Swedish high-street retailer H&M last month announced its latest fashion collaboration in a power-packed manner. At the Amfar fundraiser at the Cannes Film Festival – notable for being the most glamorous red-carpet event in a festival packed with celebrity-studded carpets – Kendall Jenner, Chiara Ferragni and Bianca Brandolini paraded for the cameras while wearing dreamy gowns made for H&M by none other than Giambattista Valli.
Best known for his haute couture, Valli is not necessarily the name that springs to mind when thinking about high-street collaboration collections, yet here we are. Predictably, the internet went loopy over the looks, which segued from a flared tutu dress in hot pink net (Dh1,499) to a white lace corset gown (Dh2,499), as well as the Italian designer's first foray into menswear in the form of a dotted grey suit (jacket, Dh999; trousers, Dh399.)
With a Valli outfit normally commanding prices in the region of Dh20,000, it was no surprise that the first round sold out almost immediately. Those who missed out will have to wait for the release of the second, larger collection to be released on November 7.
Understandably, H&M is excited to have such a high-profile designer on board. "Valli is the undisputed master of haute couture with a knack for the memorable silhouette. To be able to bring his signature styles to our customers is a dream come true," the brand's creative adviser, Ann-Sofie Johansson, explained.
The haute couture to high street trend started with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004. As the creative director behind both Chanel and Fendi, he was the first major designer to team up with H&M. At the time, the fashion pack took a different view, sceptical of how Lagerfeld's reputation, never mind Fendi's and Chanel's, could possibly recover from such ignominy.
When the long-anticipated collection finally hit the stores, it was envisioned to be available for one month, yet the capsule collection of suits, T-shirts, lace dresses and sequined jackets sold out in hours. The New York store had to restock rails only two minutes after opening for business, while Parisian customers actually stripped the clothes straight off of the mannequins.
H&M even coined a new phrase, "massclusive", to describe the phenomenon of bringing exclusivity to the mass market, and leveraging the powerful lure of Lagerfeld and his reputation. The brand created a strictly limited run, knowing that customers would, literally, fight to get a hold of the items, but the collection sold out so fast that Lagerfeld later complained that the run had been too small and too many customers had missed out. An unrepentant H&M watched as sales leapt by 24 per cent, while lucky customers won bragging rights for snaring what was undoubtedly the bargain of the season.
Since then the list of those who followed in Lagerfeld's footsteps at H&M reads like a who's who of fashion. Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf, Roberto Cavalli and Jimmy Choo all reworked collections for the high street, as did Lanvin, Versace, Marni and Erdem. Even the inscrutable label Maison Martin Margiela stepped into the fray in 2012. However, it was Balmain that not only saw shelves stripped bare, but broke the internet, too.
For the high-low capsule in October 2015, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing looked to his favourite designs from past seasons, reworking them to fit with the H&M customer. Described as luxe-meets-mass, Rousteing’s collection managed to retain the glitz and glam Balmain is famous for. Despite the relatively costly prices compared to those normally found on the high street (Dh2,000 for a fully beaded mini dress, Dh730 for a metallic green dress and Dh470 for a faux fur bomber jacket), the collection sold out within hours, reappearing on eBay priced at more than a Balmain original.
Fast-forward to January 2017, and even Louis Vuitton looked to streetstyle when its former menswear designer, Kim Jones, sent models down his autumn / winter runway wearing a collection made with skatewear brand Supreme. While Louis Vuitton had launched many high-art collections under designer Marc Jacobs (with Stephen Sprouse, Richard Prince and Yayoi Kusama), this link with Supreme was entirely new territory for the storied French house. Not only did the collection make the brand available to the masses, but it also gave the loyal Louis Vuitton customer a tantalising taste of urban street cool.
Very much a cult brand, Supreme single-handedly invented the concept of "the drop", when it abandoned the traditional model of twice-yearly seasons and instead released new items every week. Devoted customers soon learnt to move fast or miss out – spawning an interesting sideline in websites dedicated to tracking sellout times. The record is the Cat In The Hat blue hoodie, which was snapped up in four seconds. The LV x Supreme collection, which went on sale in June that year in only eight stores across the world, was gone in minutes, too; a record 7,200 people turned up to the Tokyo store alone.
When Jones left Vuitton to move to Dior Homme in March 2018, he lost no time in setting up another high-low project, this time with Brooklyn graffiti artist Kaws. The Dior house bee motif was reworked and slapped across T-shirts, belt bags and backpacks, in a tie-up that proved so successful, it has been extended for autumn / winter 2019.
Kaws also created a Sesame Street-themed collection of cool tees and plush toys for Uniqlo, a Japanese high-street store that has worked with almost as many high-profile designers as H&M. The former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld, designed a darkly chic collection in 2016; former Bottega Veneta designer Tomas Maier offered beachwear for summer 2018; and Loewe's creative director Jonathan Anderson injected some English eccentricity into spring / summer 2019.
Meanwhile, Jones's replacement at Vuitton, Virgil Abloh – who was brought in to build on the streetwear angle – used Paris Fashion Week's spring / summer 2019 runway to showcase his own name collaboration with Swedish furniture store Ikea. Set to arrive in November, the range includes rugs emblazoned with the words "Wet Grass" ($263, Dh966) and "Keep Off" (starting from $91). Closer to home, Syrian couturier Rami Al Ali, who works in Dubai, collaborated with high-street shoe store Charles & Keith last month, in a world first for both brands. Al Ali, who is more used to crafting couture where money is an irrelevance, had to scale down his designs to fit with the high-street aesthetic. The designer recreated key elements from his spring 2019 range for the collection of three shoes and two clutches, each with his signature lavish beadwork. An elegant sandal has a front bow finished with beads, while the platform version has a sprinkle of beads to accentuate the satin finish.
As is typical of Al Ali's work, the pieces are glamorous and romantic. "Middle Eastern designers are starting to make their mark on the fashion industry and the opportunity to collaborate with such an international brand was really appealing," Al Ali tells The National. "From a business perspective, this collaboration was less about creating items for my existing customers, than about expanding my reach to a new audience. I was thrilled to work with Charles & Keith and inject my design aesthetic to this project. We were able to create a unique hybrid of styles."
Inspired by the H&M / Lagerfeld short-run model, or perhaps more in keeping with the DNA of couture, an additional shoe and bag were also released, but limited to 25 pieces each, which were available only at The Dubai Mall store.
Whether or not these collections catch your interest as a shopper, the fact that they continue to appear is a good sign for retail. Amid wails that the brick-and-mortar store is dead (or at least dying) these sell-out lines prove otherwise. That consumers are still prepared to camp overnight on city streets to ensure they are first through the door after a collection is released is something that needs to be celebrated.
High-end brands each spend years and seven-figure sums carefully positioning themselves within the market, so to venture outside of that is a huge leap of faith. Lagerfeld was the first to grasp the importance of addressing an audience unable to afford anything other than a designer lipstick. With his savvy grasp of demographics and the lure of the unobtainable, Lagerfeld understood that this type of collaboration would introduce him not only to a new generation, but also to an untapped market of future customers to whom he was offering a taste and glimpse of the world of luxury, and securing years of loyalty.
Fashion is based far more on sentiment than it is on need, and the teenager in 2004 will still remember the thrill of her first Lagerfeld. That it was only high-street is irrelevant. This year, when she could have a big enough pay cheque to make her first major purchase, chances are she will head to Chanel or Fendi for her fix.