It’s Not Just You, Influencer Collaborations Are Everywhere

Apr 01, 2024
It’s Not Just You, Influencer Collaborations Are Everywhere
Adidas made stars designers, rather than ambassadors. Almost a decade on, everyone’s still following suit.
In fashion, the role of creative director has always been considered sacred. Major designers—bonafide celebrities in their own right—play musical chairs for the top job at luxury houses, making headlines when the music stops. But for most fashion brands, those without regular runway shows or even brick-and-mortar retail locations, it’s infeasible to keep things fresh by hiring and firing. Instead, these brands go fishing for fresh meat in a different kind of pond, a pond where taste and influence translate to hard metrics. They tap a famous collaborator.

The celebrity collections model is so well-worn it’s almost formulaic—but it wasn’t always this way. While brands have long tapped artists for specific pieces (see: Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress in 1936), it was the astronomical success of the likes of Adidas’ partnership with Kanye West in the late 2010s that became the blueprint for positioning stars as designers rather than ambassadors. Soon, fashion brands would go collaboration-crazy, racing to tie themselves to a major actor, musician, or model with one letter: ‘x.’

Then, in the midst of it all, young or DTC-exclusive brands with much smaller budgets debuted lines designed, fronted, and digitally supported by a different kind of star. They weren’t A-listers, but their capacity to capture attention was certainly comparable. These stars were self-styled and did their own makeup, proving their superior personal taste with online documentation of expertly curated looks. They were unpackaged by a ‘team,’ and unlike entertainers, had enough time on their hands to dig deep into the design process. Simply put, they were influencers.

“Social media has dramatically accelerated the pace at which consumers engage with brands and the level of novelty they expect on a near constant basis,” says Lauren Caris Cohen, Chief Brand Officer at cult-favorite brand Reformation. “On the one hand, we have so much more visibility into what resonates in real-time. On the other, to be successful, you have to be willing to move quickly and pivot based on what’s cutting through the zeitgeist.”

When Reformation shifted focus to growing global brand awareness—specifically in the European market—they contacted Camille Rowe. The French-American actress and model had been a long-time friend of the brand, shopping Reformation’s vintage arm when she first moved to New York City. In 2014, Reformation released a '70s-inspired collection with Rowe that took cues from her personal style. A decade on, Rowe has been bolstered to the status of red-carpet mainstay thanks to the continued fascination of her online fans. Upon revisiting their collaboration with the model last year, Reformation put Rowe in the driver’s seat.

“Camille’s personal style is so unique to her; she’s elusive and interesting, and she is French—a combination everyone covets,” continues Cohen. “We gave her full autonomy to design a line that felt specific and unique to her and the opportunity to creative-direct the concept from inception to completion.”

Like Rowe and Reformation, the most successful collaborations arise organically. Stephanie Shepherd, an influencer and key member of the Kardashian cohort, first reached out to UK fitness giant Adanola in 2017 to share her love for a particular long-sleeve compression shirt. Last September, the brand released a collection built off Shepherd’s everyday active wardrobe, Adanola x Steph Shep. In one year, the brand grew by 214 percent.

“Adanola is a predominantly UK-based brand; the US market is still relatively new to us,” explains brand executive Phoebe Dolan, “But this collection contributed to the growth we’ve achieved over the last year. The collection was a huge success, with most lines selling out within the hour.”

“I think collaborators can bring a fresh sense to a brand, along with bringing their communities into the brand’s orbit,” explains Alice Janssens, Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Management at the University of Southampton, known in the industry as the prevailing ‘fashion economist.’ “I spoke to a collaboration manager who emphasized that in every collaboration their brand undertakes, ‘one plus one must equal three.’ I think this is a critical point.”

It’s a tall order for stars and brands alike. By nature, collaborations can seem like a cash grab—a mutual mining of clout—putting consumer trust at risk. Dolan believes authenticity of alignment is fundamental to a collaboration collection’s success. Still, the element of surprise also plays a critical role in piquing the interest of both the press and consumers (think: A$AP Rocky’s collaboration with Mercedes Benz, which resulted in a Rocky-customized car). Just like any famous relationship—Kylie Jenner and Timothee Chalamet springs to mind—unexpected compatibility sells.

