From Nike Air Force 1 x Tiffany & Co to Crocs x KFC, footwear collaborations are rife. But the recent release of Kith founder Ronnie Fieg’s 8th Street Samba for Adidas Originals and Clarks Originals is special.
In a saturated market, fatigued by increasingly gratuitous partnerships, fashion news outlets have praised the collaboration for its timeless authenticity, touting it the “perfect sneaker” and “holy trinity” of collaborations.
And consumers seem to agree. Pairs of the limited edition sneaker have resold for up to five times the original price. Pre-orders of a subsequent second release closed, with buyers willing to wait up to six months for delivery.
As fashion researchers, we’re concerned by the environmental impact of an ever-increasing number of collaborations, where authenticity is undermined by commercial objectives. While the 8th Street Samba isn’t designed to be a sustainable shoe, we’re interested in how meaningful partnerships can help to inspire a slower and more sustainable fashion system.
Footwear’s sustainability problem
As one of the world’s greatest polluters, the fashion industry has come under increasing pressure to become more sustainable. With progress towards a more circular approach now underway (where items are made from reused materials that can themselves be repeatedly reused, repaired and recycled), attention is turning to footwear.
Footwear is fashion’s least sustainable category. Each year, 24.3 billion shoes are produced globally. With an estimated 90% not recycled, approximately 1.2 million tonnes of post-consumer shoe waste is created annually in the EU alone. Complex construction, particularly of sneakers, means most cannot be disassembled for recycling or repair.
We’re producing and consuming too many new shoes and collaborations are part of the problem.
Collaborating is key to sneaker and streetwear culture. From the archetypal Converse “Chuck” Taylor All-Star and Puma Clyde, to the Nike Air Jordan and Run DMC Adidas Superstar. Links to sports stars, artists and lifestyles have transformed once practical and comfortable sports shoes into highly fetishised commodities.
Collaborations are a marketing tactic in which two (or occasionally more) brands combine their values and aesthetics to produce a unified product. The goal is to appeal to new markets and build brand image, equity and credibility.
For connoisseurs, or “sneakerheads”, the value of a collaboration is in its scarcity (often released as a limited edition) and the story it tells. At their best, collaborations enable and celebrate connections between brands, histories, cultures and communities.
However, the values that once made them special are becoming a thing of the past. In an industry increasingly obsessed with reach and hype, collaborations have become the norm. According to an article in Highsnobiety, the frequency of production and numbers left sitting on shelves are putting the sneaker industry at risk of “collaborating itself to death”.
Even sneakerheads themselves are calling for a return to a slower, more considered approach.
What makes an authentic collaboration?
Broadly defined, an authentic product or brand is one that may be perceived as being sincere, original, unique, natural, having utility and bringing pleasure.
Heritage brands such as Clarks Originals and Adidas Originals tick a number of these boxes making them desirable collaborative partners. Yet as author and journalist David Boyle explains:
Authenticity doesn’t just mean reliving the past: it means using it to find new ways of living – maybe even new kinds of progress. The most authentic isn’t necessarily the most true to the past; it could be the most creative or the most human.
The three-way partnership between Clarks, Adidas and Kith is nothing if not creative and human. The unique combination of the crepe sole and suede upper of the Clarks Wallabee shoe with the silhouette and three stripes of the Adidas Samba sneaker tells the nostalgic story of 90s streetwear in New York and beyond.
Having worn Clarks Originals for most of his life, Ronnie Fieg’s participation in the collaboration provided the subcultural capital required to make it meaningful and authentic. In a blog post the streetwear enthusiast recalled working in his uncle’s footwear store, David Z. on New York’s 8th Street, throughout the 1990s. The experience enabled him to build a deep understanding of the cultural significance of both Adidas and Clarks, which then inspired the collaboration.
As marketing professor Michael Beverland explains, loyal fans are what give brands meaning. Brands that innovate while consistently and truthfully respecting (rather than exploiting) the creative and human processes that make their products meaningful are perceived as authentic.
Authentic collaborations, then, come when creative teams are able to take the time to fully research, observe, understand and even immerse themselves in the social lives of their products. This understanding enables them to make intuitive and respectful decisions about which partnerships and projects they pursue.
Clarks Originals have a history of going one stage further by actually employing or collaborating with their consumers. In this case, authentic products blur the line between who produces and who consumes.
From selling soles to saving them
Research has shown that many Clarks Originals wearers develop a sentimental attachment to their shoes, which comes from a respect for the brand and the bond they develop with them through wear.
Clarks Originals, including the 8th Street Samba, are made from leather, suede and natural crepe rubber. Unlike polyurethane leather and other synthetic alternatives, these materials age gracefully and transform with the wearer, becoming mnemonic (memory) objects that store and recall the traces of bodies, personal stories and experiences.
Once worn out (the soles and laces are usually the first to go), many are reluctant to dispose of them and begrudge having to wear in a new pair. While these shoes may not be materially durable, like other special shoes, they are simply too meaningful to throw away.
According to professor of sustainable design, Jonathan Chapman, designing for this kind of “emotional durability” presents an opportunity to develop alternative, sustainable business models that cater for repair, recycling and reuse rather than replacement.
Responses to French sneaker brand Veja’s recent sneaker-restoring service demonstrate there is a considerable appetite for services and experiences that assist consumers to continue relationships with the things they love.
According to a recent article for the Footwear Research Network, when led by brands themselves, these repair and recycling services not only enhance consumer satisfaction and loyalty, but also generate data that brands can use to improve product durability and quality.
While collaborations can be problematic, when done authentically they can provide solutions.
Collaborating with consumers to both create and prolong the lives of meaningful products like the 8th Street Samba is one way to help ensure an environmentally and economically sustainable future for the footwear industry. It can also help to restore a sense of authenticity to an industry at risk of losing its credibility.