Call it The Swap or The Hack, a collaboration by any other name would be as sweet and significant, concludes Jacquie Ang
After last year’s phenomenal Hacker Project twist with Balenciaga in the Gucci Aria show, fashion observers now know better than to dismiss rumours of alliances, no matter how inconceivable it may seem. Still, the tip-offs did little to dilute the surprise runway show held at the Versace headquarters in Via Gesù last September. It was a milestone moment when Kim Jones emerged and Versace’s iconic Medusa on the wall flipped to reveal Fendi’s FF logo, signalling Donatella Versace’s turn to present her collection. After seasons of pandemic-induced digital presentations, the entire manifestation was just the fabulous, supermodel-powered finale needed to conclude Milan Fashion Week on a high note.
The two Italian powerhouses were quick to eschew the oft-used “collaboration” for “swap”. The definition explains how the partnership works: Donatella Versace (chief creative officer) switched roles with Kim Jones (artistic director of Fendi haute couture, ready-to-wear and fur collections for women), Silvia Venturini Fendi (artistic director of Fendi accessories and menswear) and her daughter Delfina Delettrez (creative director of Fendi jewellery) to reimagine Fendi, and vice versa.
While the mash-up, dubbed Fendace, isn’t quite what one would call critically acclaimed work, the significance bears the heft of many first in fashion history. For one, the exchange gave each designer complete creative rein. The maisons opened up their archives to the other, and each will produce its reinterpretation of the other brand, poised to launch worldwide this month.
For another, it crossed “party lines” of different luxury conglomerates. Fendi is owned by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), whereas Versace belongs to Capri Holdings. And another? The very notion of Silvia and Donatella stepping away from their respective family businesses and into each other’s shoes, engaging in this exceptional meeting of minds that celebrates the cultural impact of both Fendi and Versace.
Surely, this dialogue counts as a remarkable culmination in fashion collaboration’s long evolution, one that has seen constant redefinitions of how partnerships work and what makes one tick, disrupting the established order of things along the way.
Best of both worlds
The switcheroo idea was reportedly something Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons toyed with back in 2015. Where it was once unimaginable to have the luminaries join forces, Miuccia, who dislikes collaborations, shares the driver’s seat with Raf at Prada today. “They [collaborations] always seemed to be just about selling more – about cliché s, banality and not about ideas. I was never interested,” she told Vogue.com.
“I think we’re both really interested in trying to understand the world and how it’s evolving,” explained Raf. “And how that reflects on how people look at fashion and at clothes. It’s changing a lot and it’s a generational thing.”
Dries Van Noten would concur. His 2019 collaboration that brought legendary couturier Christian Lacroix back to the runway was lauded, ushering in a time when diff erent points of view can work together to open new doors. Recalling their fi rst meeting that took place a day after the Gilets Jaunes riots, he told BusinessOfFashion.com: “I’ve always said fashion is a reflection. Escapism makes you stronger to cope with everything that’s happening.”
He was determined that the unprecedented partnership was not seen as an homage. Neither did Christian wanted it to be his story. Dries was seeking liberation in a period he found exuberance lacking. He loved Christian’s spontaneous creativity and joy in putting things together and he simply wanted to enjoy working with Christian on a collection for the times. “In one way or another, we’re all conditioned in this industry, and the way he thinks, the way he touches things, his spontaneity taught me again about pure creativity.”
He mused: “Sometimes, you need a little push over the edge. Christian made me jump. But only in the next seasons will I know what it meant. Maybe the most important thing I took away was how important it is to dare.”
Likewise, connecting the world of ready-to-wear with haute couture has worked in Jean Paul Gaultier’s favour. After taking his final bow at his 50th anniversary show in 2020, the retired trailblazer kept his 26-year-old haute couture house running with a bold concept: He would invite a designer he admires to create a collection interpreting his legacy every season, with Chitose Abe of Sacai to kick off the series. “I knew I wanted a woman. And that woman was Sacai,” he told Vogue.co.uk. “She brings a spirit that’s completely different, but then it’s not. It’s the same, but in a new way. She did it her way.”
The thought of the designer takeover came to him in 1987. “When Christian Lacroix left Patou to start his own house, I thought it would be a good idea for different designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Thierry Mugler to design the collection each season. I was just an assistant at the time and when I took the idea to my boss, they said it was too expensive.
Now, it’s my turn, and I want someone I admire to bring their view to Gaultier. When I was artistic director at Hermès (2003 to 2010), my style was almost the opposite of that of Hermès. I enjoy seeing what happens when a designer assumes the spirit of a house.”