This puts consumer brands in a pop culture pressure cooker—fighting to tap the ‘it’ girl du jour before anyone else. Of course, it helps if the designer is one herself. Francesca Aiello was raised in close proximity to fame on the California coast, and she has turned some of her childhood friends into collaborators on her swim-turned-apparel brand Frankie’s Bikinis. Like Gigi Hadid, with whom she designed a cottage core-inspired line. Or the mother of several of her peers, Pamela Anderson.

“I grew up with [Anderson’s] sons in Malibu and have looked up to her for as long as I can remember,” says Aiello. “The number one goal and priority for collaborations is always to work with women who inspire me and whose creative vision I trust.”

In the wake of her Netflix documentary, Pamela: A Love Story, Anderson experienced a rare kind of comeback—obscurity to ubiquity overnight. Less than six months later, Frankie’s Bikinis had a Pam Anderson swimwear collection. Considering the actress spent years in a swimsuit on the hit '90s series Baywatch, the collaboration was perfect synergy.

“There are so many collaborations out there that it can be overwhelming for the consumer, so collaborators must bring something fresh that ties into the brand identity,” says Janssens. “Brands, in turn, can provide credibility and greater popularity to collaborators.”

Aiello has now developed a reputation for getting to the ‘it’ girls first. Sofia Richie was Frankies Bikinis’ first-ever partnership long before we all tuned into her Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc wedding. A year before Anyone But You took in $200 million at the box office, Sydney Sweeney designed a collection of sensual swimwear and ready-to-wear lingerie pieces with the brand.

“Collaborations bring another layer of expression, and even elevation, to brands—especially within a category like swimwear,” she says. “It's always a great exercise to see the brand through someone else's lens, with which comes endless creative opportunities.”

Cohen says the decision for Reformation to work so closely with Camille Rowe was extremely intentional. Specifically, they wanted to find a collaborator with the reach to share the brand with an international audience. This, Cohen adds, continues to be Reformation's marketing directive for 2024.

“We think about talent in two ways—as a tool for introducing Ref to new, differentiated audiences and to reinforce our brand identity in a way that surprises. Together, we created something that felt very true to both her and Ref, which is the secret sauce of any good collab. It was a huge success regarding its marketing value and commercial performance.”

The visibility lift for the talent themselves is also significant. Camille Rowe was on billboards around New York City; the Adanola x Steph Shep partnership received significant engagement online; and there was no shortage of press for Pamela Anderson upon the release of her collections with Frankies Bikinis (since, Anderson has fronted Aritizia campaigns, collaborated with ReDone, and covered High Snobiety). Last month, footwear brand Arezzo announced their collection with Gisele Bundchen—a perfectly symbiotic match that paired one of the largest footwear companies in Latin America with its foremost supermodel.

“I think collaborations make sense when [both parties] manage to maintain their brand identities but can create something new and innovative,” says Janssens. “Partnerships usually work when they effectively bring different markets or consumer communities together, offering each partner something new as a result.”

Of course, recruiting talent without technical fashion expertise risks jeopardizing consumer trust. Janssens points to Pharrell Williams, who replaced designer Virgil Abloh as Louis Vuitton’s creative director with little prior experience to justify the role.

“There was some public discussion about his ability to take on that position,” she says, “This was exacerbated by awareness of the sheer number of inspiring and skilled young designers entering the industry. Collaborations can sometimes be seen as a company ‘selling out’ and diluting their brand.”

But then, innovation often elicits criticism.

“Brands that stand out the most to me can fully immerse the consumer in a strong brand experience across every touchpoint: unique marketing moments, thorough storytelling, and organic conversation,” echoes Aiello.

Storytelling is the only antidote to brand burnout. Cohen calls it “cutting through the clutter,” with the hope that any collaboration will create something greater than the sum of its parts. For us, the consumers, we want to get closer to those we trust—be that brands or beautiful people—and we’re willing to spend to do so. It’s a model that may not last forever, but in the meantime, the abundance of "x"s will continue giving us reason to scroll, stalk, and shop.

Source: coveteur