How Virgil Abloh Ruined Sneaker Culture
“When everything’s a desirable limited edition, nothing will be.”
Sneaker collaborations have ruined the culture.
Collaborating is hardwired into the human psyche. It’s how we evolved; working together to achieve great feats, from starting a fire to building skyscrapers. All projects need differing opinions and points of view to arrive at it’s best result. Hell, Nike was founded on collaboration. The company wouldn’t be what it is today with out the two great opposing minds of Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman. But it’s not only their brand that owes it’s success to collaboration. Their best ever product, the Air Jordan range, is a collaboration, too. 1985 ’s Air Jordan 1 saw the first true mass market collab, and it was the hype surrounding it that enabled Nike to capitalize on price. It was the world’s first $100 sneaker.
Since then, collaborations were slow to catch on, but Nike and other big brands knew they were on to something big. When they did arrive to the semi-mainstream early last decade, brands and artists like Vans and Supreme would treat them as bespoke art pieces. They were rare, quality crafts from brands who dedicated much time, care and consideration to the project. The results were always incredible. These are the true sneaker collaborations. It’s because of these early efforts that the term “collaboration” now automatically evokes attachments of quality and rarity — whether it’s present or not. But, at the same time, outside of the true sneaker culture, hip-hop artists were signing sneaker licensing agreements to make a quick buck. These often had little or no input from the artist, with a clear focus only on the paycheck.
For sneaker brands, it’s their responsibility to the shareholders to expand their market interest and increase revenue. But traditionally for sneaker producers, reaching outside of the athletic industry and into subcultures was seen as undoable. But collaborations had become the method for big business’ to get their foot in the door of new markets, by aligning themselves with subculture influencers and icons. In the early 00’s, sneaker brands brought fresh blood into the culture — along with more money into their pockets — through collabs with surf and streetwear brands, rappers, entertainers, designers and artists. Some of these early moves still have legendary status. Kanye’s Red Octobers. Atmos’ Air Max 1 Elephant, Stussy’s Nike Huarache and Jeff Staple’s Pidgeon Dunks. Owning these was — and still is — an ultimate statement of clout. These releases lend themselves to legendary status because collaborations meant something back then, to both the collaborator and the consumer.
But collaborations nowadays just don’t have the same sway.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still incredible collaborations out there, like the KAWS x Air Jordan 4 and Virgil Abloh’s original “The Ten” Collection, but their impact is not as influential as on-par releases from the past. It’s because these modern day releases sit in the shadows of the Supreme Uptempos of the day.
Brands and collaborators have gotten lazy. Could it simply be the fact that they’re only doing it for the money? Or the fact creativity has taken a beating due to the sheer volume of collaborative releases coming out? Simply slapping logos on a silhouette — like the recent Supreme x CDG x Air Force 1 — is not a collaboration, but a mere hype-producer. It’s these types of lazy, “phone-in” collabs that are ruining the culture. But let’s rewind for a second; the abundance of collaboration releases is really whats killing the culture.
Contrary to the last point, Virgil Abloh’s designs on “The Ten” collection are incredibly considered and beautifully executed. They are true collaborations. But by doing such an incredible job, ol’ Virgil ruined the current market by making it OK to release obscene amounts of collabs. From what started as “The Ten” (an outrageous release volume to begin with) has now ballooned out to 40-odd over a 12 month period. This was the tipping point. To balance out Virgil’s market saturation (and hype), brands started releasing more and more collaborations on what now feels like a weekly basis, just to keep up with the Jones’ — sacrificing quality and purpose along the way. As a result, the market is saturated with sub-par efforts. And that’s not OK.
As you’re well aware, not every collaborator has the design skills of a Virgil Abloh. In fact, they’re at the mercy of the in-house design teams, resulting in a dictated colorway at best, licensing agreement, at worst, which begs the question — why are we so hyped up about regular colorways with a big name attached? It seems that sneakers these days aren’t worth shit unless there’s an alliance. And more importantly, when will all of these sub-par collaborations cease?
To answer the first question, it’s everybody’s fault. The brands for seeking out hype all-too frequently in the chase for sales and relevance in the culture. The collaborators for participating. The media outlets for pushing it for readership and us, for buying into it. But can you really blame all those involved? I mean, it’s essentially what we all want, right?. But too much of a good thing is not good for the industry. The current circumstance of market saturation is surely followed by a slow and tiring burnout. And that’s going to be painful to watch.
But we don’t want them to go away, either. They’re an essential part of sneaker culture. But for greatness to return, it starts with you. Wise up to the shity collabs. If we want collabs to get better, it’s as simple as not buying into hype where there shouldn’t be hype.
For more of our Featured articles, click here.