April 17, 2022

The Art of Collaboration

The Art of Collaboration

What is collaboration

Why is it important

What context does it have in design

Why should I care

The word collaboration is thrown around a lot. We often see this term come up in sneaker culture, but the idea of collaboration extends further. Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “the action of working with someone to produce or create something”. Whether its business efforts, partnering with a production team, growing into emerging markets & beyond – authentic collaboration can be a catalyst for success in any industry.

This article is about my interpretations of collaboration. The backstory, highs & lows, a process to get things accomplished, and other details I feel are important for the storytelling process. It’s hard to relate the concept of collaboration to one specific industry, or business. Each partnership has unique challenges, but also allows for special victories to emerge too. I hope this reading will inspire you to look further into the idea of collaboration, and understand how I interpret and contextualize larger cultural movements into my own design practice.

One of my earliest passions was streetwear. I was fortunate to learn the ropes from two Japanese exchange students in my high school, both of whom I remain friends with to this day. They taught me about the history - how Americana was imported by the Japanese, their methods of reinterpreting America fashion through a craftsman lens, and how it was sold back to America.

Streetwear defined the roadmap for what collaboration is, and continues to be. Born in New York City during the late 80s, the concept of streetwear was formed by the early art, graffiti, hip-hop and sneaker scene in downtown Manhattan. It was characterized by the music that was being played on the block, sports icons splashed in marketing campaigns, a reflection of art scrawled across subway cars, and the cultural melting pot that is New York City. 

One of the first examples of this was the created by GFS, also known as: Gerbs, Futura, and Stash. Three New York City graffiti writers responsible for the Manhattan downtown scene [the precursor to sneaker culture], who knew how to tap into emerging markets. The product was a white t-shirt printed with the Phillies Blunts logo. Their idea was to print shirts with artwork and cultural imagery that spoke to their unique life experiences. 
Stash was quoted as saying – “I wanted a Futura T-shirt but there was none… So I was selfishly indulging with a group of my friends, but broadcasting and really promoting the [graffiti] movement. I was educating and reaching audiences that hadn’t been reached with the artwork before.”

Unfortunately for – the Phillies Blunt shirt was knocked off time & time again, watering down the original idea until it became something you’d find in a local bodega. They say great artists steal, but this was nothing more than cheap commercialization of a hot product.

One of my favourite collaborative thought leaders is a man named: Marc Fraser Cooke. You’ve probably never heard of him – but you’ve definitely see his work. 

His unique perspective to working alongside some of Nike’s most celebrated artists, designers, musicians and athletes that have graced the brand over the past 20 years – do something that Nike cannot do themselves.

Remember the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG ‘Chicago' that released in 2017 to mass hysteria? Fraser Cooke was the man behind those shoes. Connecting Virgil Abloh with Nike, and working extensively with Nike’s production team to modify the historic Jordan silhouette into Virgil’s modern art interpretation. These shoes are incredibly hard to find, and even more expensive to acquire – with an average sale price of $5,476.20 USD in the past 12 months [July 2023], and a price premium of 2137% over retail.

Now, Nike doesn’t make money from sneakers sold on the resale market. But they do benefit from the product demand across all categories when a phenomena like the Off-White AJ1’s makes a splash into mainstream culture. 

So what does Virgil Abloh have that Nike does not? An understanding of youth culture, contemporary styling, and timing. It’s lightning in a bottle. Something completely intangible, but measured in success by media impressions, awareness, and blossoming into the cultural zeitgeist. It’s not always about the numbers, but the release of Virgil’s Off-white Jordan 1 saw a massive uptick in Nike’s sales of Jordan product, one year later. In fact, sales were up 13% on Jordan footwear, and 14% on Nike Sportswear (apparel/lifestyle division) at the end of 2017 [fiscal end, May 31st]. For this example, it was less about the product and more about finding a collaborative partner that could transcend generational gaps, drive media attention, and cultivate a new crop of marketplace buyers in the hardest to attract, youth segment from 13-17 years old. 

A collaboration isn’t a quick fix solution to complex business problems. It can actually backfire if there isn’t a mutually understood level of value exchange, or the partnership feels inauthentic and doesn’t speak to either category, industry, or buyer. This can have lasting impact on a brand/business that’s worked hard to build a reputation, but with a misguided co-sign it has the ability to legitimize their market position, and alienate a customer base.

We see this in the influencer-product model. A person with a large online following but doesn’t have a strong cultural pull, or sell-through ratio partners with a lifestyle, or wellness brand. The content produced feels forced: with vague claims of “daily use”, a promo code for 15% off, and cheesy shots of the influencer awkwardly holding the product… Just check any reality TV stars Instagram, you’ll get what I’m talking about.

Here’s a few good questions to ask yourself before entering into a brand partnership. 
1 - What can we not do ourselves
2 - Why does this collaboration need to happen
3 - What do we gain through this mutual partnership
4 - How does this better ourselves, our culture/industry, and everyone involved?

In today’s world, the concept of collaboration has become the norm. Each week, select streetwear brands will partner with a new brand in an attempt at catching cultural wildfire, propagating across social media and headlining the next news cycle. It feels like there’s less planning involved, and more a shotgun approach to finding something that resonates with their key audience. In a society focused on more-more-more, the brands that do less, with greater planning, execution and timing will go further. It’s not about the commoditization of product. In fact, the more limited and exclusive, often times, the better! There’s a real value in storytelling, sharing of knowledge, and capturing a special moment in time. These are the essential elements of collaboration, to me.