Zoo York was one of my few favourite brands growing up. Mind you, I’ve never bought a single thing from them and I have never skated. I loved them because of a particular stunt that they pulled in 2008 when they released cockroaches marked with their brand logo across New York. This was even before the term “guerrilla marketing” entered advertising’s headspace.
It wasn’t the sheer audacity or shock tactic that appealed to me; it was that they understood the zeitgeist spirit of their brand. Zoo York’s anti-establishment youthful abandonment either drew you to them or repelled you entirely. They knew that they didn’t have the budget of a high-luxury brand—even if they had, spending that kind of money would have been offbrand anyway—they just needed cockroaches.
That was about a decade ago. Today, the onslaught of collaborations between street brands and artists with fast fashion and high-luxury brands is astounding. Sure, it does sound like another marketing gimmick, but there’s something more unprecedented at play here.
One of the most popular street/fashion collabs took place even before Zoo York flung cockroaches at unsuspecting pedestrians. Adidas worked with Yohji Yamamoto in 2003 and launched a permanent collaboration called Y-3 two years later. In 2004, H&M collaborated with Karl Lagerfeld on a capsule collection. Not to be outdone, Louis Vuitton has collaborated with everyone from Scott Campbell (2010), Yayoi Kusama (2011) and, most recently, with American artist Jeff Koons, Japanese streetwear icon Hiroshi Fujiwara from fragment design and Supreme.
The power of these collaborations may seem like a glorious marketing exercise: the merger of the real street with high street takes the loot train to the same point. But I recall a conversation I had with a friend of mine, Henry, about Supreme. As an art collector, his nose is always turned towards the counterculture and he shared a story about why Supreme has become the only brand in the world that could sell a brick and the kids would queue all day for it.
“When James Lavelle [who’s part of the electronic music group called UNKLE] collaborated with James Jebbia [founder of Supreme], Lavelle wanted to charge a lot of money for the T-shirts,” Henry says about the collaboration back in 2014. “But Jebbia would rather stick to selling it for less than SGD70 because he said that the kids would sell them later. These T-shirts were limited [there were only 50 pieces]. That’s his marketing. He didn’t even need to do anything.” The same T-shirts are going for about SGD3,500 today.
Luxury brands can’t do that. They can’t release 50 items for 50 dollars and expect their loyal base to not bat an eyelid about the watering down of value. They can, however, have a reason to do it: say, collab with a respected street brand and sell 50 for 5,000 dollars. Both brands not only get stronger, resellers will also get richer.
Follow the money. If you consider that the reseller market is pegged at about SGD8 billion globally for sneakers alone, that’s a lot of money flooding the streets (instead of cockroaches). A trend? Sure. Every economical structure will give way in due time. But now is not that time for the collaborations on these streets. It has only just begun.