Fashion designers reaching out to the high street cultivating new consumers or losing their edge?

High street fashion retailer H&M is well known for bringing designer labels to the masses through collaborations with the likes of Jimmy Choo, Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney.

While the brand kudos gained for H&M among a mainstream customer base is obvious, the benefits for the designers involved has been called into question.

Chanel and Chloe designer Karl Lagerfeld lent his name and face to H&M’s first ever designer collaboration in 2004. Costing between €5 and €150 as opposed to more than €1,000 for his ’original’ pieces, sales went up 24% for H&M in November that year, compared with the previous year.

However, Lagerfeld himself was critical of the partnership. He believed that H&M had not produced and distributed enough of his line. And he objected to the chain selling his pieces in larger sizes, controversially stating that they were designed for “slender and slim people”.

Antonio Berardi
Antonio Berardi: Produced co-branded luggage with Peroni to avoid engaging with high street retailers

But there are clear gains to be made for designer labels in terms of widening brand awareness and gaining alternate revenue streams in economically challenging times.

An analysis of H&M’s designer collaborations by Verdict retail analyst Charlotte Woods highlights both what designers have to gain by working with high street retailers and how they can capitalise on what should be seen by many customers as a rare opportunity to buy something that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Collaborating with H&M enabled both Jimmy Choo and Matthew Williamson to extend their brands into new product lines in a less risky environment than their own stores. In a 2010 tie-up, Choo was able to move from producing shoes and handbags to making women’s clothing, while Williamson, famous for producing womenswear, was able to try his hand at menswear.

“For Matthew Williamson, the collaboration resulted in an increase in popularity for the designer, with consumers pleased that he had made his signature style affordable to the masses,” says Woods.

Stella McCartney’s H&M range in 2005 allowed the designer to spread her ethical fashion ethos, Woods also notes, by having one of her T-shirts manufactured using organic cotton and dedicating 25% of its sales to support animal welfare charities. McCartney viewed the collaboration as a “fantastic way of reaching a wider female audience” and has since engaged in collaborations with other high street retailers such as Gap.

But not all H&M partnerships have been successful. When Finnish prints designer Marimekko collaborated with H&M in April 2008, the retailer experienced a 10% decline in year on year monthly sales.

Designer Antonio Berardi, who counts Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyonce among his clients, partnered with beer brand Peroni to produce co-branded luggage in 2009. He argues the tie-up allowed him to retain more autonomy and brand integrity then a full-scale high street collaboration. “I’ve been asked many times to do things that were ’mass’. But if you could buy Berardi on the high street then you wouldn’t want to buy Berardi,” he says.

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