The collaborative symbol ‘x’ that at one time promised a thrill of anticipation, has lately been leaving us feeling something we never thought possible: jaded. Even for collab-loving design advocates like us, that exciting little symbol has been worn away of late. Now instead of implying something fresh, relevant and of cultural value, they have started to imply – dare we say it? – yet another average product disguised by the pretense of a ‘brand x art’ or ‘brand x brand’ collaboration.
Arts & Labour’s very existence (a blog born to champion the fusion of art and brand through meaningful collaboration) is a testament to the fact that collabs once stood for something worth getting excited about. But we can’t help but wonder, is that day over?
Lately, we’ve been asking ourselves whether collaborations have become a means to an end for too many brands, simply an excuse to make noise about otherwise ordinary products. The kind of art collaborations that used to make us feel excited about a brand’s vision and that looked beyond the average to invent imaginative products are now few and far between. We should note that there are still companies creating unorthodox products worthy of getting fired up about, with or without collaborations in mind, thank goodness. Most likely though, they were doing exactly that long before art and brand collaborations started to gain their now fast-fading appeal.
So, are art x brand collaborations becoming obsolete? After much soul searching and thought, we’ve come to a firm conclusion: NO. When one digs a little deeper, one discovers that it’s actually the creative intent behind them that has started to lack the vital imagination and originality that collaborations once inherently represented. Without creative vision and artistic intent, it’s little wonder that the resulting products fall flat. For example, the multitude of recent street-wear collaborations from various brands with their little-differentiated sweats, sneakers, T-shirts or hoodies has been impossible to get enthusiastic about. On top of that, these limited editions are rather unlimited and visible everywhere, both online and on the street.
In order to succeed, brands must dig deeper—and not necessarily into their pockets, but simply into more meaningful creative processes that can ultimately result in uncovering what everyone is after: an irresistible newness. As Rei Kawakubo of the Japanese avant-garde fashion label Comme des Garçons explained: “The idea is, no references. Today there are so many trends, yet everything looks the same. It’s our job to question convention. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”
Many years ago, as a student at the current Ontario College of Art & Design University in Toronto, a design adage I took to heart was that our portfolios were only as strong as our weakest piece. (It deeply resonated with me then as it does now.) Similarly, the weak collabs we’re seeing today are bringing all collaborations as a whole down. One poorly conceived art x brand project may come and go, but with it, so will the audience over time. For brand champions, this should serve as a wakeup call.
So, what’s next? We’d argue that the current art x brand collaboration overspill is an immense opportunity for brands small and large to go deeper and to make sure their creative hearts are in the right place. Are your goals to create something truly original and contribute to society, not degrade it? If so, then time, thought and shrewd creativity must be invested so that convention may be ousted. Only then will brands begin once again to develop limited-edition products that genuinely stand out as they’re meant to.