What Really Goes On Inside Designer Collaborations?

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Unless you’re on the wrong end of an eBay sale, high-low designer collaborations seem like no-brainers for fashion enthusiasts. Take the Roland Mouret Banana Republic collection, launching today, for example. Many of the sleek bodycon dress silhouettes that make up the capsule are nearly indistinguishable from pieces in the designer’s luxury label, yet ring in at only one tenth the price. It’s no surprise that savvy shoppers with an eye for design and thirst for a deal, clamor to scoop up as many pieces as they can whenever such a collection drops.

But what is more rarely understood is the other side of the equation—that is how and why a designer and a retailer would decide to collaborate in the first place, and the fine line they both walk to ensure that such a partnership would be mutually beneficial, both in terms of building each side’s brand equity and growing their bottom lines.

In a rare glimpse into the production and decision making process, The New York Times shadowed Joseph Altuzarra as the designer and his retail partner, Target, get ready for the line’s September 14 launch.

“Being invited to a collaboration means that in some sense your brand stands for something,” Altuzarra says. “It enhances my image and brings my name out there in a way that, on my own, I never could.” For one, Target has a marketing budget many times the size of that of a fledgling label. For Altuzarra, that means a massive media campaign starring Eva Herzigova and shot by Peter Lindbergh, to be rolled out to broadcast, magazines, and billboards.

For Target, the benefits of their designer collaborations are also manifold. It adds a glossy layer to the retailer’s reputation. “What the merchant is really seeking is to connect itself with talent,” Imran Amed, the editor of The Business of Fashion, explained to the Times. “Designer partnerships help bring customers into the store who otherwise might not have considered it.”

But perhaps even more importantly, the collaborations signal that Target—just as much a destination for diapers and pet food as for dresses and accessories—remains a serious player in the fashion space. “Mr. Altuzarra’s high profile sends a signal to the marketplace that Target does not intend to cede leadership in the turf it pioneered to competitors like H & M, which recently announced a partnership with Alexander Wang,” the Times explains.

And just how much are the designers really designing in these collaborations?

As expected, it’s a bit of a give and take, but ultimately, the designer has the final say—within reason. For Altuzarra, he found that there were fabric restrictions—no furs, silks, and leathers, instead having to add his couture touch through use of “elaborate prints, embroideries, and beadings.” But the design process remains largely the same—from initial inspiration mood boards to approving or rejecting the final look. The merchant’s job is to remain on the analytical side of the partnership instead of getting too involved in creative decisions. “Target might say, you have too many pants [which don’t sell as easily as dresses],” explains Trish Adams, Target’s executive vice president for apparel and home merchandising. But if a designer wants a certain type of buttons, even if they increase the cost of the garment,“[we ’ll say] ‘Fine.’ In the end, the designer makes choices.”

See all the looks from inside the studio here.

All images: Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times