EARLIER this week, Kate Moss' latest line for Topshop was heralded with the usual headline-grabbing fanfare - model besties Naomi Campbell and Cara Delevingne lent high wattage glam to the London launch, while savvy shoppers sold pieces on Ebay for five times their prices, hours after they went on sale.
Celebrity collabs and high-low fashion tie-ups (how long would you stand in line for the upcoming H&M x Alexander Wang collection?) still rank high on retailers' sales and publicity strategies. But there has been a subtle shift towards tie-ups that keep a fairly low profile, with a highbrow twist.
Rather than a celeb with legions of Instagram followers and coveted luxury designers, the most sought-after collaborator of the moment is Nendo - a 12-year-old Japanese design studio that has in the past designed a lamp for Louis Vuitton's first-ever furniture collection, a window installation for Hermes, and stores for Issey Miyake, Theory and Camper.
Last month, chief designer Oki Sato unveiled Envelope Boat Shoes for Italian shoemaker Tod's that were, in the founder's own words, "Not too casual, not too formal; light, soft, relaxing, functional and with a pinch of humour and elegance." In the same month, and during the same event - Milan's Salone del Mobile, the studio also created an installation inspired by the iconic white shirt of Swedish retailer COS.
Touted by Vogue.com as "the best-kept secret that everyone in fashion seems to know", COS has long been admired for its minimalist aesthetics and sleek wardrobe staples - traits that perhaps resonate better with a cerebral yet fun creative like Mr Sato, rather than the flamboyant style of, say, actor Sarah Jessica Parker, who designed shoes for US retailer Nordstrom earlier this year.
"The two (similarities between Nendo and COS) that stand out the most for me would be the element of 'understatedness' as well as the idea of simplicity," says Karin Gustafsson, COS' head of womenswear design. "Nendo's work ultimately epitomises contemporary Japanese design while reconfirming modernism and tactility, these are also elements that are important concepts for the COS brand too."
Beyond dressing up
Fashion companies have embarked upon new creative ventures since 2004, when H&M paired up with Karl Lagerfeld, says Lionel Roudaut, programme leader for BA Honours - Fashion Design and Textiles, Lasalle College of the Arts. "But these collaborations between fashion houses and interior design-driven companies are new. They are pushing the boundaries of the fashion product as not necessarily a garment or accessory for adorning the body, but can be extended to one's entire lifestyle."
The brand that has been one of the biggest success stories in product diversification is Calvin Klein - which has five fashion brands like Calvin Klein Collection (recently launched at Marina Bay Sands) and bridge line Calvin Klein Platinum Label, as well as home furnishings, fragrances and eyewear. Last month, it staged an installation at the Old Kallang Airport spearheaded by US architect Joshua Prince-Ramus, founder of Rex Architects and a founding partner of OMA New York - the American affiliate of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), who is best known for his design of the Seattle Central Library.
"The concept house enabled us to give each of the Calvin Klein labels featured at the event its own designated space with a distinctive experience, while also uniting all of the brands and product categories under one roof," says Malcolm Carfrae, executive vice president and chief communications officer for the group. "The result made a powerful statement about the complete Calvin Klein lifestyle brand."
Taken out of a traditional store space, wardrobe or runway, fashion products are also injected with new meaning and sensibilities that may appeal to a wider range of style aesthetes, rather than the consummate fashionista. As Mr Roudault explains: "It elevates the products to a new height and gives them a new reality and a new reading."
The COS x Nendo installation, for example, was recently showcased at Via dell'Erbe, Milan. Using the button-down shirt as a centrepiece, the studio suspended the classic fashion items among brushed metal frames, highlighting their clean lines and timeless appeal. Visitors were able to browse and purchase curated COS pieces and products from Nendo both at the installation location and online at the fashion brand's website.
Mr Sato says of the project: "We took an unusual approach for the installation design: rather than designing the shirts or their hanger racks, we created sculptural pieces that rely on the interplay of shirts and frames. The smartly ordered shirts are crisp, classic white until they fall inside the steel cube frames, at which point they take on colour as though the space itself has dyed them. This simple yet effective framing strengthens viewers' awareness of the space."
An indulgence in form
Just as how unexpected musical alliances like that of Queen and David Bowie could result in a legendary track such as Under Pressure, fashion marques seek out creative couplings to broaden their realm of expression and perhaps unearth a design breakthrough.
Prada and Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas' practice OMA/AMO, for example, have boasted a long-running partnership, spanning over a decade and projects ranging from the iconic Prada Epicentre in New York's Soho district to various runway shows. The Salone del Mobile, an annual design and décor festival held in Milan, has also become a fixture on the calendars of fashion houses. This year, not only did style behemoths like Versace, Bottega Veneta and Giorgio Armani showcase their homeware lines during the event, other brands unveiled one-off collaborations or niche products and installations. Pucci, for one, created a range of ceramic tiles and mosaics featuring their kaleidoscopic patterns, while Marni expanded its capsule homeware range of furniture handmade by artisans in Colombia, bearing the brand's quirky palettes. Inspired by the brand's design philosophy of mixing and matching clothing and accessories into a smorgasbord of ensembles, its modular furniture pieces include one-armrest-style chairs that can be combined into sofas or tables that can be grouped together. Similarly, designers seem to enjoy pushing the boundaries in collaborations with fashion houses.
"Designers in furniture and design industries are often too caught up with making things that are considered and purposeful, and adhering to that 'form follows function' school of thought," says Larry Peh, creative director of &Larry, a design agency which takes a collaborative approach to its projects. "But once you pair yourself with fashion and luxury businesses, you are allowed to create excessive and at times, impractical items simply because you can and want to."
Making cents, not sense
However, the dapper designer, who has been profiled by online magazine The Journal by menswear e-retailer Mr Porter and whose clients include Sony, Takashimaya and The Hour Glass, laments the proliferation of designer-fashion house tie-ups, questioning the objectives of some of these collaborations.
"While some are born out of genuine respect and love for an artist, such as (Belgian artist) Carsten Höller's slide for Miuccia Prada, many are simply jumping on the bandwagon," says Mr Peh, who has previously collaborated with bag maker Tumi to showcase its military-grade ballistic nylon material. "The genuine collaborations are lovely but many are simply trying to outdo one another."
One might view such collaborations with scepticism especially when design mavericks embark on multiple partnerships with fashion retailers, such as Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid's dabblings in swimwear (Viviona), footwear (Melissa, Lacoste, United Nude) and jewellery (Caspita, Bulgari). Apart from the obvious lucrative draw of these partnerships, the team-ups also help imbue commercial brands with a cerebral edge.
"I wanted to bring more attention to the close relationship of art and fashion and introduce a new concept to get closer to the Tod's customers," says Tod's Group president Diego Della Valle, on a 2008 collaboration with French architect Patrick Norguet, British architecture firm Barber and Osgerby and Dutch artist Ineke Hans on store window installations. "Window displays are the first impression for the client and the windows … express how fashion is influenced by modern art and design while maintaining the traditions of the brand - quality and luxury."
And for fashion brands with a penchant for inter-disciplinary experiments like COS, which has been involved in the Frieze Art Fair in London and Berlin Gallery Weekend in Berlin, creative cross-pollination is another means for finding inspiration.
"Art inspired fashion throughout history," says Mr Roudault. "The Bauhaus in the '20s was a conurbation of artist and designers, collaborating on different sort of projects for architecture, design, photography or dance. The aim was to integrate crafts and arts, and that was the precursor of modern design."