Are Designer Collaborations Doing Consumers a Disservice?

Designers like Isabel Marant and Phillip Lim are recycling their own designs for the mass market--don't we all deserve something original?
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Alyssa Vingan Klein
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Designers like Isabel Marant and Phillip Lim are recycling their own designs for the mass market--don't we all deserve something original?

From L-R: Phillip Lim for Target, 3.1 Phillip Lim for Target, Isabel Marant for H&M, Isabel Marant Spring 2012, Marant for H&M

From L-R: Phillip Lim for Target, 3.1 Phillip Lim for Target, Isabel Marant for H&M, Isabel Marant Spring 2012, Marant for H&M

Last month at the Phillip Lim for Target launch party, I saw a fashion editor friend of mine wearing the coolest black dress, and immediately asked her where she'd bought it. She told me that it was a one-off piece from Alexander Wang's 2008 collection for Uniqlo, but that it's still one of the most beloved items in her closet. While the dress's design is classically Wang, I would have never guessed—its unique shape was unlike anything he's shown on the runway, especially since the Uniqlo collaboration happened before his diffusion line T by Alexander Wang was established.

With Phillip Lim's collection for Target, this wasn't exactly the case. Almost every piece was a less-than-subtle nod to a garment or accessory he's designed before, to the point where his biggest fans could name the runway show they'd seen it in. Editors came to the Target preview toting their $800 Pashli satchels, when a $35 version—very similar in design but constructed of faux leather—was on display.

When I asked the designer about the familiar looking items in his collection, he said, "The basic foundation is that they want you… I went through the archives and tried to bring out the timestamps that are still relevant and that I still desire." I understand that collaborating with a mass retailer seems like the perfect opportunity to offer downmarket customers high-end designs at a lower cost, but as someone who saved up to buy a comic book sweater from his Pre-Fall 2012 collection, my piece feels less special now that there's a near-identical Target item up for sale.

The Isabel Marant for H&M line launched in Paris last night, and like Lim's, Marant's collection includes reissues of her greatest hits from the last few years, including a pair of slouchy fringed boots from the Fall 2011 show—a favorite of fashion editors like Emmanuelle Alt—which retailed for over $1,000 and spawned waiting lists around the world. Other familiar items include the Navajo embroidered denim from Fall 2011 and a beaded jacket that recalls her Spring 2012 show. It seems that in these recent collaborations, designers are creating knockoffs of their own designs, hoping that neither their high-end nor low-end customer will care. But does re-releasing popular designs make the collaborations more desirable?

"I find this trend disgraceful," Marc Beckman, founder and CEO at Designers Management Agency, told us. "I think these designers are being disingenuous to both the retailer they are collaborating with and the consumers who shop there. It's disrespectful to the clients that are purchasing the products at both the low and high end who are looking for new, superior design, and that's what they deserve—it should be about creating fashion."

DMA is an agency that represents a pool of luxury fashion designers, pairing them with retailers and brokering high-low deals, including Pamela Love for Topshop and Tucker for Target. "When we put Tucker into Target there was no brand awareness, but [designer Gaby Basora] made a point to create all original prints and designs for her Target collection, because that's what the people wanted."

Tucker for Target Lookbook

Tucker for Target Lookbook

When designers recycle old designs for their collaborations, are they doing a disservice to both customers and retailers on the upmarket and downmarket? When a luxury customer purchases an item from a runway collection, he or she should expect that these designs will live exclusively at the high end, and that both the designer and retailer involved will work together to create new products on both ends of the market spectrum.

"It's disingenuous of the designers when they're creating a $10,000 jacket for their main collections and a very similar jacket in design and aesthetic for a fraction of the price downmarket," Beckman said. "It's about creating a great product for the masses. There's nothing wrong for selling to the masses, but the design should be original." However, it's understandable that designers might want to create their own fast-fashion knockoffs as a defense: If their designs are going to end up copied on the sales floor at lower-priced retailers anyway, they might as well get paid for it.

We are huge proponents of designer collaborations, and the hope moving forward is that the retailers involved—on the high and low end—will encourage designers to stay true to their visions while creating unique products for both markets. Since Lim's and Marant's aesthetics are both classically cool, we have no doubt that their collaborations would fly off the shelves even if they weren't so reminiscent of past runway pieces.

When shopping these special collections, the goal shouldn't be to score a piece that already exists (albeit in superior quality), it should be to celebrate a new, one of a kind collection from one of our favorite design talents. Do you agree?