This past month I have been consumed by the annual Brown University Fashion Week (BFW) — an event that usually takes place over a singular week but was stretched out over a month this year due to an incredible line-up of speakers that was made possible by the Zoomiverse. Starting off the week, we had Sarah Jessica Parker, which led to us into an array of speakers ranging from the fashion business side of things to a panel of models featuring Jasmine Tookes to a plethora of designer talks — Steve Madden, Fe Noel, Stella McCartney, Kenneth Cole, and Oliver Roustieng (more on him later) to name a few — and even Emma Chamberlain! The week was brought to a close by our final speaker Ms. Gwyneth Paltrow and my personal favorite aspect of BFW: the annual Fashion Show showcasing collections done by student designers from Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design. Fashion Week was an overall smashing success (highlight: I got to host a panel with the CEOs of Ralph Lauren and Maje), but it wasn’t without its controversies. Following the Balmain discussion with Olivier Roustieng — who I was lucky enough to meet in a small Zoom group post-panel discussion — my friend on the Fashion@Brown design team circulated some controversial articles on Instagram reminding us all about Balmain’s somewhat troublesome history. One of which highlighted the 2015 Balmain x H&M collab, which brings me to a more recent event: H&M’s most recent designer collaboration with Simone Rocha, which dropped on March 11th. Since the first H&M x designer drop in 2004 with Karl Lagerfeld, these collaborations have showcased themselves as a hallmark of democratizing fashion. However, as much as these collaborations offer us a beacon of hope into a more accessible world of high fashion, they also raise a number of questions about whether or not this is being made a reality. H&M is one of the most notorious fast fashion leaders and could easily veer off the path of democratization if not held accountable. 

Rewind to 2004: retail-designer collaborations such as the H&M x Karl Lagerfeld collection were practically unheard of, and Lagerfeld wanted to be at the front of the movement to break down these high/low fashion barriers. However, this push would inevitably be met with backlash — accusations that this was “cheap” were silenced with Lagerfeld’s self-assured retorts in a self-promo commercial: “What a depressing word. It’s all about taste. If you’re cheap, nothing helps.” This groundbreaking alliance between one of the most esteemed designers of all time and a low-cost, fast fashion empire would launch the fashion realm into a new era of collaborations, exclusive drops, and pop-up shops aplenty. The chance to acquire a Lagerfeld blouse or tuxedo jacket for a fragment of the cost of his regular designs was not lost on the public, nor H&M, whose worldwide sales were booming a month later with a 24% spike. However, Lagerfeld himself vocalized much less enthusiasm than he had when agreeing to this partnership, turning the camera onto H&M and accusing them of upholding “snobbery”. This may seem ironic coming from the Creative Director of the luxury fashion house itself — Chanel — however, Lagerfeld was not wrong in his accusations. Upset that H&M produced his collection in insufficient quantities as a means to maintain the exclusivity of high fashion, Lagerfeld expressed that he would never work with H&M again. These were some big words coming from such a fashion mogul and should have raised some red flags about the democratizing potential of these H&M designer collaborations.

Lagerfeld was right in questioning H&M’s intentions when they actively short-ed the quantity of his collection, as this upheld the snobbery of luxury fashion even while it was being sold at a fraction of the price of the designer’s usual collections. This also gave rise to the potential for drop-culture to consume these collections — whereby people immediately buy up the collection and resell the items at inflated prices (this was one of the major critiques of the latest Simone Rocha collab as customers were assured of the plentiful stock, only to be left waiting in an online queue for hours on end and come out on the other side empty-handed). Limited stock, however, has not been the only shortcoming of H&M’s designer collabs over the past 17 years. H&M is one of the most notorious fast fashion conglomerates circumventing poorly enforced intellectual property laws in the fashion industry in order to copy-cat the runway. To have designers willingly give their designs to these notorious high fashion dupers thus holds major fast fashion implications. These collections are veiled in a false sense of luxury, using designer names to appear up to par with the quality of high fashion. Whereas in reality, these collections are churned out in the same factories that produce H&M’s ordinary retail items. Despite this fallacy of couture, these items are still a steep price in comparison to H&M’s mainstream goods. So while these items may appear to be a steal compared to Balmain or Simone Rocha’s runway collections, you are really upfronting a hefty price for much lower quality goods. 

Now that we are all aware of the H&M x designer collaborations’ fraught history let’s take a deeper look at how they have played out over the years. Given my recent proximity to Olivier Rousteing — the interaction that sparked this deeper investigation into the dark side of H&M designer collaborations — we will take a deeper dive into the 2015 H&M x Balmain. Olivier Rousteing is known for his celebrity lifestyle, surrounding himself with the likes of the Kardashians and other A-list celebrities. With a whopping 1.2 million followers and branded legacy of celebrity fashion, Rousteing sits atop a throne of exclusivity. It comes as no surprise then that his cult following consists of celebrity-obsessed teens and 20-year olds, the same target market H&M appeals to. This was a no-brainer collaboration from a market strategist perspective, and Rousteing caught onto this as well, expressing in an interview that “I don’t believe that all my 1.2 million followers can actually get Balmain, obviously. My followers are dreaming of getting Balmain.” The chance to break into the exclusive celebrity-clad environment that Rousteing has built for himself was made possible by this collaboration. However, to what extent is a cheaply-made H&M x Balmain clad outfit a genuine ticket into Rousteing’s club of exclusivity, and to what extent is it a bit of a mockery of those who can’t truly afford his world, clearly marking the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out?

Simone Rocha’s collaboration raises similar questions; however, the failures here were not lost on Simone Rocha’s following as they may have been on the Balmain (or should I say Rousteing) enthusiasts. The Simone Rocha x H&M collection was received poorly by critics and fans alike. Being called a ‘cynical marketing ploy using customers as fools’, the collection not only left customers in a virtual queue for hours but was immediately seen being resold on sites such as eBay at inflated prices. To give you a sense of the prices the items in this collection went for: the dresses ranged from $99-299, with the most expensive piece going for a whopping $349 and the shoes taking the cake for overall most expensive items, ranging from $139-199 a pair. Now inflate this up to 100%, and you’ve got the eBay price tag… I’ll let you do the math. That wasn’t all that fans had to critique about this collection — it also raised a fair share of controversy when it was announced the collection would only be available up to a women’s size 14. Despite all being said in opposition to this collection, the disappointment of Simone Rocha fans goes to show that customers were truly looking forward to purchasing these pieces (I know I was) and were largely left disappointed when their only option available to do so would break the bank.  

While this couture allure may have propelled us into the world of retail x designer collabs meant to democratize high fashion by making it more accessible to us regular folks, it appears to be merely another trick up fast fashion conglomerates’ sleeves. I find it hard to believe that the same retailer accused of questionable labor practices, environmental degradation, and facing controversy over their “coolest monkey” sweatshirt (just look it up…) only just a few years ago could be the same retailer that can effectively bring us into a more democratized fashion realm (but maybe that’s just because I’m still a bit upset over not acquiring one of those oh-so-pretty Simone Rocha dresses that dropped on March 11th). So what do you think: is H&M democratizing fashion one annual designer collab at a time, or is this just another marketing ploy meant to keep the average consumer on the edge of their seat waiting for the next big drop? Whatever you decide, it is pretty apparent we are still strides away from a democratic fashion utopia, but at least we can all now afford to be in the Olivier Cool Club, donning our favorite 2004 Karl Lagerfeld x H&M t-shirts…

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