He, too, gave Chitose, followed by Glenn Martens of Y/Project and Diesel, full creative control, handing over the keys to his archive and atelier. “The role of fashion in general, not couture specifically, is to reflect on what’s happening in society – it’s the fruit of what’s happening around the designer. A designer is almost like a medium, they are anticipating what people will love even if they don’t realise it. It’s an experiment at first and if you hit the right point, it becomes a trend. But the designer must have the freedom to do what they believe in.” So liberated and empowering was the famous enfant terrible that the first time he laid eyes on Glenn’s collection was when it was shown to the world.
Chitose ran wild with fuelling a collection with different perspectives, bringing with her a troupe of sub-collaborators. Tattoo artist Dr Woo designed the motifs for her in a nod to Jean Paul’s Spring/Summer 94 Les Tatouages collection. Accessories designer Pierre Hardy conceived the platform boots inspired by Madonna’s Jean Paul-designed corset worn on her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, as well as thigh-high faux fur-trimmed boots evoking his Autumn/Winter 94 Le Grande Voyage Mongolian-inspired collection. In addition, Chitose had a ready-to-wear component with an eight-piece capsule collection, where she roped in frequent collaborator Nike for two exclusive iterations of LDVaporwaffle sneakers.
It is a win-win venture. Chitose and Glenn had the chance to try their hand at couture with the famed expertise of les petites mains (French for atelier artisans), while Jean Paul can refresh his offerings every season without deviating far from his design codes. Appointing a creative director isn’t Moncler’s approach either.
In 2018, it changed the face of luxury skiwear by dropping seasonal collections for more frequent releases by a rotating line-up of guest creatives the likes of Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, Japanese musician and influential streetwear designer Hiroshi Fujiwara, Danish electric bike start-up Mate.bike and German luxury luggage brand Rimowa.
This month, the long-running Moncler Genius project launches its collaboration with South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster, expanding its vision from cutting-edge frames with specially devised swiping mechanisms to clothing and accessories, such as hoods made with recycled polyester. “We’ve chosen designers that differ greatly from each other as we have always spoken to different generations,” Remo Ruffini, chairman and CEO of Moncler, pointed out.
With these sophisticated innovations, it’s little wonder why some decried Fendace as a mere commercial effort. But there is more to this power couple than a superficial stamp of one’s logo on another’s monogram. If anything, it is a study in the enduring appeal of branding, despite sartorial snobs turning up their noses at what they see as vulgar excess from the depiction.
As with Fendace’s audacious alignment, Gucci and fellow Kering-owned Balenciaga’s radical Hacker Project – where Alessandro Michele was free to “plunder” Demna Gvasalia’s non-conformist rigour – rewrote fashion history with a brazen stack of Gucci and Balenciaga insignias on a single piece. The amalgamation of revered house codes was a historic spectacle, made even more sensational when you realise these counterfeit lookalikes are bonafide collectibles that were actually orchestrated by the creative heads from two houses steeped in rich heritage. The feat would be repeated with Demna’s take on Gucci’s signatures a few months later.
“To me, logos are the most direct and limited sign of belonging,” Demna opined to Vogue.co.uk. “Fashion is much more than that. It’s about style, identity, disruption, attitude. A logo cannot give that, but it can give someone a notion – a feeling – of belonging to whatever social group they want to be seen as part of. It does this in a very simple and fast-forward way by just saying the brand name on a product. One no longer needs to think, analyse and intellectualise. Who has time for that, anyway, in this social media-driven world we live in, where everything must be a click away?”
The Hacker Project was a game-changing move that overhauled perceived “expectations of branding, collaboration and design ownership, all at once” as it questions “ideas of authenticity and appropriation within the fashion industry”. Alessandro chose Demna as his accomplice as they’re “both thieves of everything, in different ways but it belongs to both of us.” This was one of their many explorations in rip-offs.
Alessandro once sent out what appeared to be a deliberate typo, “Guccy”, on a Cruise 2019 dress and went on to step out in a T-shirt that amplified the misspelling with “Guccify yourself ”. It was later clarified to be the medieval spelling of the brand in his riff on knockoffs.
In his Autumn/Winter 20 men’s show, he pushed the envelope with a micro-collection of ready-to-wear and accessories declaring “FAKE” in front, and the word “NOT” at the back. These words are emblazoned on two green-red stripes inspired by ’80s imitation goods, instead of Gucci’s familiar green-red-green Web stripes. With “FAKE” plastered over the pseudo-Web stripe, the witty commentary poked fun at designer fakes, while paying tribute to the logo, the institutional symbol of a brand in an ironical twist that at the same time, beat counterfeiters at their own game.
The same goes for Demna, who had his say in previous collections. One of his strongest statements came from The Hacker Project. Going beyond swapping Gucci’s GGs with Balenciaga’s BBs, he tagged “This is not a Gucci bag” on a limited-edition tote, graffiti-style, evoking René Magritte’s 1929 mind-bending painting The Treachery of Images, where the Belgian Surrealist artist wrote: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe” in French) beneath what was a depiction of a pipe.
