The art of the left-field collaboration

Aug 31, 2018

GDR’s Jenny Cusack explores the recent spate of unexpected collaborations between seemingly unconnected brands


Brand collaborations have been a feature of the avant-garde fashion scene since Schiaparelli partnered with Salvador Dali for a collection of lobster dresses and shoe hats that sparked both shock and awe in equal measures.

Contemporary art and fashion have always been a likely match, but there’s a new breed of super-smart left-field unions emerging that are retyping the rules of brand partnerships.

Unexpected encounters that surprise, delight and spark thought are just some of the elements required to nail the art of the left-field collaboration.

This week I’ll be taking a closer look at a few of my favourite unlikely unions.


More than meets the eye

It’s not easy to connect the dots between sandals and porcelain, but that’s the very reason legacy porcelain-maker KPM Berlin and Birkenstock’s recent collaboration is such an interesting execution. Sparked from a chance encounter between brand execs at a dinner party, it quickly became clear there was great synergy between the brands.

“We were surprised how well two brands that may have nothing in common on first sight can harmonise together so beautifully,” explains Bernd Lietke, managing director of Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (KPM) Berlin.

Both brands took time to get to know each other, visiting one another’s factories and becoming acquainted with their business challenges. The collaboration resulted in a two-part, one-off range of porcelain and sandals in matching wet black and gold gild – marrying two legacy German brands who pride themselves on craftsmanship and excellence in design.

“Of course, it didn’t come as a surprise that the cooperation has caused some controversy – this is what we wanted. It’s projects like this, which promote discussion, that keep KPM Berlin relevant and desirable not only as a porcelain manufacturer, but as an innovator of German product design and craftsmanship.”


Open up your audience base

While the partnership shone a light on both brands’ heritage and craftsmanship, it has also opened KPM Berlin up to a previously untapped audience of fashion-savvy millennials. A launch event for the range, co-hosted with Vogue Germany and attended by local influencers, took place at Berlin’s KaDeWe department store where the products were exclusively sold.

Aligning with a different breed of brand to cross-pollinate each other’s audiences has an obvious benefit. This works best when the partnership contains an unexpected benefit for both customers and the brands involved, such as in the case of Victoria Beckham’s recent partnership with Sotheby’s auction house.

Ahead of the Old Masters Week art fair in London, Victoria Beckham showcased for-auction artworks from Sotheby’s at her Mayfair flagship store. Works, from the likes of Peter Paul Rubens and Lucas Cranach the Elder, were displayed throughout the minimalist store alongside clothing racks from Victoria Beckham’s latest collection. The exhibit was inspired by Victoria’s new found love of Master works (documented on her personal Instagram account and in an interview with Sotheby’s magazine) after a trip to the Frick Collection in Manhattan.

For Victoria Beckham brand followers, and Victoria Beckham fans alike, the move was a way for her to offer discoverable, shareable experiences with her following by repurposing her boutique into a destination art gallery. For big name brands with media-moth influencers at the helm, mapping a journey for followers hungry for new content and experiences is the never-ending task at hand. Collaborations such as this not only add credence to a relatively new brand like Victoria Beckham, positioning it amongst the grandeur and timelessness associated with Sotherby’s and Old Masters artwork, but they can also keep a niche and exclusive brand such as Sotherby’s relevant to a ready-and-waiting luxury fashion clientele.


Tell a great story

A great brand collaboration can also be used to create a unique and playful narrative to delight customers with. And Other Stories’ collaboration with East London cult interiors company House of Hackney does just this.

The collaboration is a collection of women’s clothing and accessories using House of Hackney’s signature striking prints and shapes, inspired by Victorian psychedelia and pieces worn by artists of the free-thinking Bloomsbury Group in London. Online, the collection is merchandised by star sign with each outfit accompanied by whimsical predictions of summer adventures and style influences. An interview about the collaboration with the couple behind House of Hackney features alongside the online showcase.

Riffing off the group of romantic writers and artists that included Virginia Woolf, the collaboration takes its audience on a personalised journey to discover items from the collection. The playful approach is a perfect match to the style of the clothes.


Spark joy

Sometimes, a successful collaboration can be based on the simple idea of bringing pure joy to your customers – such as Target’s new collaboration with the Museum of Ice Cream.

The Museum of Ice Cream is an experiential ice-cream pop-up store that’s gone viral in the US over the last year. It’s an Instagrammer’s rainbow-strewn childhood dream, capable of reaching top ranked post status. It’s rammed full of 100s & 1000s swimming pools, giant lollipops, banana swings and coloured mainly in millennial pink. The Willy Wonka-esque landscapes have been visited by superstar families like the Kardashians and Knowles-Carters, while average Joes have been queueing around the block to get in on the fun.

The brand’s new capsule collection of boys’ and girls’ clothing and accessories with Target embodies the very essence of this joy. The collection is inspired by Museum of Ice Cream’s ingredients and aesthetic, with gummy bear graphic tees, tassel-arm jackets, banana-patterned skateboards, multi-coloured confetti in clear bum-bags and ice cream necklaces.

To complement the collection, a new range of Museum of Ice Cream ice cream is being exclusively sold in Target stores and at a co-branded pop-up store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District that includes a bookable taste tour and ice cream-making class in a pink laboratory.

For a discount store such as Target, a collaboration such as this is a winning way to capitalise on a very current trend and a behavoiur that is gripping the nation. For the Museum of Ice Cream, on the other hand, it gets its newly-fledged brand into the US’ second largest physical retailer.


Friends with benefits

Collaborations that stand the test of time can offer strong mutual benefits. As Birkenstock and KPM Berlin’s methodology of getting it right shows, it takes an investment of time and effort to build a smart partnership. There must be mutual trust to overcome challenges, and to take the risks involved in wow-ing both brands’ customer bases. The more apparently left-field the stronger the message, but as we scratch just a little below the surface, it’s not hard to hear the blissful harmonies between the names that are making this new breed of brand friendship work.

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