Some time in 2006, Thom Browne, whose reputation was rising in tandem with the inseam on his shrunken suits, was asked by Vogue's Anna Wintour what he'd like to do. Browne said he'd like to collaborate with iconic brands like Brooks Brothers that he'd grown up wearing.
As the story goes, Wintour called Brooks CEO Claudio Del Vecchio, and a year later Black Fleece was born, Brooks Brothers' high-end, fashion forward line guided by Browne's quirky vintage-inspired vision. In fall 2009 Black Fleece opened its second freestanding store, in San Francisco, and what was originally thought of as a domestic brand is now "very meaningful in Asia and Europe," according to chief merchandising officer Lou Amendola.
The marriage between 200-year-old Brooks Brothers and Browne, 2006 CFDA men's wear designer of the year, is an alliance between time-tested pedigree and cutting-edge talent. And these May-December sartorial unions are now rife in the men's wear market, as iconic American brands rush en masse to collaborate with up-and-coming designers and retailers.
Partnerships include Michael Bastian for Gant, Mark McNairy for Bass, Band of Outsiders for Sperry Top-Sider, Opening Ceremony for Pendleton, Robert Geller for Levi's, Nom de Guerre for Red Wing, Freeman's Sporting Club for Crescent Down Works, Apolis Activism for Filson, and Junya Watanabe for Carhartt.
The number of apparel companies with 50-plus years of heritage is fairly small, yet the number of emerging designers is limitless. So while most storied brands may have brought out a collaborative collection by now, the mix and match possibilities may keep the trend going for some time. "Every season lines are going and finding the most obscure little company in the middle of nowhere that's been making something for a hundred years," says New York-based Michael Williams, co-owner of the PR firm Paul + Williams, who has chronicled many collaborations on his popular blog A Continuous Lean. "I don't think there are many stones that are unturned at this point."
But heritage brands are finding they learn a lot from these collaborations. Black Fleece has brought increased web buzz and editorial coverage to the Brooks Brothers brand, says Amendola, as well as expanding the customer base. "And it opens up our existing product to be more forward thinking," he says. The success of Black Fleece's slim-fit suits, shirts and narrow ties gave Brooks Brothers the confidence to introduce these new cuts into the main brand.
And while Black Fleece may have begun as an idea lab and buzz generator, it's also poised to be a money maker. "It's absolutely evolving into becoming a profitable line," says Amendola. "Any new project has a three-to five-year plan before you can determine if it's a meaningful business to be in, and we feel confident today that very soon Black Fleece will be a very profitable business." And part of that is thanks to Browne: Says Amendola, "There have to be incentives for the designer to make sure the collection is successful."
Seeking creative business synergy
On March 15, LL Bean introduced Signature, its own foray into the collaborations space. At the helm is Alex Carleton, a former Bean designer who since 2004 has operated the brand Rogues Gallery. A relatively small collection -- some 200 pieces across men's and women's -- Signature sells at a 20 percent premium to standard Bean fare.
"Bringing someone in from outside gave us the opportunity to get a fresh eye, to push us outside of our comfort zone a little bit," says Signature marketing manager Michele Parzianello. "But at the same time we had to pick someone who really understood the brand, and understood how important it is for us to not in any way harm that brand, to continue the rich history we have without changing things so much that people don't recognize it as an LL Bean product."
Though the fit is revised for a younger customer, Carleton closely researched the company's archives. "He really took the opportunity to reinvent classic pieces and give them a fresh and exciting presentation," says Parzianello.
Aaron Levine, a designer who works alongside Carleton at Rogues Gallery, says collaborations are best when there's a creative business synergy. In addition to LL Bean, Rogues Gallery has collaborated with J. Crew, as well as heritage brands Quoddy, Southwick and Alden. "We look for brands with integrity, that add more integrity to our brand, and that can help us out as a business. It should only happen when it makes sense for both parties fiscally and inspirationally. When it happens organically, it's awesome."
Whoever makes the initial approach, it's clear that both sides can benefit greatly from a partnership between young and old. The order runs are often too small for the young designer to do on his own, but are much easier for the heritage brand whose manufacturing resources are locked in place. Domestic manufacturing is even a possibility, says Williams, pointing to Mark McNairy's collaboration with Bass. "And here you thought Bass would never make a shoe in America again," he says. "In that sense, it's exciting when some of these iconic products are resurrected in a super-pure form."
Collaborations are especially hot in the shoe category, where companies like Quoddy and Alden can easily make small collections and special orders. "Independent retailers all want special merchandise, so every store is getting its own special pair of Aldens," says Williams, pointing to stores such as Epaulet in Brooklyn, Leather Soul in Hawaii, and Leffot and Freeman Sporting Club in New York.
Giving authenticity, getting exposure -- and vice versa
Which brings up the notion of "authenticity," a big by-product of heritage brand collaborations. "A brand can immediately get a lot of authenticity if it makes a product with Crescent Down Works, for example," says Williams. "Why make our version of a down jacket when we can make a version with them and everyone will know that it's legitimate? Or take Nom de Guerre and Red Wing. It's a natural idea to say, âââ‚¬Å¡¬ËÅ"We like these already, maybe we can put our touch on them. It's still an original item, but seen through our eyes.'"
Consumers, too, feel they are getting something authentic, he adds.
Bringing in authenticity is especially helpful when you don't have an 80-year heritage yourself. J. Crew, founded in 1983, has lately amped-up its offerings of brands such as Timex, Ray-Ban, Sperry Top-Sider and Bass. According to Williams, it was a savvy recognition of how its customers actually dress. "People don't just wear head-to-toe J. Crew every day, they mix it with other brands. So they've tried to embrace these iconic brands and items that their customers are already wearing, and it also helps keep things fresh there."
In the case of designers that aren't just young and hip but foreign, collaborations can also help bring exposure to new international markets. Woolrich, the oldest continually run wool mill in America, partnered with Japan's Daiki Suzuki, founder of Engineered Garments, in the creation of Woolrich Woolen Mills, which launched in fall 2008. Sold at premier retailers such as Barney's, Bloomingdale's, Odin and Ron Herman, the line is high-end, directional, even avant-garde, says Woolrich COO Chris Donohue.
"It's raised the awareness of a 180-year old iconic heritage brand and moved it to a new, very contemporary market," he says. "It has also increased our exposure in Japan dramatically."
For Bertrand Pellegrin, retail and brand development consultant and author of "Branding the Man," collaborations are such a win-win it's a wonder it took everyone so long to figure it out. "If I were consulting with these companies and it weren't a recession, I'd still tell them to do this. It's beneficial in terms of growing your business, getting insight into where it should be going, and it allows you to get fresh ideas for how to develop your products for a different customer base.
"LL Bean probably should've been doing this a long time ago," he continues, "because their customer base has probably been more or less stagnant. It doesn't matter if you're a heritage brand, you always need to grow, challenge yourself and challenge the consumer."
And authenticity isn't just a one-way street: the smaller brand provides as much as the larger. "It comes not only from the brand's heritage, but from the small-batch exclusivity," says Pellegrin. "It brings street cred and fashion integrity where perhaps before there was none. The uber brand gets a very large dose of cool, and the smaller brand is suddenly exposed to a broader market."
Christian Chensvold is an Apparel contributing editor based in New York.