It used to be that when a designer showed an item in a particular season and you did not get a chance to buy it, you were out of luck. And if you really wanted it, a hunt ensued. You would call stores in other cities. You would pray that the item would pop-up on Ebay or Yoox in your size, or at your local consignment store. Or you would have to accept defeat.
But as designers have become savvier at business, they realized that if the customer wants something, they should give it to them, again and again. Perhaps they learned the lesson from watching luxury houses fling it-bags season after season with great commercial success. If it could be done with bags, why not with clothes?
Some fashion items have become iconic – the Margiela tabi boot, the Rick Owens biker jacket, the Balmain jeans, the Givenchy rottweiler t-shirt. People keep buying them season after season, even though the styles might not change or change slightly. “I know people who come in and buy every iteration of the Balmain biker jean,” said Jon Pak, the owner of the New York boutique Patron of the New, which counts Balmain as one of their best-selling brands.
The signal behind this behavior is that fashion actually might move slower than we think; that it does not have to change with every season. Trends today are often not born in the streets, but are passed down from style setters – celebrities, bloggers, and so on – to the rest of the public, and it can take much longer than a season to spread the word that the Rick Owens “Geobasket” sneakers must be on your feet. Moreover, trends spread globally. What was already trendy three years ago in New York, will inevitably make its way to Shanghai.
Some of the early precursors of the “unlimited edition” phenomenon were accidental. Martin Margiela made the first tabi boots for his first collection he presented in Paris in 1998. But he did not have enough money to develop another shoe model for his second collection, so he just reused them. This set the tone for much of Margiela’s oeuvre in the years to come – an idea of a wardrobe with often-repeating styles. During the last decade, everyone worth their fashion chops wanted to have the two-zip Margiela biker leather jacket, which was released in different colors and leather styles every season.
The unlimited edition items often tend to show up more in menswear, perhaps catering to men’s instinct for collecting and having a uniform style. Men also tend to be more tribal and easily pledge allegiance to one designer. And the designers who produce the same items season after season tend to be those that create hardcore fans – Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens, and Thom Browne, among others. Thom Browne is particularly rigorous in his personal approach to clothing. “I love the uniform,” he told me. “I make myself two suits each season, and that’s what I wear.”
Of course, designer fandom is not limited to men. Ann Demeulemeester in particular is famous for dressing a cohort of women who are completely dedicated to her clearly defined, rock-n-roll style, that is also an extension of her personality. It is no wonder that among her fans are strong female singers like Patti Smith and P.J. Harvey, and more recently Chelsea Wolfe and Zola Jesus.
Another fairly recent phenomenon that may account for the spread of unlimited edition fashion is the rise of the pre-collection. With more pressure on the designers to produce more garments, it is no surprise that some of them shift their “classics” into pre-collections. At the Rick Owens showroom in Paris there are two floors. One is dedicated to the runway clothes, and one to pre-collection. All of Owens’s classics, such as Geobasket sneakers and biker leather jackets can be found on the second floor.
When some years back department stores approached Ann Demeulemeester asking her to launch a pre-collection, she saw an opportunity to satisfy her fans that pined for that missed piece by launching Collection Blanche, a pre-collection based on archival re-releases. (This writer has unsuccessfully lobbied the designer for the men’s counterpart.)
The unlimited edition items can be very lucrative for designers. The Givenchy graphics are the backbone of its commercial success. Because of their popularity, not only the t-shirts and sweatshirts with the rottweiler and other graphics carry a steep price – a graphic sweatshirt can retail well over a thousand dollars – but they also rarely go on sale. Meanwhile, the Balmain jeans routinely sell out despite their $1,500 price tag. And according to Luca Ruggeri, the commercial director of Rick Owens, the Geobasket sneaker, which they have been producing since 2010, has been the best-selling product in the label’s menswear lineup since its inception. Which only goes to show you that not everything in fashion moves at the speed of light.
The original version of this article is published in the current issue of Them magazine in Japan. Photo by Julien Boudet of Bleumode