Crazy about collaborations

Call me vain or gullible, but I find it hard to resist when two fashion labels come together to create a unique hybrid product

It is the one event in the whole calendar year that I would consider taking leave to attend.

No, it's not the WTA tennis finals that are now on, or the annual Club 21 Bazaar sale that was held last weekend.

Each year, around the beginning of November, a large number of crazy people queue overnight outside a certain store in Orchard Road waiting for the sunrise.

That store is the Somerset flagship of the Swiss high-street fashion label H&M. And the event? The launch of a special line it releases annually in collaboration with a famous designer label.

This year, the label happens to be Parisian fashion house Balmain, which means the line will be extra long and taking leave may be the only way to get in the doors when they finally open at 10am this Thursday.

If you are of my vintage, you may be scratching your head. In the eighties, Pierre Balmain was associated with stodgy office shirts you might have seen lining the bargain bins of the now-defunct Klasse emporium - a sort of French Goldlion.

But google the label today and you get quite a different story. Like Givenchy and Balenciaga, Balmain was revived in recent years by a young upstart creative director who was given the reins of the storied brand when he was just 24. Less than five years later, Frenchman Olivier Rousteing has leveraged social media networks such as Instagram and a posse of famous friends, including the Kardashians, Beyonce and Rihanna, to make Balmain one of the hottest fashion labels of the moment.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Except it is a label that remains sadly out of reach of the average consumer today. A Balmain jacket costs upwards of $3,000, a pair of jeans at least $1,000 and a simple T-shirt as much as $500.

Which is why there will be a gigantic queue outside H&M on Thursday morning. Each year, H&M's designer collaborations bring haute couture down from the stratosphere to street level. Last year's collaboration with Alexander Wang was almost entirely sold out in hours, as I discovered when I finally made it to the store after work.

Today, pop culture and fashion are full of such partnerships. If you follow trendy lifestyle sites such as Highsnobiety, Hypebeast, Selectism and Cool Hunting, you will find that there is at least one being launched every week. At online stores such as End Clothing, there is even an entire section tagged "latest collaborations".

Cynics have drily observed that when two labels come together, most of the time, all they produce are overpriced gimmicks. But despite this, I go mad for them.

Much of this has to do with the fact that I am the ultimate consumer, which means I am always up for a bargain when I see one.

And in the case of Reebok x Mastermind, that is a bargain indeed, considering that a shortsleeved shirt from the cult Japanese label retails at more than $2,500 in Singapore stores - if you can even find one and in your size.

"It's coming in this week!" whispered N., my favourite fashion fiend and co-conspirator, excitedly about two weeks ago. But even his connections to a famous high-end Singapore fashion retailing chain had some sort of limit.

"Quick tell me your size, but you cannot choose which of the four models you want. They will just allocate," he said.

In the silent melee that followed, I somehow missed by half a size - they had an 8.5, not the 8 I wanted.

I was crushed and immediately took my search online. In the end, the shoes that arrived from an obscure store in New Jersey were simply an all-black rendering of the Reebok LX8500 - one of the more "obiang" track shoes of my youth. A very suspect buy, but at "just $300" for a Mastermind, who would dare complain?

I would argue that the purchase is more than justified by the scarcity factor. Two labels come together and the collaboration is one-off, never to be repeated. Subsequent generations of equally mad fashion victims will come to covet it and I can one day flog it off for a fortune.

Which was exactly how I talked myself into buying a pair of Maison Martin Margiela x Converse shoes a couple of years ago when they were released. The concept was so simple it was almost idiotic.

The French fashion house is famous for its unorthodox techniques, which include randomly splattering clothes and shoes with paint. So for its collaboration with Converse, it simply took a normal pair of canvas Converse shoes and dipped them entirely in white paint.

The white paint was purposely low-quality and designed to flake off over time, revealing the original colour of the shoes as time went by. "It's not just a pair of shoes, it's a piece of performance art," I reasoned to a friend at the time, before parting with $250 for a pair of low-cuts.

Thanks to idiots like me, they repeated the "once-off" collaboration the following year and the year after next. All I had to show for my enthusiasm in the end were afternoons spent vacuuming paint flakes off the car carpet and a pair of dirty blue Converse shoes.

Still, as a student of art and culture, I tell myself one must appreciate the fusion of disparate creative visions that is associated with brand collaborations.

Never mind that I seem to be wearing two pieces of kitchen aluminium foil (Adidas x Kolor) or a polo shirt with incomplete stitching (Lacoste x Peter Saville), what matters is that I know enough about each of the brands to be able to see exactly how each has contributed to a beautiful and unique hybrid whole.

Like an overenthusiastic docent at the grand museum of hype, I can point out why diamond-shaped studs adorn a pair of rubber slippers (Valentino x Havaianas) or why the tell-tale art deco lines make this fitness tracker a Tory Burch x Fitbit. You can write a whole essay on how Uniqlo x Lemaire has brought "timeless elegance" to "everyday essentials".

Ultimately, my craze for collaborations is a reflection of my vanity, I triumphantly conclude to a work colleague.

More like your gullibility, she intoned.

I leave you, dear reader, to be the judge.

In the autumn of 1994, Martin Margiela sent models down the runway in doll's clothes that he had enlarged, all details and proportions intact, so they would fit humans.

In 2012, H&M collaborated with Margiela to mass-produce classics from the fashion house's archive. One frenzied November evening that year, I tried on an enlarged replica of a male doll's sweater in the store and looked at myself in the mirror.

It looked, frankly, ridiculous. The ribbed neckline of the woollen garment and the sleeve ends were unnaturally huge and it felt like a giant furry monster was eating me alive.

I took it off and looked at the price tag.

Only $99, I thought. What a bargain for a Margiela museum piece, I reasoned, looking nervously at the other fashionistas hovering near me.

Minutes later, I walked out of the store with it - thinking it did not really matter whether I would wear the sweater regularly.

For what a story it would make, someday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Crazy about collaborations'. Print Edition | Subscribe