags and selvedge denim with some of the hottest brands in menswear; Miller worked with a Chicago store on an apparel collection for its High Life line; Bud Light did a limited-edition bikini with a buzzy made-in-LA swimwear brand; and Dogfish Head worked with Woolrich on men's and women's clothes and accessories.

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An actual beer accompanied that last collaboration; a limited-edition pale ale called Pennsylvania Tuxedo (an "homage to the flannel-suited hunters and gatherers who dwell deep in the backcountry of north-central PA"). This isn't a first: Patagonia celebrated its 40th anniversary in part with a specially-brewed organic lager by New Belgium in 2013, Carhartt and New Holland Brewing launched "Carhartt Woodman" pale ale together in 2014, and even luxe activewear brand Lululemon has its own beer thanks to Stanley Park Brewing.

Supreme x Budweiser, 2009

Beer logos on clothing isn't terrifically new, either. You can buy a PBR t-shirt from Urban Outfitters for $34. Supreme and Budweiser released a handful of product in 2009, with the latter's logo repeated across hats, tank tops, and button-up shirts.

What's interesting about this moment of fashion and beer collaborations is that they're teaming up to make actual clothes and accessories, not just centering a logo on a t-shirts or a baseball hat.

These targeted collaborations focus in on a particular type of customer, the kind who knows Carhartt better for its Work In Progress streetwear offshoot than its workwear; the kind who values the resurgence of made-in-America; the kind who thinks carefully about which brands it wants to associate with. Ding ding, you got it — millennials!

This Here Lifestyle

The goal of these collaborations is to further weave the beer brand into a larger picture of the consumer's personal identity. "I think it’s fair to say that every beer brand fits into a lifestyle category," Heineken's senior brand director Quinn Kilbury tells Racked. "It’s a lifestyle brand," he says.

"You’re not defined by your beer," Kilbury offers. "People are much more interesting than a singular thing they do, they’re everything they do, and that’s what we want to get into," he explains.

As for wiggling out of a category silo and into a person's big-picture, it's all about making the right friends. "It's important that you find like-minded people to associate yourself with," he says. "This comes in the form of influencers more often that not." Influencers are the crux of the Heineken100 program, which doesn't actually sell its collaborative merchandise.

It creates this loop of cool, hard to get pieces, that has now become actual currency."

Everything that's created is gifted to Heineken's 100-member influencer network, which includes prior collaborators. "It’s a virtuous cycle," explains Kilbury. "You create something in collaboration with us for Heineken100 and we make sure that only these other 100 people out there who are as like-minded as the other artists and influencers get that product," he says. "They give their product to these guys and the next time they get that product. It creates this loop of cool, hard to get pieces, that has now become actual currency."

Despite the fact that the pieces aren't available to the general public, each launch gets the same treatment as any other buzz-inducing collab: styled lookbook photos, a press release with quotes from Heineken and from the designers, and a big launch party with ample documentation.

Clockwise from top left: #Heineken100 branding on Garrett Leight sunglasses, a baseball hat made with Chicago's RSVP Gallery, a motorcycle jacket via Boston sneaker shop Concepts and biker brand Vanson Leathers, the scene outside Kith's party celebrating their Heineken100 contribution

Clockwise from top left: #Heineken100 branding on Garrett Leight sunglasses; hat made with Chicago's RSVP Gallery; the scene outside of the Heineken x Kith launch party; jacket made with Boston's Concepts

Of course, those influential 100 are encouraged to share on social media. (@rickwlms: "Thank you to @heineken_us and my friends over at @cncpts for sending over this dope motorcycle jacket!!!" @dre_hayes: "Proud to be part of the#Heineken100 Thank you @rsvpgallery and@heineken_us for the strap back.")

The right leaders in the right groups serve, as Kilbury says, as "a really good way to amplify what the brand stands for in a natural way." Some of the brands Heineken has aligned itself with over the years include Mark McNairy, Public School, and Kith: Brands with cultish, but sizable, followings and well-known founders — within the right circles.

Quiet Is Cool

As for design, Heineken opts to go with as little branding as possible. On a pair of Garret Leight sunglasses, "#Heineken100" was etched on the interior of one arm. On a lambskin and jersey baseball hat with RSVP Gallery, "Heineken One Hundred" appears only on an interior tag. When I asked about the strategically subtle branding, Kilbury said, "If there were huge Heineken logos on [these pieces], we probably wouldn't be doing this story right now."

"Logo bigger is the wrong answer."

He explains the minimal branding only works because this has been an ongoing series. "The idea here is that if you’re consistent and continually doing this, people do over time get to know the program," he says. Conversely, "if it’s a one-off partnership with the coolest designer in New York City, and you didn’t have your logo on it, well that wouldn’t do any good because no one would ever know."

Internally, Kilbury's team has to fight for the prestige of subtle logoing. "We have to convince all the stakeholders and these big global organizations every year that it’s the right thing to do," he says. "At face value, without really thinking it through, the answer is always 'make my logo bigger,' and we’re saying make it much, much, much, much smaller. Logo bigger is always the answer, and it’s always the wrong answer."

Miller High Life's 2015 collaboration with fellow Chicago company Stock Mfg Co. was similarly light on branding. The six item collection included logo-free styles like trousers and a blazer. The only hint of High Life iconography came in the from of the witchy woman sitting on a crescent moon, which you'll see echoed on the glass bottle's neck.

Miller High Life x Stock Mfg. Co.

Miller associate brand manager Chelsea Parker tells Racked that the collaboration's output was entirely controlled by Stock, with no revenue to Miller. This arrangement is what made the absence of branding more palatable for the company. "They really owned these products at the end of the day," she explains. "That put us in a much more comfortable place: If they were going to own the sale of the clothing, we felt much more comfortable relinquishing creative control and allowing these guys to do what they do best and to create their vision."

Unlike Heineken's exclusive, ongoing program, accessibility was an important factor in Miller and Stock's collab. "[Stock] purposely made sure there was a range of prices on the items," Parker says of the collection, which started at $35 for a pocket T-shirt, to "ensure that people had access to the line." Apparel has "been a really nice intersection for us beyond the beer itself," echoes Parker, saying that it offers existing brand fans "a nice expression of 'I also stand for this.'"

Bud Light x Kaohs

Budweiser similarly went low-profile with its summer 2015 collaboration with LA swimwear line Kaohs, essentially commissioning a special color of one of the brand's best-selling styles (specifically, the same one Kim Kardashian wears on the cover of her photo book Selfish). That color was a sunshine yellow, touting the addition of Lemon-Ade-Rita to Bud Light's 'Rita' family of products.

Dogfish Head and Woolrich have the most prominent brand identity of this new class of fashion/beer collabs. Pieces from this ongoing partnership, which began with custom blankets for the Dogfish Inn (really), trumpet both companies's logos, as well as the graphic that adorns bottles of Pennsylvania Tuxedo.

The Power of Stuff

Of all the different products a beer brand can attach itself to, why clothes? "By creating a piece of fashion together, there’s a real, physical thing there," Kilbury explains. "It’s easy to talk about a thing."

It helps if that "thing" is a truly covetable jacket (or bikini, or blanket, or duffle bag). "If you can become a part of everything people do by just taking a little part of it versus the obnoxious, loud part of it," Kilbury says. "That gets interesting."

These fashion/beer collaborations are more elevated than promo tees, but they serve the same purpose: brand loyalty, on display  — if only to those who know.

"It’s not just fashion," Kilbury clarifies, "It’s about community building."

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