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Industry Dec 6, 2012 4 min read

Measuring the success of designer collaborations

‘Designer collaboration’ has been something of a buzz-term in 2012. Championed by trailblazers Debenhams, with their ten-year Matthew Williamson relationship and later...

‘Designer collaboration’ has been something of a buzz-term in 2012. Championed by trailblazers Debenhams, with their ten-year Matthew Williamson relationship and later built upon by H&M’s 2004 Karl Lagerfeld collection, the high street is now awash with designer collaborations.  So what happened? Where has this demand sprung from and who benefits from the arrangement? And how much can we really read into ‘site crashed due to demand’?

For designers, a high street collaboration can be an attractive proposition, exposing them to a new fanbase who may not have associated with the brand previously, opening up new geographical regions and offering a substantial cash injection (Proenza Schouler commanded a “seven figure” fee for their collaboration with Target). Collabs can also help test a new product range or category, as with Stella McCartney’s range for Gap Kids, which preceded her own line of childrenswear.

Joining forces doesn’t come without potholes though. So often, e-stores can’t handle the demand that careful marketing has created, crashing or coming offline altogether. When this is a consumer’s first interaction with a brand, it may not be the experience designers want their customers to have. But that’s part of the problem; designers have no control of the experience once the collection arrives instore, from the way purchases are packaged, how staff communicate or the way stock is merchandised. Collaborations also have notoriously high returns rates as customer expectations of quality and fit fall short.

But these collaborations continue, so they can’t all be bad. For a retailer they’re an opportunity to drive pricepoint up, create healthy margins and see foot traffic shoot up dramatically. Given the high prices that retailers are willing to pay designers, sales figures must make it worth it. Right? Que some 2012 data…

The Maison Martin Margiela x H&M collaboration drew its critics, given the house’s normal stance on minimal branding, only ever referring to the ‘Maison’, not naming designers and its focus on intelligence-led design. Yet when the news of the duo joining forces broke in June, online commentary responded in its droves and with great enthusiasm (in fact, more than twice as many online mentions than when the collection actually hit stores mid-November). So how is it selling?

The picture is interesting. Digging into our commercial database we can see that despite only arriving instore on the 15th November, of the 98 pieces in the collection, 75 pieces have already seen price-drops and 22 pieces have seen discounting greater than 50%. There have been successes: the £179 acrylic heeled boots which sold out twice and the £69.99 polo necked jumper selling out in only a few days. But less than a month instore, is this really what Margiela envisioned from their new exposure?

Dig further and the stark reality emerges. Marni’s March collaboration with H&M? 69 products, of which 52 pieces saw discounting above 50% and 12 items even saw price slashes of 75% and higher. Versace‘s second H&M collaboration arrived in January.  The 32 piece collection saw discounting across 14 of the styles. Isn’t this data that a brand should consider before signing up to a collaboration?

It’s not just at H&M that prices are slashed on such collaborations. ASOS invested in the House of Holland for Superga line but of the nine styles they bought, 4 saw discounting higher than 50%, only two sold out and none were restocked. London designer Olivia Rubin‘s collaboration with Dorothy Perkins in April faced similar treatment – of 53 pieces, 51 saw discounting and 46 of those saw price slashes of 50% and more.

But sometimes collaborations do go to plan. Mary Katrantzou for Topshop was a huge success, with only 2 pieces of a 70 piece range seeing any price drop. The collection’s £80 sleeveless printed blouse, restocked three times, actually saw its price increase by 6.25% and still it sold out within a day of arriving in stock each time. Topshop were able to maintain demand, with more stock arriving a month after launch. The Orla Kiely collection at Uniqlo was well executed too. Online chatter about the designer spiked when the collection, her second with the retailer, arrived in store on the 6th September. The Uniqlo launch was carefully followed three days later with the brand’s first showing at New York Fashion Week – coverage both parties in the collaboration benefitted from. The 37 piece range has seen none of its styles discounted to date, with 16  styles out of stock. The lack of discounting is a real achievement given its three month retail life.

And then of course there’s Alice Temperley’s Somerset line for John Lewis, which launched in September and is the fastest selling brand in the retailer’s history. (Incidentally Kate Middleton is a fan of both Orla Kiely and Temperley – clever consumer awareness from the retailers here). The 70 piece line has seen no discounting either, whilst 11 styles have been restocked and 26 styles have sold out. Sell outs include £49 printed leggings, a £89 patterned blouse and a £350 leather jacket; really catering for a range of tastes and price points at a retailer whose customer base is broad.

The moral of the story here is that retailers need to use tools to carefully assess the consumer interest in a brand before dabbling in a collection, considering whether that interest draws from their own consumer base. Meanwhile, brands need to check a retailer’s commercial background with other collaborations before risking their own reputation.

And what of the future? As high street design becomes increasingly respected and competitive, more brands will collaborate and hopefully with greater care. Meanwhile, those brands will need to dig deep to differentiate their mainline experience from their purse-friendly experience, giving rise to hyper-local and customisable product the high street can’t imitate.