Fashion/Music/Sports Collab Kitsuné x NBA Reveals New Standard for Indie Label Release Strategies

Alcibiade Cohen
Kitsuné co-founders Masaya Kuroki (left) and former Daft Punk manager Gildas Loaëc.

"I struggle to find a direct competitor or peer to Kitsuné on the indie-label side, in terms of having deep, direct brand synergies with all these different worlds."

Music, fashion and sports have always intersected in pop culture, often in the form of multimillion-dollar brand partnerships and endorsements. Rarely, however, do all three sectors unite commercially under one company roof: music companies will make featured appearances in fashion and sports campaigns, but will return to their original wheelhouse at the end of the day, focused on developing artists, selling records or orchestrating live shows.

Indie record label and clothing brand Kitsuné, co-founded by former Daft Punk manager Gildas Loaëc, strives to rewrite this narrative -- convinced not only that the boundaries among music, fashion and sports personalities and audiences are increasingly blurring, but also that this blurring of culture should be reflected in company operations, and that corporations and boutiques alike will thrive off this convergence.

On Feb. 16, Kitsuné launched a one-of-a-kind partnership with the NBA, dubbed Kitsuné x NBA, that consists of three separate revenue streams: a capsule clothing collection featuring NBA and team logos, a music compilation titled KITSUNÉ: America 5 featuring North American artists, and an eight-city live tour in retailers and hotels across the U.S. The last show on the tour will take place at luxury boutique The Webster in Houston, TX on Mar. 13, and has already hit seven other cities across the country, from the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to the Wish Atlanta Boutique and Miami’s Soho Beach House.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this campaign is the difference in size and finances between the two company partners. Founded in 2002 by Loaëc and Japanese designer Masaya Kuroki, Kitsuné oversees several different ventures -- including the eponymous label, the luxury fashion line Maison Kitsuné, the monthly event series Afterwork and even a series of branded cafés in Paris and Tokyo -- rounding out what Loaëc describes to Billboard as an “art-de-vivre” approach to building a cultural brand.

Yet, the venture remains a small, boutique operation that keeps its ears close to the underground, and the label’s artists have only tens of thousands of monthly Spotify listeners on average (some notable exceptions, like Pat Lok, IshDARR, Hembree and Reva DeVito, have 100,000 or more followers). In contrast, the average NBA team alone is now worth a record $1.65 billion, a 22 percent increase year-over-year, according to Forbes’ latest NBA franchise valuations.

“We’re such a small brand compared to the NBA,” Kuroki told Sports Illustrated. “Obviously nothing can compare, it’s two different worlds totally. But when you don’t try to do something -- when there’s no action, there’s no reaction. And we’re always looking for some reactions. We contacted the NBA first, and they were like, ‘Of course, a lot of players are wearing your brand already.’ I was very happy to hear that.”

Indeed, the NBA has deep, organic connections to both music and fashion, particularly in hip-hop circles (a valuable new frontier for the Kitsuné label, which tends to lean toward pop and electronic styles). Post Malone's 2015 debut track "White Iverson" is an homage to 11-time NBA All-Star Allen Iverson, who notoriously catapulted hip-hop street style into the limelight in the early 2000s by sporting baggy clothes and cornrows on the court. Several other NBA All-Stars, including but not limited to Shaquille O'NealDamian Lillard (who makes music as Dame D.O.L.L.A.) and Iman Shumpert (who raps as Iman. and is featured on the Kitsuné x NBA compilation), have all dropped their own singles and mixtapes.

“If the NFL, NASCAR or PGA were involved in this project instead of the NBA, I would’ve been much more skeptical,” Canadian artist Pat Lok, one of the featured artists on the Kitsuné x NBA compilation, tells Billboard. “It would’ve felt much more random.” (No players or representatives from the NBA could be reached for comment.)

Curiously, the Kitsuné x NBA compilation -- featuring a total of 18 tracks, 10 of which are brand-new and exclusive to the collection -- is not available on streaming services as a standalone album, but rather solely as a branded playlist of singles, the mix of which intends to change over time.