Even his runway show confronted what we believed to be real. American artist Eliza Douglas modelled every look (both mens and womenswear) in front of an audience. But it was all faked. The virtual show featured digital clones of Eliza, some of which were deepfakes or models with Eliza’s photogrammetry-captured and CG-scanned face digitally grafted on. A host of highly advanced technologies, including planar tracking and rotoscoping was employed in the post-production processes to attain such a hyper-realistic effect.
Meet your (friendly) match
Recent years have seen the current crop of creative heads opening their houses to unusual, even unexpected, collaborators.
After discovering graffiti artist GucciGhost (also known as Trouble Andrew) tampering with Gucci’s logo to brand the streets of New York, Alessandro handed the plagiarist a new canvas, the Gucci Autumn/Winter 16 collection. Later, he invited him to tag Gucci’s Fifth Avenue flagship boutique. “It’s interesting how our language, started by a family in Florence nearly 100 years ago, can be something very contemporary,” noted Alessandro, who had even asked to put his touches on GucciGhost’s pieces.
“I customised his work and he says I’m like a doctor who treats them and makes them better. He puts in his culture, I have mine. The two things together are good. Diversity always produces something interesting.”
Tables were turned when Alessandro was accused of stealing a Dapper Dan design in his Cruise 18 collection. It was a potentially ugly situation, as the bespoke tailor was forced out of business in 1992 after facing lawsuits from luxury brands (one of which was Gucci) for violating their copyrights.
Alessandro quickly clarified that the look was his knockoff of Dapper Dan’s knockoff fur jacket with Louis Vuitton-monogrammed (Alessandro updated it with Gucci’s GGs) puff sleeves designed for Olympian runner Diane Dixon in 1989. It was meant to be a homage. He further expressed his sincerity by welcoming him into his growing circle of collaborators.
Dapper Dan went on to grace Gucci’s Autumn/Winter 17 campaign and reopen his Gucci-sponsored studio in Harlem, where he can legitimately customise orders with Gucci’s fabrics, prints, embroidered patches and hardware.
Fast forward to 2021, when Pierpaolo Piccioli posted a selfie wearing a black hoodie with the red Valentino “V” logo on the chest. Beneath it was the word “VACCINATED”. It didn’t take long before likes and requests rolled in. However, the design came from Cloney, a little-known company that prints tongue-in-cheek adaptations of designer insignia on everything from T-shirts to caps.
It would have been easy to send a cease-and-desist letter or co-opt the design himself and make more under Valentino. However, he chose to reach out to the founder, Duke Christian George III, to propose an extraordinary partnership. Duke would donate the idea and Valentino would fund and produce limited-edition hoodies bearing both logos. All proceeds would go towards funding Unicef ’s work with the World Health Organisation’s Covax programme, focused on supplying vaccines to countries where they are not yet widely accessible.
“I didn’t want to steal the idea – even though I wished I had it first,” Pierpaolo confessed. “Getting vaccinated has become the most effective way to fight this global pandemic, as well as a symbol of respect for others and social responsibility. One cannot hide behind the concept of freedom by deciding not to get vaccinated.” This makes Valentino the first fashion house to publicly take a stand on vaccinations, practise what it preaches by raising money for the cause, all while giving an upstart label a lift.
These compelling crossovers pave the way for fresh and friendly alliances. It is telling how designers these days let loose and indulge in fun in their work. Putting rivalry aside in fashion’s hyper-competitive world, many beginnings are born from mutual respect and friendship. All it took was a call from Alessandro to Demna to board The Hacker Project. Dries was too shy to call Christian, so he wrote him an email. It was a stroke of serendipity as Christian never answers the phone.
Lunch acquainted Jean Paul with Glenn, while it was tea with Chitose. “The meeting was so personal and intimate. The conversation felt genuine and organic,” she shared with HarpersBazaar.com. Fendace originated from dinner with Fendi’s three creative heads at Donatella’s house (formerly owned by brother Gianni). According to Kim, Silvia and Donatella never had a proper conversation before, but they just clicked on the idea to celebrate after making it through the pandemic.
The Swap renewed old links. Donatella’s brother Gianni was pals with Karl Lagerfeld (Fendi’s late creative director, who designed the FF logo and whom Silvia called her mentor) and was also close to Silvia’s mother, Anna Fendi. “There is trust among us,” Donatella told Vogue.com. “We knew that each would treat the other’s brand with respect.” Then there’s supermodel Naomi Campbell, who was dear friends with Gianni and Karl, and remains a regular in Kim’s and Donatella’s runway shows. “Donatella doesn’t open Gianni’s home to many people. I hope now that it will inspire our industry to open up and share with one another. You have to share.”
Perhaps Kim sums up the art of collaboration best: “Friends, idols, mentors… It’s the beauty of togetherness.”
(Main and featured image: Fendi’s Kim Jones and Donatella Versace sharing the Fendace stage)
This story first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.