Hype culture has been governing the fashion industry for a while now. Consumer thirst for rare and community-led fashion is soaring, which is subsequently shaping retail business strategies. As a result, stores are releasing limited edition capsules in collaboration with brands, across China and the rest of the world.
Recent years have seen an influx of retail exclusives, from Dover Street Market launching a limited-edition Gucci collection earlier this year, to Ssense partnering with brands like Vans, Anna Sui, Miaou, Versace, and even Pornhub on campaigns and collections. Since 2014, Chinese fashion incubator Labelhood has released over 80 exclusives with both local and foreign brands, including the likes of Harrods, YiranTian, and Airbnb.
One of the mainland’s most stylishly selective multi-brand retailers, ENG Concept plans to launch two store-exclusive capsules per year with independent designers. The company’s buyer director and business development lead Laura Darmon explains that sales performance is one of the leading motivations for both parties.
“[Limited edition collections] can drive way more customers than simply retailing the original products from a brand,” says Darmon. “Our audience knows that at ENG, they will be able to find items that cannot be found anywhere else in China. Also, the format of these collaborations builds a large base of community.”
For ENG’s limited drops, the marketing strategy involves emulating the whole universe of the brand or artist that it is collaborating with. One project, launched in 2022, was an exhibition at the Shanghai store by Venice Beach clothing brand ERL – the brand collaborated with ENG Concept on a lifesize model and hospital bed installation that emulated the Fall 2022 lookbook.
ERL’s creative director Eli Russell Linnetz told Jing Daily in an interview that working exclusively with a retailer had not originally been on his agenda, which illustrates how concept stores are carving out a new era of creativity for fashion brands.
The 2022 installation enabled ENG to emphasize its own image via ERL’s global cult identity. It’s yet another co-branded project that proves the crucial role of community in collaborations.
Another example is Farfetch Beat’s concept series, launched in June, 2022, which consists of one-off capsules with various “forward-thinking voices in global style culture” and relies on the fanbase of each chosen talent or label.
One of the Beat Series’ latest projects is an Off-White collaboration with Chicago Bulls, an ode to the late Virgil Abloh’s hometown and a paean to basketball. Leveraging the overlapping communities of basketball culture, streetwear, and Off-White in general, the online retailer resonates with multiple consumer bases while offering something hype-worthy.
Consumers crave one-off gems and purchases that create a sense of belonging through cultural exchange. That attraction is demonstrated by the success of ENG x ERL.
Another protagonist on the mainland’s disruptive retail scene is K11 Musea, labeled as the nation’s first ever “art mall.” The museum-retailer hybrid operates five locations in the mainland, across Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shenyang, and Tianjin. A spokesperson for the company tells Jing Daily that the core mission has “always been to incubate young talent, propagate culture, and democratize art for all.”
To do so, K11 frequently launches limited-edition collaborations, such as its latest with London-based jewelry brand Bunney for the Lunar New Year.
“Leveraging the strengths of both parties, collaborations drive memorability and build new relationships with communities that lead to a longevity-led, inclusive approach that co-inspires and co-creates,” says the retailer.
Collaboration was already part of K11’s strategy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but mounting economic volatility makes the approach vital for financial security in 2023.
China’s retail trade declined 1.8 percent year on year as of December 2022, as reported by Trading Economics, which was lower than the 5.9 percent decline seen in November and an improvement from previous forecasts of a 8.6 percent fall.
But three months of slowing trade is piling pressure on retailers, in turn fueling an increase in retailer-brand collaborations.
Moreover, retail stores in the mainland launch and shutter at a rapid pace, Darmon notes.
“The difference with ENG is that we are a concept store, which means that we are not just selling garments, we are trying to put a community with common interests together,” she says. “Brand collaborations are just a part of that. They really make sense for us to have a point of difference in the overcrowded market in China.”
As the nation’s stores come back to life, there’s no longer simply a desire to appear innovative – the requirement now is to provide rarity and connect culturally to consumers.
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