“Compilations have always been at the center of our release strategy on the label, but we’ve changed our approach a bit over the years,” Loaëc tells Billboard. “Our entire communication is now based on playlists available under Kitsuné’s profile on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, and other platforms, with the same name and tracklist as our compilations. We’ll be changing the tracks on a regular basis so that our fans can follow the playlist and keep discovering new artists from North America. But that is precisely the limitation of playlists: they are ephemeral. This is why releasing a compilation enables us to make sure our fans can still access and listen to the original tracklist.”

In fact, the only way to access and purchase KITSUNÉ: America 5 in its static, original format is on limited-edition vinyl. While this compilation is reportedly Kitsuné's fastest-selling one yet on the physical side, it has not quite taken off on streaming: as of press time, the singles on the playlist version have yet to surpass 900,000 total streams, around 300,000 of which come from the 10 compilation-exclusive tracks.

This may raise skepticism around the true purpose of releasing compilation albums in the first place, in a streaming landscape driven by singles, but “in more unique cases like [Kitsuné x NBA], the argument makes itself,” claims Lok. “It’s an exciting time now where you see artists packaging their music in all sorts of different ways. While things have moved heavily toward singles, that can take a toll on artists creatively, if you’re always thinking about hook after hook. There’s always space for more nuance in music, and I think you’ll see artists continue to push the boundaries of release strategies around larger albums and records as well.”

What's more, looking under the hood, one realizes that music is not Kitsuné's financial backbone anyway: fashion generates a whopping 80 percent of the company's revenue, with the record label driving most of the remaining 20 percent. This discrepancy is in part because luxury apparel has not yet undergone the same digitization as music and other media content, so can charge higher price tags (the most expensive item in the Kitsuné x NBA collection, a denim blazer, is selling for 640 euros, or $790).

That being said, music is still crucial for Kitsuné from a discovery and culture perspective. Just as an avid music fan would likely spend a longer period of time listening to an artist’s music before buying that artist’s merch, Kitsuné’s customers generally learn about the brand name first through its music, then through its clothes. This echoes remarks that Ian Rogers, former senior director of Apple Music and current chief digital officer at LMVH, made in Dec. 2016: “Like music, the fashion business is fundamentally a culture business. We sell culture as a prerequisite to selling a product.”

Plus, the rising crop of NBA All-Star rappers will only help Kitsuné gain more exposure and further its vision of cultural convergence. “Iman Shumpert benefits from a general democratization force in the industry,” says Loaëc. “There are more and more ways to make your music available to the world on streaming platforms now, regardless of your genre. It’s what makes streaming so amazing: you can be a professional basketball player and release music so easily alongside everyone else.”

“The emerging creative generation is so much more multidisciplinary,” adds Lok. “You have gamers, designers and now athletes crossing over into the music world. Having a home like Kitsuné is really interesting for me, because they’re right at the heart of this intersection and have been doing things this way for so long. I struggle to find a direct competitor or peer to Kitsuné on the indie-label side, in terms of having deep, direct brand synergies with all these different worlds.”

As a Kitsuné artist, Lok in particular is chasing more interesting connections with fashion and sports even more than he is aiming for virality or certain streaming benchmarks. His latest single “Might Be On Fire” has only around 170,000 streams on Spotify as of press time, but the song has already landed syncs both in a video premiere of soccer team LA Galaxy’s 2018 jerseys and in a scene from This One’s For The Ladies, a documentary about underprivileged exotic dancers that is screening at SXSW next week. The latter marks Lok’s first-ever placement in a full-length feature film.

“It doesn’t matter right out of the gate whether you’re getting millions of reposts and streams,” he says. “It’s an easy trap for artists and producers to fall immediately into what ‘hot,’ getting onto New Music Friday. It should be about getting the right people to notice you, and about creating impact by building and soundtracking entire moments through song, that other people can see. I think the cream will rise that way.”